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  • Adrian Bethune

Creating healthy habits

I wrote a recent blog called 'Small things, consistently done' which really seemed to strike a chord with people. It stated that 'prioritising your wellbeing' is about the small things you do regularly, and that these small things can add up to have a big impact on our lives. This time I wanted to write about how to make these small things part of your habits and routines so that you can actually do them consistently and often (rather than starting with good intentions and falling off the wagon after a week or two).


If you don't know what works for you, experiment

There is a wealth of research now that gives us some good ideas for what impacts our wellbeing. There are also several evidence-based wellbeing frameworks such as the 5 Ways to Wellbeing and the PERMA model that give us good bets for things to try out.

Ultimately, though, what works for me, might not work for you. Which means we have to experiment and try new things out to see what fits our lifestyles and personalities. And when we experiment, we need to give things a good go and not give up too easily.

Behavioural science can help

Behavioural scientists (those who systematically study human behaviour to work out why people behave as they do) at the Behavioural Insights Team have created a useful framework called EAST that can help us think about how we can change our behaviours. They assert that if you want to change behaviour, make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.


Let's say you wanted to increase the amount of physical activity you did each day/week in a small way (As psychologist, Dr Ray Fowler once said, 'Physical activity is the closest thing we have for a magic bullet for your physical and mental health), let's look at how you can apply EAST to change your behaviours.


Easy

The most important step is to make the new behaviour as easy as possible for you to do. Pave out the path of least resistance and reduce any 'hassle factors'. The more effortful something is, the less likely we are to do it. Which also means if you want to stop doing a current unwanted behaviour or habit, try and make it harder to do. In practice this might look like:

  • Putting your gym kit out the night before so it's ready to put on in the morning and do that physical activity.

  • Start small and make your initial targets achievable (e.g. aiming for a 10min lunchtime walk each day is more realistic than signing up to the London Marathaon).

  • If you want to stop your evening junk food habit (guilty!), then don't put the junk food in your trolley when you do your weekly shop. It means when the cravings kick in, you can't just reach into your snack cupboard and indulge.

Attractive

The habit or behaviour has to be appealing and attractive to us or else why would we want to do it? We're also more likely to do something that our attention is drawn to. Rewards also appeal to us and can help us shift our behaviours. So, in practice this could look like:

  • Remind yourself of all of the health benefits from being more active. This fantastic visual lecture called 23 and 1/2 Hours will be 10mins well spent in this regard.

  • Treat yourself to some new exercise/gym equipment and you'll want to use it.

Social

Humans are a social creature and we typically follow the norms of everyone else's behaviour. So, if we know that the norm is that most teachers in our network prioritise their wellbeing, we are likely to do so as well (the reverse is also true). We can use the power of our networks to help us shift our behaviour by choosing to hang out with people that do take good care of themselves, whether they are teachers or not. Finally, when we make a commitment to others that we're going to do something, we actually increase our chances of following through with that intention. In practice this could mean:

  • Join a club or class that does the physical activity you enjoy. You'll benefit from hanging out with like-minded people and start to mimic their norms.

  • Tell people in your network that you're going to do something (e.g. Couch to 5k, that half marathon, join that yoga class) and you're more likely to actually do it.

Timely

Our old habits and behaviours are easiest to change when they are disrupted, often by major life changes (e.g. changing job, moving house, having a baby, global pandemics!). When we are shaken out of our old ways of behaving, it's the perfect time to start something new. Also, when we start to do something at the same time every day or week (for example, I play football on Thursday nights at 8pm) it just becomes part of our routines and becomes the default (which means we make it easy for us to do it - see above!). In practice this might look like:

  • Try and start a new habit at the start of a term when the holidays have shaken us out of our old habits and routines.

  • Keep to the same days and times for doing the things that support your wellbeing. It means they become a default and, like brushing your teeth, when it's part of your routine you just do it without thinking.

Putting it into practice

One of the small things I do each week is a 5km run with my best friend, Joe. We go on

sunday mornings at 8am (Timely), we enjoy being active and we run in a beautiful woodland park (Attractive), we do it together and if one of us doesn't feel like it, the other one exerts some positive peer pressure (Social) and because it's now an established part of routine and we do it first thing on a sunday morning, it means very few things get in our way of doing it (Easy).


Now, I've used physical activity as an example but the small things you do to support your wellbeing can be anything and EAST can still be used to help you. Start small and build from there. It really is that simple.


Adrian Bethune is a part-time teacher and author of Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom and A Little Guide To Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care.

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