The day-to-day choices you make influence whether you maintain vitality as you age or develop life-shortening illnesses and disabling conditions like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. You may understand exactly what you need to do to enjoy a healthier, happier life: carve out time to exercise, perhaps, or find a way to ratchet down stress. There's just one hitch. You haven't done it yet.
Often, the biggest hurdle is inertia. It's true that it isn't easy to change ingrained habits like driving to nearby locations instead of walking, let's say, or reaching for a donut instead of an apple. However, gradually working toward change improves your odds of success. Here are some strategies that can help you enact healthy change in your life, no matter what change (or changes) you'd like to make.
Seven steps to shape your personal plan
Shaping your personal plan starts with setting your first goal. Break down choices that feel overwhelming into tiny steps that can help you succeed.
- Select a goal. Choose a goal that is the best fit for you. It may not be the first goal you feel you should choose. But you're much more likely to succeed if you set priorities that are compelling to you and feel attainable at present.
- Ask a big question. Do I have a big dream that pairs with my goal? A big dream might be running a marathon or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, wiggling back into a closet full of clothes you love, cutting back on blood pressure medication, or playing games and sports energetically with your children. One word to the wise: if you can't articulate a big dream, don't get hung up on this step. You can still succeed in moving toward your goal through these other approaches.
- Pick your choice for change. Select a choice that feels like a sure bet. Do you want to eat healthier, stick to exercise, diet more effectively, ease stress? It's best to concentrate on just one choice at a time. When a certain change fits into your life comfortably, you can then focus on the next change.
- Commit yourself. Make a written or verbal promise to yourself and one or two supporters you don't want to let down: your partner or child, a teacher, doctor, boss, or friends. That will encourage you to slog through tough spots. Be explicit about the change you've chosen and why it matters to you. If it's a step toward a bigger goal, include that, too. I'm making a commitment to my health by planning to take a mindful walk, two days a week. This is my first step to a bigger goal: doing a stress-reducing activity every day (and it helps me meet another goal: getting a half-hour of exercise every day). I want to do this because I sleep better, my mood improves, and I'm more patient with family and friends when I ease the stress in my life.
- Scout out easy obstacles. Maybe you'd love to try meditating, but can't imagine having the time to do it. Or perhaps your hopes for eating healthier run aground if you're hungry when you walk through the door at night, or your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator aren't well-stocked with healthy foods.
- Brainstorm ways to leap over obstacles. Now think about ways to overcome those roadblocks. Not enough time? I'll get up 20 minutes early for exercises and fit in a 10-minute walk before lunch. Cupboard bare of healthy choices? I'll think about five to 10 healthy foods I enjoy and will put them on my grocery list.
- Plan a simple reward. Is there a reward you might enjoy for a job well done? For example, if you hit most or all of your marks on planned activities for one week, you'll treat yourself to a splurge with money you saved by quitting smoking, a luxurious bath, or just a double helping of trhe iTunes application "Attaboy." Try to steer clear of food rewards, since this approach can be counterproductive.
Breaking it down
Taking a 10-minute walk as part of a larger plan to exercise, or deciding to drink more water and less soda, certainly seem like easy choices. Even so, breaking them down further can help you succeed.
Here are a few examples of how you can break a goal into smaller bites.
Take a 10-minute walk
- Find my comfortable walking shoes or buy a pair.
- Choose days and times to walk, and then pencil this in on the calendar.
- Think about a route.
- Think about possible obstacles and solutions. If it's raining hard, what's Plan B? (I'll do 10 minutes of mixed marching, stair climbing, and jumping rope before dinner.) Maybe I dislike getting my work clothes sweaty. If I'm planning to hop off the bus a few stops early and walk the rest of the way home, what could I do? (I'll need T-shirts to change into at work. If I bring in five every Monday, I'm covered. I'll put my walking shoes in my work bag at night.)
Drink more water, less soda
- Find my water bottle (or buy one).
- Wash out the bottle, fill it up, and put it in the refrigerator at night.
- Put a sticky note on the front door, or on my bag, to remind me to take the water bottle with me.
- At work, take a break in the morning and one in the afternoon to freshen up my water bottle. This is a good time to notice how much (or little) I'm drinking.
- When I get home from work, scrub out my water bottle for the following day and repeat.
Track my budget for a month
- Every night, put all receipts and paid bills in an envelope placed in a visible spot.
- Choose one: a) buy budget-tracking computer software, such as Quicken or QuickBooks; b) buy a similar application for my phone; c) use a debit card for every purchase; d) tuck a notepad into my purse or pocket to record all purchases.
- Follow instructions to load software on computer, or application on phone, if I've chosen to use it.
- Schedule 30 minutes at the end of the two-week mark to go over expenses with an eye toward identifying low-hanging fruit to trim. Sort expenses into categories first (rent or mortgage, utilities, groceries, entertainment, etc.). Consider what categories to trim. Set a goal to reduce or eliminate some of these expenses (for example: cut out 5% of spending across the board or in one category, ride a bike to work rather than paying commuter fees, or make my own coffee rather than buying it).
- At the end of the fourth week, review all spending categories and add up the money I've saved. Decide on an appropriate reward — maybe spending half the money, spending time in a pleasurable pursuit, or just basking in praise for a job well done.