Did you know that 40% of your daily life is spent in repeated habits? And over 60% of your thoughts are on repeat, day after day?

This means that even small adjustments to your habits can have a big impact.

It’s tempting to adopt the “go big or go home” approach to habit change. It’s everywhere we look in January, with people signing up to gyms, giving up smoking/drinking and vowing to walk 10,000 steps a day, all at the same time. But before you dust off your lycra, remember that research shows that tackling habit change in a more progressive way, taking small steps, is much more likely to bring long-term success.

First, identify the outcome you want, and break it into actionable parts. They should be concrete, attainable and measurable. If you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle, enjoy increased energy levels and a smaller waistband, you might list steps like these:

  •  Include fruit/veg in at least 2 meals per day
  • Take a walk at lunchtime every work day
  • Meet a friend for a long walk at the weekend
  • Stop baking cakes at the weekends
  • Bring a packed lunch to work at least 3 days per week.

These are all concrete and actionable steps, and easily measured. You can (and should) track your progress on the calendar. Here are some other tips for successful habit change:

1) Make it easy and fun as much as you can. Make the opposite really hard and awkward. So put the baking ingredients in the high cupboard where you won’t often see them, and put the fruit and veg at eye level in your fridge (borrow this tip from the supermarket marketing people). Choose a lovely venue for your walk, so that it’s enjoyable and you’ll look forward to it, rather than a boring walk around the car park.

2) Pair the new habit with something you already do. If you already make healthy dinners, putting leftovers into a lunchbox after dinner for the day ahead is an easy extra step. Or if you love podcasts, listen to a favourite while you walk.

3) Put the new habit in the diary or on the calendar. Treat it as something important, otherwise it will drift and maybe never happen at all. So set up that walk with your friend a week in advance, so you won’t weasel out of it.

4) Monitor your engagement with the new habit plan. For example, a tick on the calendar each time you go for a walk. Or a sticker – you are never too old for a gold star. And remember, progress is better than perfection. If you don’t get to walk every day, four days is still great. Celebrate your engagement at the end of each week (and no, don’t celebrate with cake if that’s what you’re trying to cut down)

5) Set up a Plan B. Life will get in the way; we all know that. So come up with a “what if” for the habit that you want to change. So “if it’s raining at lunchtime, I’ll walk around the shopping centre for 20 minutes”, or “if I want to bake a cake for a friend’s visit, I’ll only make a small one so I won’t have any left when she goes home”.

6) Choose your company wisely. Our companions influence our behaviour a lot. So be mindful who you hang out with, especially at the start of a new habit while you are still vulnerable to peer pressure or outside influence. Be kind to yourself in this way and you’ll soon feel able to stick to your habit in more challenging conditions.

Want to know more?

Two great books on this topic:

  • Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear