Being healthy is a way of living. Once healthy patterns become a part of your regular routine, you won’t feel like you’re struggling to make a choice. Instead, your behaviors will be instinctual.
However, establishing healthy habits can be an uphill battle. The process of transitioning from unhealthy behaviors into healthy behaviors requires high levels of motivation for a solid three months to three years. If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself to change your ways, you’re not alone.
Here are seven strategies you can employ to trick yourself into caring about your long-term goal of being healthy when short-term distractions threaten your commitment.
Create a consequence that will impact you immediately if you break your long-term goal.
One of the mental challenges involved in goal setting of any kind, entails overcoming a short-term gain in the name of a long-term goal. The further away a reward is, the more the human brain discounts the value of that reward. By the same token, the closer a reward is, the higher value we place on it.
To overcome a short-term temptation in the name of a long-term reward, you can play a trick on your brain. Assign a punishment you’ll give yourself immediately if you succumb to temptation that’s so horrifying, your fear of facing it is more powerful than your desire to enjoy the temporary temptation.
For example, in this Radiolab episode, “Help!”, a woman who was addicted to smoking quit by making a bet with the devil, so to speak. She’d been a smoker for several decades and her addiction was routed deep. She overcame it, however, by promising her friend that if she smoked another cigarette, she’d donate $5,000 to the Klu Klux Klan. The thought of giving her money to such an egregious group of people overpowered her desire to smoke and she successfully quit cigarettes cold-turkey.
To up your motivation, you don’t have to make a bet with yourself that’s insane, but it may help to focus your attention if you create a circumstance where your punishment for giving in to an immediate reward is matched with immediate fear.
Stimulate your natural dopamine
Dopamine increases our motivation. This has been demonstrated in numerous studies. In an experiment performed by neuroscientist John Salamone, rats had to choose between two piles of food. One was twice the side of the other, but it required the rats to climb a small fence. Some rats had high levels of dopamine in their bodies, and some had lower levels of dopamine. The rats with the lowest levels of dopamine always opted for the easy way out: the small food pile. The rats with higher levels of dopamine were able to motivate themselves to go for the harder to attain, but bigger food pile.
You can increase your natural dopamine levels through a variety of methods that include:
1. Sleep 7-8 hours a night. When you sleep your body recharges and replenishes itself. Consequently, your dopamine levels rise.
2. Workout. If you do physical activity for 30-60 minutes maintaining a heart rate of 150 or higher, your dopamine levels will also increase.
3. Reach a goal. This one may sound a little like a goal within a goal, or a russian doll takeoff, but consider it for a moment. As you pursue your goal of attaining a healthier lifestyle, each time you hit a benchmark, the pleasure center in your brain will release dopamine. Or in other words, as your willpower recognizes its own strength, you’ll receive physiological rewards that further increase your ability to keep going.
4. Eat foods that contain tyrosine. These foods include:
Low-fat dairy (be careful about which dairy you eat — dairy often has high fat concentrations.)
Meat and poultry (be careful about which meat and poultry you eat — meat and poultry often contains high fat concentrations.)
5. Eat foods that contain antioxidants. These foods include:
Orange vegetables and fruits
Nuts and sunflower seeds
Instead of ruminating on how arduous pursuing health is, list why you’re grateful to change your ways.
Believe it or not, research shows that simply changing the tone of your approach to a new habit you’re trying to practice makes it easier to do. People who literally list out what they appreciate about the new habits they’re practicing have an easier time maintaining the new behaviors.
Increase your motivation by finding things you enjoy about act of behaving healthier rather than pointing your focus towards the outcome of your actions.
Eat healthy sized meals and avoid undereating
Most healthy living goals involve eating less or eating healthier. The irony of dieting however is that if you undereat, your hunger may drive you to eat something worse for you than if you’d eaten a nutritious full meal.
To increase your dieting motivation, plan your meals so they’re full of nutritious foods, and avoid allowing yourself to experience hunger. When you’re hungry is when you’re most likely to cheat.
Count Your Calories
Being self-aware is along the same lines as appreciating the journey of becoming healthier. Studies show that dieters who count their calories are less likely to overeat. The accountability involved in writing down your behaviors helps to make you more aware of what you’re doing. If your health goals don’t involve food, you can benefit from writing down your daily successes and daily cheats.
Get plenty of sleep
Sleep is a huge part of our emotional and physical health. If you get 7-8 hours of sleep a night, your body repairs itself and you’re both physically and emotionally stronger.
Minimize your daily commitments
By reducing your stress levels, your willpower will be stronger.
You can reduce your stress level by making less commitments in the course of a day. Don’t plan to meet someone for lunch and then attend dinner with a friend. Instead, leave your schedule open and do what feels good in the moment. When it comes to adhering to your goals, it will feel easier to compromise because other areas of your life are less constrained.
You can do this!
Whatever your goal may be, the most important aspect of your motivation is your self confidence. Know that you can do what you put your mind to, don’t allow shame to bother you if you make a mistake, and give yourself the opportunity to succeed by heightening your motivation with strategic discipline. You’ve got this!