By Brian Morris, M.D.
How do you shift towards a healthy, sustainable lifestyle while still living your demanding life? You make this shift by gradually integrating healthy habits into your life in a way that is sustainable. The practical steps necessary to change a habit and make the change last for a lifetime can be narrowed down to three steps:
- Understand the habit
- Practice the habit
- Integrate the habit
This process of understanding, practicing, and integrating is at the core of each of the fifty habits that make up The Wellness Code. If there is a “formula” to transforming your life with The Wellness Code, this is it.
To develop expertise, whether in playing a musical instrument, driving a car, or learning a profession, you have to first understand the necessary skills. For example, if you want to become a talented piano player, you find an instructor to teach you how to play the piano with great proficiency. Without this musical education, all the practice in the world won’t get you to Carnegie Hall.
Once you’ve attained the basic knowledge and understanding, the next step to achieve success is to practice, practice, and practice. You know this to be true in sports and in learning other skills—but somehow few people have accepted the need to learn and practice healthy habits over and over again for them to stick. Just as in other areas, you need to learn the skills required to be healthy such as making good food choices, exercising regularly, sleeping well, and controlling stress. This is much more than someone just handing you a schedule or a meal plan. You have to learn the right principles and then practice them over and over and over again.
After you understand the new habit and practice it repeatedly, you move on to the third step which is integration. In this step, the habit becomes a part of your fabric—an integrated part of your existence. You live these principles every day until they become a part of you, not simply a program that you’re following. As previously discussed, you don’t want to create a “New You,” but instead slowly but steadily adjust your habits until they become a part of who you are. By thinking in these terms, there is no old you to which you can revert. There is only one you and that person is practicing and integrating new habits over time. The lack of integration of healthy habits is why most attempts at healthy living fail. Please read this sentence again because it may be the most important sentence in the book.
The lack of integration of healthy habits is why most healthy living programs fail.
You know what you’re supposed to do. You may even know how to do it. You may even have a plan in place to get it done. However, for a habit to become fully integrated into your life, the habit needs to become a part of your routine just like showering, brushing your teeth, eating, or perhaps watching football on Sunday.
Practice these new habits day in and day out so that these principles become an integral part of your identity and won’t be abandoned later. It’s essential that these habits become a part of your routine so giving up the habit is no longer an option. Daily, consistent, sustained practice eventually leads to integration as the habit becomes fully incorporated into your life. The keys to strengthening and reinforcing the third leg of the stool are practice and integration.
This is important because it’s easy to give up on a new habit when things get busy. During times of stress, you give up the things that aren’t ingrained in your being. When life gets too hectic, it’s easy to skip your exercise program or pick up unhealthy takeout food instead of preparing healthy meals. Generally, you give up the habits that haven’t become integrated into your routine.
However, no matter how crazy life gets, somehow you always remember to shower and brush your teeth. When you are short on time, why do you continue to practice these habits on a consistent basis? The answer is that these habits have become integrated into your daily routine. Think about it: what do you give up when things get busy? What do you continue to practice consistently? The key to this entire process—and thus the key to a healthy lifestyle—is to find a way to integrate healthy habits into your schedule, your routine and your identity.
One of the most important tools to foster integration is automation which means doing something without conscious thought. Automation is an extremely powerful tool for creating consistent habits that last for the long-term. Once you’ve decided which habit you’d like to practice, find ways to make that habit an automatic part of your routine. Don’t leave the habit to chance with the hope that you’ll find the energy and motivation to practice it. Make the habit something that you do without thinking. Our goal is to find ways for you to practice healthy habits without having to think about them on a regular basis.
For example, let’s say that you’ve decided to eat steel cut oatmeal with blueberries each morning. How can you create an environment so that a healthy breakfast is automated for you? One strategy is to make a huge portion of oatmeal on weekends and freeze it in single serving containers for later use. Each morning, you can quickly heat up a single serving and a delicious, nutritious breakfast is ready to go.
Automation may sound boring and repetitive, but it actually frees you up to spend your precious time and attention on more important parts of life. Rather than thinking about what you’ll make for breakfast, you can stay engaged in what’s most important to you each morning. Your attention and your creativity can be where they belong: focused on the people in your life and the projects that are important to you. Automation is a remarkable strategy that helps integrate habits into your life in a meaningful way.
Another key component of integration is to make the habit as specific as possible. By this I mean that the habit should be individualized and specific to each person. Sometimes people approach a habit in general terms and that can be a recipe for failure. For example, let’s say you decide to practice the habit of exercise. You’re not likely to have long-term success if you simply have a general goal to exercise. If an exercise goal isn’t specific, it means that you will have to spend time each week deciding how often you should exercise and what exercise you should do. On the other hand, if you make a specific plan that you will exercise on your elliptical trainer for thirty minutes before work each morning, you are more likely to be successful.
In summary, these three steps—understand the habit, practice the habit, and integrate the habit—are the building blocks to successfully implementing healthy habits to create a foundation of optimal health and longevity. These three steps will be very important as you continue your journey through to having optimal habits for a healthy life.