Let's play a word association game. I'll throw out a couple of words and you come up with a sentence that connects them. Here goes: holidays and healthy habits.
Let me guess, you immediately thought of some sentence that boils down to this idea: during the holidays, all our healthy habits go out the window.
December doesn't have to mean death for healthy habits.
I'm pretty confident in that answer, not just because it's been my personal experience of the festive period, but also because science confirms that this is the time of year we all tend to indulge in a few too many cocktails, sweets, or unwise purchases, ballooning both our waistlines and our credit card bills.
In short, December is the time of year where many new healthy eating plans, exercise regimes, and sensible budgets die. But according to positive psychology expert and author Christine Carter, it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, she argues, in a recent blog post that, counterintuitively, the holiday season is actually the idea time to start (rather than end) a commitment to a new healthy routine.
How could that possibly be true when we're all slammed with social engagements, end-of-year work, and pre-holiday preparations this month? According to Carter it's our very busyness that makes this month the perfect time to start a new routine. Because you have no time, you'll start small, and that, research says, is the best way to get a new habit to stick. She explains:
It's much better to succeed at something rather unambitious (and then build on that success) than to fail at a more impressive goal. Almost all of us can pull off a brilliant couple of days, or even weeks, of ambitious exercise. But unless we have a really big catalyst for our change, like a very scary health diagnosis or other crisis-level event that provides us with immutable (and long-term) motivation, we'll usually crash and burn soon after takeoff. We'll have a couple of good weeks, but then we'll have a bad day and skip our planned exercise. The next day we'll decide that the whole routine is too hard and we'll skip it again, resolving to make revisions tomorrow. The day after that we'll hardly think of it at all. We'll be back at square one.
The alternative to being super-ambitious when we create new habits is to build slowly. And because most of us have very little free time over the holidays, we feel better about doing something small - we can more easily see that something is better than nothing. So we are more willing to be shockingly unambitious in our exercise goals than we are are willing to be come January. And that is the very thing that will help us succeed!
So, if you're pondering a significant change to your habits or routines for the New Year, perhaps Carter has convinced you to move your start date for change up a few weeks, and take advantage of the holiday rush to force you to start small. After all, if you can reach your (modest) health goals this time of year, you can certainly keep them up in periods with less temptation, right?