A Simple Strategy for Creating New Habits

Four research-backed tips that will help you stave off temptation, follow through on your goals, and shift out of old habits and into new ones.

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It’s about that time in January when the gym gets less crowded, the ice cream section at the grocery store gets busy, and the majority of us break our New Year’s resolutions. But there are ways we can make it past February with our goals still intact. The key to breaking old habits and forming new ones is building a strong foundation for your willpower to thrive on, and that means creating healthy habits that serve our very basic biological needs. There’s a simple acronym for when you find your willpower slipping and temptation winning the day.

The acronym, HALT, is meant to mindfully check in with our simple biological and emotional needs that, if not addressed, will get in the way of making healthy choices.

A Simple Strategy for HALT-ing Old Habits:

The next time you’re feeling like it’s okay to skip a mediation session, or eat that second (or third) Girl Scout cookie, ask yourself if you’re feeling any of these four biological and emotional barriers to change:

  • Hungry
  • Angry/Anxious
  • Lonely
  • Tired

What I love about HALT is that there is solid science behind it. In order to stave off temptation, we must be mindful of our basic needs.

Four Biological and Emotional Needs that Hinder Habit Change

Hungry: Impulse control involves a complex dance between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, with a little help from other parts of the brain also involved in foresight and decision-making. Any shortage of calories will short-circuit this hub of activity making it difficult to activate your willpower. Check in with your body’s hunger signals regularly, listening to what you need physically in terms of sustenance, not just what you wants emotionally. Remember, not every meal has to be perfectly mindful (taking fifteen minutes per raisin) but consider some informal ways of bringing mindfulness into your eating habits so you become more aware of your diet and relationship to food.

Angry/Anxious: When we feel angry or anxious our bodies can slip into fight-or-flight mode, where we start operating from the most primitive parts of the brain and nervous system—This is not where good long-term decisions are made. In this mode, some of the rational parts of our brain shut down, decreasing our ability to think and reason things through things, or even consider the long-term consequences of our actions. This is when we start to react rather than respond. When you’re feeling angry or anxious, and your emotions are running high, consider a few slow mindful breaths to quiet the nerves and activate your more rational brain.

Lonely: Our social networks help us keep our commitments. When we tell other people about a commitment to change a habit, we are far more likely to follow through. And while introverts and extroverts have different optimal social setpoints, we all need to strike a balance between solitude and socializing. Consider what is the best balance for you, and share your goals only as widely as you feel comfortable. A side effect of sharing your goals is that you may find new ways to build relationships. Plus, we know that friendships are directly correlated with happiness, mental health, physical health, even longevity. So, activate your social networks online and off to help you meet your goals for the new year.

Tired: When we’re tired, whether it’s from overworking or under-sleeping, our self-control and willpower slip away, an effect known as “ego-depletion.” A poor nights sleep can even knock you down a few IQ points. The bad news is that research shows it is hard to make up for lost sleep. The good news is that some research suggests that consistent sleep, approximately the same bedtimes and waking times, might be as or more important than the total amount. So consider some basic healthy sleep habits as integral to your self-care, as well as just giving yourself a chance to rest during your busy day.

If you can HALT periodically throughout the day to check in on yourself, you’ll greatly increase your chances of following through on your goals—Plus, you’ll find it easier to shift out of old habits and into new ones.

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