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Last week, when bike-riding up a hill, some loose gravel on the road caused my tyres to slip a little beneath me. It was enough for me to fear losing my balance so I put my foot down. The problem was, it wasn’t so easy starting again. Being half-way up a steep incline, I wasn’t able to simply power on up – I had to roll down the hill a fair way to get my rhythm back before being able to try again.

It reminded me of what happens when trying to change a health habit and we have a slip-up. If we let the slip-up stop us entirely – as I did by putting my foot down – you can lose a lot of ground and it can be really hard to get going again.

It’s inevitable that at some stage that you won’t stick to your healthy intentions as you had planned. But what can you do to prevent that slip-up turning into an entire relapse?Here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Try and stick to your plan in some nominal way.

A small lapse, such as missing one exercise session, isn’t a big deal, but the cumulative effect of not getting back on track is. So see if you can keep the rhythm of your new habit going, even in a tiny way. For example:
If you didn’t go for your 30-minute walk at lunch as you had planned, still take 5 minutes outside.
If you don’t have time to do your full yoga routine in the morning, do 3 salutes to the sun instead.
If you didn’t make the healthy lunch you’d planned, still make a reasonably healthy choice from the café.

In order to do this, you’ll need to forego “all or nothing” thinking, such as ‘if I can’t do my full exercise session it’s not worth it’. Instead think: “every little bit counts”, especially if it helps maintain your momentum and stops you rolling to the bottom of the hill.

2. Anticipate, and Plan for Slip-Ups.

Think ahead and identify the situations that are most likely to throw you off course. Then carefully plan a specific response. You can capture these plans with If / Then statements. Psychologists call them Implementation Intentions.

  • If I go to the pub and someone offers me a cigarette, Then I will say “no thanks, I don’t smoke.”

You can also use Implementation Intentions to help you bounce back from a lapse.

  • If I do drink alcohol on a day I nominated as alcohol-free, Then immediately afterwards, I will sit down with a journal and pen to capture the trigger and make a plan for tomorrow.

Positive, rather than negative intentions are generally more effective. For example:

  • If I get hungry between meals, Then I will eat an apple, rather than
    If I get hungry between meals, Then I will not eat chocolate.

While not entirely fool proof, research indicates that this type of planning really does help. For example, one randomised control trial published in Psychology and Health 2010, that tested the effect of Implementation Intentions, found that people who were given explicit instructions to link occasions on which they were tempted not to be physically active, with appropriate behavioural responses, did significantly more exercise than those who did not make such plans.

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