Some key ingredients to building lasting habits

By Justine Friedman

That’s it! You’ve made a decision. You reach a point where you have had enough of feeling unfit or unhealthy or overweight and uncomfortable or disorganised in your life. You are finally going to be happy and have the relationships you have always wanted. It’s now time to start to make changes so that you can finally succeed in the area you’ve been desperate to succeed for so long. This time it’s going to be different! This time you are not going to break the diet or stop until you get to your goal!

Can you relate to these sentiments? Have you been in a position or are you currently feeling this way? That spark of motivation and inspiration can be so powerful. It is the driving force behind every persons push to finally start to improve the quality of their lives.

So, the question is how do we go about making positive changes and implementing habits that will allow us to reach our health and wellness goals? These can be food or lifestyle related (improving relationships with self and others). In fact, any habit that will improve day-to-day life falls into this category. When we decide to achieve a specific goal and we are very “psyched” about it, it is easy to feel motivated and positive. Unfortunately, the reason so many people find themselves giving up too soon may arise due to not setting realistic or achievable outcomes. It is so human to feel overwhelmed and fall off the wagon if you’re trying to do too much all at once. 

In over-reaching and attempting to take on too much and too soon, as well as expecting perfection from oneself, we set ourselves up to fail. Can you relate to the feeling when you try to do everything all at once and then you miss a step of the process? The sense of disappointment and failure can make you think:

 “This is impossible, I just can’t do this, so why should I even bother?”

When we try to use our willpower to resist temptation and impulses, we can end up exhausting ourselves, particularly when we are trying to change too much all at once. In fact, we each have a limited amount of willpower that we use each and every day. If we are finding that we have other challenges to face, our newer habits that we are so desperate to implement, fall by the wayside as we use any energy towards addressing these situations. It is so common for people to find themselves, even after a few weeks of managing to build a new habit to be faced with a trigger that causes any old and more entrenched habit to take over. This can lead one to feel frustrated, despondent, and annoyed at one’s inability to just do what they set out to do.

A great example that is often used is trying to run a marathon. You wouldn’t go out and try to run 42km in one day. You would need to slowly build distance over time, pushing yourself a little more each day, and setting yourself realistic goals. 

Working towards a new goal is the same. Even though it may not seem like you are doing a lot by taking baby steps each day, when you manage to do things in bite-size amounts, that’s where the greatest power lies. Changing and implementing lifetime habits are best achieved by taking small, manageable steps so you don’t fall over at the first hurdle and fail or give up. 

So, what are habits? They are behaviours that are influenced by cues, routine, and rewards. When we consistently repeat the same behaviour over time it becomes a habit. Our habits can be so layered and enmeshed in our lives. Each habit is built on another. It can feel like peeling an onion. Each layer that is removed reveals another underneath until you get to the core. There is always a lot discussed about how long it takes to either break or create a new habit. In general, most people settle on 21 days as the accepted average. I feel that it takes far longer (not to put you off!) for with each new behaviour there are many components to it, just like the many layers of the onion, and if we wish to ensure that the new habits that we are forming over time are there to stay, then each element of the old behaviour needs to be addressed and each aspect of the new behaviour needs to be consistently practiced. It is very human to desire something greatly and then revert to a comfort zone in old habits and behaviours the minute we feel uncomfortable or experience emotions that trigger us.

So how do we go about ensuring our success? One of the first steps is putting perfection on notice. When we expect perfection, and we can’t sustain it we will give up very easily.

The next step is identifying what it is that you wish to improve or change. Without judging or criticising the behaviour that you would like to shift, become curious about why you practice it and when you are most likely to do it. For example, if you find yourself snacking or grazing from 3pm in the afternoon all the way until dinner time, you can become curious about what you are eating and drinking at the beginning of your day until 3pm. Are you trying to be too strict? Are you so busy that you ignore your hunger signals? Are you out and you haven’t taken any food with you so that by the time you get home you are over-hungry? Does this lead you to making poor choices or desperate to fill what feels like a bottomless pit? There are many different situations that can either set you up for success or trip you up along the way.

Once you have identified potential hurdles then you can work to avoid them. You can ensure that you take a break during the day to eat more regular meals and snacks, ensuring you keep your energy and blood sugar levels balanced. If necessary, you can set an alarm on your phone to remind you, particularly if you get too busy. You can make realistic choices about what you will eat at different times of day and pay attention to whether you are drinking sufficient water. Planning ahead of time is always more likely to lead to success. The key is to be able to be flexible if it doesn’t pan out exactly as you anticipated.

This is where one of the most crucial elements comes in. The element of forgiveness. It is the opposite of perfection as it allows us to feel compassion for when we simply can’t follow through or when we find ourselves in front of a hurdle. If we expect perfection in this moment the hurdle may act to block our path. However, if we are more forgiving of how we feel in the situation we become open to reassessing where we are and more likely to find a different way to deal with the obstacle. There are always many ways to reach the same destination and it may not always be the shortest or most anticipated path that gets us there. If we are to truly succeed on this journey, allowing ourselves to experience the steps and “scenery” along the way will make it more meaningful. Not only will reaching our destination seem more victorious but we will have stretched ourselves and grown as the process unfolds.

Does this all sound like too much? Would you rather stay in your safe and comfortable zone, wishing you weren’t? Change is always possible! With the right support you can implement lasting patterns and behaviours that will positively impact your life. Each person and situation is unique and the path to success is too. If you truly desire to reach your destination setting yourself up for success will get you there.

So many wait for January 1st to make new year resolutions. And while these are generally well meaning, the long term success of them are rather short lived. If you truly wish to see positive change in your life, start small and start now, building lasting habits is within your grasp, you just need to take the first step.

About the writer:

Justine Friedman works as a clinical dietician and a mindset mentor. She has over 20 years experience in supporting clients to make sustainable and practical lifestyle adjustments. Her focus is empowering women over 40 to make the necessary changes to feel confident with their food choices and at peace with food, while at the same time managing their weight without restriction or guilt. She works with women both 1:1 as well as in her online signature group program, “The Wellness Upgrade”. For more information visit her website on

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