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Creating and Sticking to Healthy Habits in 2021

By Deborah Ledley, PhD, Psychologist and Author

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping that 2021 brings many positive changes to our world after an incredibly difficult 2020. With New Year’s here, many people will be tempted to get “out with the old” and establish new, healthier habits.


  • Be realistic and be kind to yourself – We are coming off a really challenging year (are you glad I didn’t use the word “unprecedented”?!). To cope with COVID-19, many people have gained weight and consumed more substances than they typically would. Concurrently, we have been unable to engage in healthy behaviors like going to the gym or exercising with supportive groups of friends. After such a rough year, it would be unfair to tell yourself to lose your “COVID-20” in a month, to stop drinking alcohol completely, or to start working out every day. Be realistic. How about restricting your evening alcoholic beverage to weekend nights only? Perhaps working out three times per week? Maybe having a small dessert after dinner, but not after lunch? When we set reasonable goals, we are more likely to succeed.
  • Don’t feel tied to January 1 – There is a lot of pressure to set resolutions on the first of the year. For some people though, other times of transition during the year mean more to them – maybe a birthday, or the start of the school year, for example. If these milestones speak more loudly to you as the time to make behavior changes, go with it. January 1st is just another day and there is no need to change everything about your life by January 2nd!
  • Be concrete – It can be very hard to meet goals if we don’t define them concretely. What does it mean to “get healthier” or to “get in shape”? Give some thought to what your goal is so that you know how to/whether you have met your goal. For example, a goal for one person who wants to “get healthier” might be to cook at home every night and only order in/eat out one night per week. A goal for another person might be to cut their drinking down to a specified amount (one drink per evening or only on the weekends).
  • Be consistent – There is an adage in psychology that it takes three weeks to establish a new behavior. For example, if you can wake up fifteen minutes early and do some morning yoga every day for 21 days, that routine will be established in your behavioral repertoire. Print out a calendar page and check off each day that you meet your goal. A visual reminder of how well you are doing is very motivating. And, reward yourself. Perhaps after a week of success, treat yourself to a manicure or a piece of really good chocolate.
  • Remember that a blip is different from a “relapse.” – We’ve all had a bad day from time to time (perhaps more often than usual during 2020!) and might throw up our hands and say, “what the heck”. We might have that extra drink or slice of cake to soothe our nerves. That’s okay. It’s what we say to ourselves about that “what the heck” experience that matters. It is just a blip. We can get right back on track the next day. It does not mean that we should throw the whole goal-setting challenge out the window! Re-set that 21-day habit clock and try again.
  • Figure out healthy replacement behaviors – And while we are on the subject of blips, if you are trying to get rid of an unhealthy behavior, consider what you can do at high-risk times that is inconsistent with the risky behavior. If you are prone to indulge in the evenings (in either food or alcohol), chew some sugarless gum; take a nice hot shower or bath; or hang out in a room in your house where you would not eat or drink (e.g., get into bed with a great book if you don’t eat in bed).
  • Remember that food deprivation generally does not work – Setting a goal to never eat chocolate again won’t work – trust me! When we deprive ourselves, we tend to rebound and actually overindulge when we have access to the desired item. A better goal is to learn to eat everything in moderation. Set a goal of eating a small piece of chocolate each night rather than a whole bar, or one cookie rather than five. As I just mentioned, think about the behaviors that impact overindulgence. If you sit down in front of the TV with a box of cookies, you are likely to eat them all. Instead, bring one cookie into the TV room on a nice plate and really savor that cookie. Make sure the rest of the cookies are put away and the kitchen lights are turned off to deter the urge to go back for more.
  • Make new behaviors rewarding – To encourage yourself to engage in a goal behavior, figure out ways to make that behavior rewarding. If you set a goal to exercise more, make plans to exercise with a friend you really like to spend time with. Want to do more yoga? Make sure to invest in a really nice mat or maybe, after a few successful weeks, treat yourself to some new yoga wear. Trying to eat more healthfully?  Purchase a beautiful new cookbook or find some creative food blogs that inspire you. And, following from the previous bullet point, putting one really delicious cookie on a pretty plate will be a nicer experience than gobbling a whole box of cheap cookies by the kitchen pantry.
  • Use visual reminders – I am a real believer in visual reminders. If you are trying not to snack between meals, tape an inspiring note to your pantry and fridge. Trying to get better about flossing? Leave the dental floss out on the bathroom counter and, again, put a note on the bathroom mirror to remind you to floss each night. Want to do that morning yoga? Leave your mat unfurled next to your bed so you see it as soon as you open your eyes in the morning.
  • Find your cheerleaders – Who can you rely on to check in with you about your goals? Ask the most supportive people in your life to periodically ask you how things are going, or update them knowing that you will get a supportive text or emoji back from them. Some people love to post progress with weight loss or exercise on social media – it gives you accountability and again, cheerleading from your friends. Or, if you are a really social animal, get a group together all working toward the same goals, and cheer each other on.

Best of luck with your New Year’s resolutions!  And here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and calm 2021.

DR. DEBORAH LEDLEY, Psychologist and Author, Dr. Ledley completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Adult Anxiety Clinic of Temple University and spent several years on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania after receiving her PhD in psychology from the University of Toronto in 1999. Currently, she is in private practice in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Dr. Ledley served as President of the Philadelphia Behavior Therapy Association in 2009-2010. Dr. Ledley’s research has focused on the nature and treatment of anxiety. She has published over 40 scientific papers and book chapters, as well as four academic books. Her book “Making Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Work,” now in its second edition, is a best-seller in the field of clinical psychology. It has been translated into several languages and is used as a textbook in many clinical psychology training programs in the United States and Canada.
For over 10 years, Dr. Ledley has been treating patients using cognitive behavioral therapy. She primarily works with patients who have problems with anxiety and stress.