I spend a lot of time thinking about lifestyle change. Partly because I’m passionate about health and hope to reach an old age with my mind and mobility largely intact. But also because, as an acupuncturist, there’s only so much I can do to help my patients if their symptoms are caused or exacerbated by their lifestyle.

When I was studying acupuncture, one of our assignments was a ‘lifestyle audit’. Looking back on the project, it was an excellent tool, so I shall describe the process below, enhanced with additional information from the literature on habit formation.

1. Choose a lifestyle behaviour to change

Choose one lifestyle factor that you are motivated to change. This could be a dietary shift, a particular kind of exercise, meditation, going to bed earlier, turning off screens in the evening, or whatever you think will have the most positive impact on your well-being.

Trying to change too many things at once is a common error. It takes a lot of energy to install a new habit, and spreading yourself thin by trying to change serval things at once is usually unsustainable and in the end nothing changes. Make one change at a time and focus on building a new habit, and once that’s running on autopilot, you can add another.

2. Work out how you will monitor the behaviour

This might be a food diary kept in the kitchen, a chart stuck on the wall in the bedroom or by the kettle. Ideally it wants to be something you will see and notice at a time when you could do the behaviour. Seeing the sheet will not just encourage you to record your process, but will also give you a cue to perform (or avoid) the behaviour as well.

I’ve created a template sheet for you to use if you find that helpful.

3. Set the standards and criteria

This is where you decide what is an acceptable degree of change, and how you’ll know whether you’ve done it or not. Let’s take an example:

Behaviour change: Running – you’ve decided to get some more exercise and want to start running,

Example Criteria: Putting on your running shoes and getting out of the door.

The criteria let you know whether you’ve actually done the behaviour or not. They should be specific enough that you know for certain that you’ve done it. According to habit research, making the criteria easy is an excellent way of maintaining motivation. It’s often starting the activity that is the difficult part. Usually you’ll find once you’ve got your running shoes on and stepped outside, you’ll do a proper run most of the time anyway. You could optionally also set criteria around the length or pace of the run, but these kinds of factors will usually improve simply because you’re running regularly, and can have a negative effect on your motivation if you focus on them too closely.

This reminds me of those writers who get up and write every day for several hours before doing anything else, or comedians who write 100 jokes every day. There’s no assessment of quality or outcome, just setting up a system that will ensure they do something a lot. The improvement and the quality will come out of the sheer volume of work done, rather than a focus on the quality.

Example Standard: I will run 5 days a week

This is where you determine how much or how frequently you will adhere to the criteria. It can be tempting to set a 100% standard, and sometimes that’s useful. For example, if you want to cut sugar out of your diet, you will reduce your sugar cravings more in the long term if you completely eliminate sugar than if you simply reduce the amount you eat. It can also be easier to perform a behaviour every day than a few times a week, because it’s easier to keep skipping days if you know you don’t need to do it every day.

All that being said, it’s unrealistic to expect to be able to do something every day without fail. There will be days where you can’t, and they shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Setting a less-than-perfect standard is a way of preparing for that. You should decide what is most appropriate for the behaviour you’d like to change.

4. Decide a timeline for recording and making changes

During the lifestyle audit I did at college, I had roughly 60 days to run the experiment, so I split the time into three blocks of 20 days (‘monitoring stages’), creating a ‘plan of change’ after each block. This was actually a pretty good amount of time to establish trends in what was going on and allowed enough time for the inconsistencies and challenges of everyday life to affect the behaviour change. It may make sense in your life to create blocks of 3 weeks (21 days) – this is how I’ve laid out the template sheet.

5. Start the Initial Monitoring Phase

You’ve decided what you’re going to do, what criteria you need to meet and what standards you’ll be happy with. This is where you start making the change you want.

It’s worth defining at this point when and where exactly you intend to make this change. In our running example, you might decide that you will go for a run ‘through the park near the office at 5:30pm when I finish work’. Or you might choose to run ‘in the streets near my house as soon as I wake up at 7am’. Having an ‘implementation intention‘, that is, deciding when, where and how you’re going to do something in advance, makes it more likely that you’ll do it.

You’ll also note that I made those examples follow on from another already established habit or event in the day that happens at roughly the same time – waking up, finishing work, it could be brushing your teeth, putting the kids to bed, boiling the kettle for your morning coffee or whatever. Sometimes known as ‘habit stacking‘, this is another key to building habits that last.

Since we’re monitoring, you’ll need to keep a piece of paper stuck somewhere you’ll see it (or a tracking app with a reminder set, though personally I prefer the analogue version). Whichever you use, you want to record whether you meet your criteria each day, and if not, a space to write the reason why you didn’t. This is the most important part of using a lifestyle audit approach, so make sure you record something every day.

6. Produce Plan of Change 1

After your first 20 days (or whatever time frame you selected), you need to compile and analyse the data. That might sound fancy, but you’re just counting up how many days you met your criteria, what reasons you gave for not meeting the criteria (and how many times for each reason), and whether you reached the standard you set.

If you’re doing perfectly, you don’t need to change anything, just carry on what you’re doing for the next monitoring phase. If you missed a few days, now’s the time you really dig into the reasons why not. Was it because you ran out of time – maybe you overslept, or left work late? Was it because you were tired? Did you have visitors or go away on a trip? What things kept getting in the way of you doing what you said you wanted to do?

Finally, what can you do to change things so that when those problems arise again you can still do what you wanted? Oversleeping? Either go to bed earlier, or change your implementation intention so that you’ll go running (or whatever) after work instead. Ideally do both – get to bed earlier if you can so that you can do it in the morning, then if you oversleep, you can still do it after work instead.

You can also check in on the standard you set. Is it realistic and sustainable to run 5 times a week, or do you need more recovery time between runs? In this example, you may have a period of time while you’re building your fitness when you need more recovery, so reducing your standard would be okay, but you may find by the end of the last monitoring phase that you can actually increase the standard again.

Define your new ‘implementation intention’ and start again.

7. Begin Monitoring Phase 2

During this phase you implement any changes you thought might be helpful and continue to monitor whether you meet the criteria each day and if not, why not.

8. Produce Plan of Change 2

Reassess whether you’re meeting your standard. Are there still things getting in the way of making the change you desire? What changes could you make to help yourself? Here are a few tips:

  • Make it obvious (or don’t) – put your running shoes by the door before you go to bed so you can’t forget to do it. If your behaviour change is to avoid something (eating biscuits, using your phone), hide it away instead. The things you see in your environment trigger your desires and behaviours. If there’s a plate of biscuits on the side in the kitchen, you’re much more likely to have one than if they’re stashed away in a cupboard.
  • Make it easy to start – if the behaviour change is daunting, or requires a lot of time, you’re much more likely to avoid it. If you’ve decided to start meditating and want to meditate for 30 minutes every day, that’s a bigger demand than if you decide to meditate for 1 minute every day. You’re less likely to carve out 30 minutes a day for a new habit. However, if you successfully install a habit of meditating for 1 minute every day (and you’ll often end up doing longer because one minute just doesn’t seem like enough), it’s easier to extend the session.
  • (Or make it difficult) – I’ll repeat: If the behaviour change is daunting, or requires a lot of time, you’re much more likely to avoid it. So if it’s something you want to avoid, make it difficult to do. If you want to stop checking your phone first thing in the morning, don’t keep it by your bedside as an alarm clock. Instead, before you go to bed, switch off your phone and leave it downstairs, lock it away in a cupboard, run down the batteries so it needs charging before you can use it, or whatever you can think of to make it difficult to engage in the habit you want to avoid.
  • Stack your habits – make one habit you already do without fail the cue to begin your new habit. Want to start stretching? Do it after you brush your teeth (you can even start while brushing if you choose your first few stretches carefully). Make a list of every habit you do every day and then identify where you could slot in your new habit, for example:
    Get out of bed – brush teeth – shower – get dressed – make tea/coffee – eat breakfast – etc If this was your morning routine and you wanted to go running, it might make sense to go straight after brushing your teeth. Brushing your teeth becomes the trigger for going for a run.

9. Begin Monitoring Phase 3

Make any new adjustments and keep recording. What new challenges will life throw your way to sabotage your lifestyle change this time?

10. Draw conclusions and continue monitoring if appropriate

By now your lifestyle change should have become a fairly well-installed habit. If that’s the case, well done! You can continue recording each day if you wish, or let go of the monitoring and allow the change to be part of your new routine. If you find it slips later, you can always start monitoring again to see what’s happened.

If you’re still struggling to make the change consistently despite trying all sorts of things to make it easier and fit it into your day, you may have some resistance around making the change or it may be too hard. Don’t worry – be kind to yourself. At this point you could try making a different change and see whether you find that easier. Sometimes making one change will make it easier to change something else later. If you’re struggling to go running on cold winter mornings, maybe you could start by introducing a stretching routine for now. That way you can stay in the warm for your new habit, while you’re still working towards moving the body more and the stretching routine will become the first part of your running routine later (once spring comes along perhaps!)

Once you’ve made the new lifestyle choice part of your normal routine and habits, you can consider other areas you may want to change. But first, take a little time to acknowledge your success and reflect on what you’ve learnt from the process so that it can inform the next change you make.