If you’re struggling to build one new habit, try starting multiple. It sounds counterintuitive, but new research from the University of California shows that a “kitchen sink” approach — taking on a group of new habits — is more effective than a minimalist one-habit-at-a-time approach.
In the study, college students went through a “multifaceted intervention.” They stretched and meditated in the morning and learned gratitude practices and stress management in the afternoon, followed with pilates, yoga, and body-weight training. They limited alcohol, slept for 8-10 hours each night, ate whole foods and less carbohydrates, and kept a daily journal.
After six weeks, brain scans showed that the students had better focus, reading comprehension, memory, and they were happier and fitter. Compared with “narrowly-focused interventions” where subjects only adopted one new habit, benefits from the multifaceted approach were up to 2.5 times greater. The success comes from a domino-like effect; one habit change boosts the effects of another. Follow-up tests also showed that improvements had lasting effects, the students still scored high on mental and physical tests even though they weren’t training as much.
The research challenges our quick condemnation of multitasking and juggling multiple goals. A jack-of-all-trades doesn’t mean being a master of none. Starting multiple habits can generate momentum and increase your health benefits.
Here are 7 key strategies for successful habit change:
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1. The “head-heart-hands” approach.
In the study, the holistic approach for building new habits was the key for success. The students took on lifestyle changes that appealed to the mind, emotions, and body. When you are starting new habits, make sure you exercise these three key areas.
2. Make a pre-commitment.
There’s always a slump following the initial excitement and progress of learning a new habit. A pre-commitment is a ‘agreement’ with yourself to push through the slump — when you are mentally primed and aware of an impending obstacle, you’ll be less likely to quit. Successful people understand that mastery and competency comes from pushing through the slump.
3. Tap into your ‘Flow’ state.
There’s a special zone where your performance is maximized. When you’re taking on new habits, make sure you’re challenged beyond your ability, but not quite overwhelmed. This is the zone known as “flow.” Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but don’t starve yourself either.
Pushing yourself too far leads to over-exposure to new information and creates anxiety and stress. Not pushing yourself far enough means you will be under-stimulated and lose motivation.
4. Reframe your stress.
Lifestyle changes can create stress. Reframe your stress response to master new habits. A Harvard study found that reframing your stress response as helpful rather than harmful changes your biological response. Typically during a stressful experience, your heart rate goes up, your blood vessels constrict, and you feel anxious. However, if you view this response as if your body is preparing you for battle, your blood vessels stay relaxed and you will feel courageous.
Reframe the stress that may arise from learning new habits.
5. Track your progress and celebrate.
Celebrating your little wins is crucial for keeping your motivation levels high. Your brain will release dopamine when you consciously celebrate a victory. Dopamine is fuel for motivation and making new habits stick.
6. Include intentional rest times.
Rest is a key ingredient for productivity, creativity, and to consolidate the new information you’ve learned from new habits. Schedule weekly times or days where you relax and disengage. Try to get 7-9 hours sleep each night.
7. Inject novelty.
Don’t let your routine turn into monotony. Make slight adjustments to your habits — change the time, order, or location where you do your exercises.
But, only do this if you’re becoming stagnant and disengaged. Some personality types gravitate toward routine, others need novelty. If you’re a creature of habit, and you’re making good progress, do not fix what aint’ broke.