It’s that time of year again, when the clock strikes midnight and we all dive into a New Year! And maybe a new you?

Let’s face it, your lifestyle is like a daily medicine. Think of lifestyle as your habits combined with your self-identity to induce positive change, like the right medicine can.

Now as we dive into another new year, what do you want to improve? Change? Maybe shed? Resolutions seem glaringly trendy around the new year, until we lose sight of our good intentions, which slowly fade away, along with our resolve.

But what if we could create a healthier lifestyle from a place of who we want to be, not from a place of how we’re not stacking up?

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is exceptionally useful and inspiring. Clear explains that each little habit is like an atom in the overall routine of our day. Put them all together and you end up with your lifestyle.

He suggests you make changes that are small and easy to do, especially in the beginning. Once you layer them on top of each other, collectively, you can achieve some powerful results—if you are patient. Clear makes human behaviour sound so simple.

Habits are automatic, meaning we aren’t conscious and aware of them. Habits solve problems for us by making us do the essentials with as much efficiency as possible.

But that begs the question: What do you deem essential? Because if you place high value on something, you’ll already have habits for it.

Quality movement, food, and sleep are some of my essentials. I build efficiency into my weekdays by walking most places instead of driving. Past 7pm and it’s my children’s bedtime, so I’m off technology and winding down.

Without these habits, my physical activity quota and sleep quota for feeling my best wouldn’t exist.

Can you recognize some habits you’ve already built to meet your own essentials? And can you see what you might not be deeming essential?

A wake-up call for me was realising that I didn’t know how to be a human being, not a human doing, and relax. I didn’t know that physical and mental relaxation is essential for good health! (Not a topic in my medical school curriculum either!)

Don’t look at habits as problems to be solved. They should be seen as things we are able to do that grant us tremendous abilities and freedoms. Consider Clear’s four laws of behaviour change to better habits:

  • make the habit obvious
  • make the habit attractive
  • make the habit easy
  • make the habit satisfying

Clear suggests you forget about goals (your desired outcome) and focus instead on systems (the collection of daily routines and cues that help you get there). Goals can be fleeting and momentary, but change can be ongoing, especially if we are constantly editing ourselves and who we want to be.

Of course, goals matter, but did you know some goals can also limit our happiness? Who hasn’t said, “Once I achieve “this wonderful thing,” I’ll be happy.”? We get what we think we want, and then barely take time to enjoy it, before moving on to our next desire.

This may keep us striving, but it can be a deceptive trap where we are no longer present and enjoying all the goodness that abounds. Goals help us win the game, but systems allow us to continue playing the game and reaching new levels of mastery and fulfillment.

A few years ago, I realised my inability to relax was tied to my lack of patience and presence with my young twin sons and family. I wanted to be peaceful and attuned to them, and I wanted to be a playful Mum. In retrospect, I see that I intuitively installed systems and focused on them, not focusing on my goals.

The systems I used were coaching and counselling, learning and incorporating mindfulness practises into my day, and semi-annual meditation retreats—finding Zen in doing nothing but being present.

I bought a few round cushions (zafus) to increase the likelihood that I’d sit and meditate at least a few minutes every day at home. Without these systems I wouldn’t have to been able to become more mindful and present, even playful at times. It’s a work in progress, but I can experience and observe the changes.

It is harder to develop and sustain a habit if we don’t identify with that part of ourselves. Once I was aware that I wasn’t making relaxation part of my routine, probably because I felt guilty or lazy or self-indulgent for doing it, it became something I embraced instead of resisted.

For your identity to change, you must consider what is already hardwired into it. It may be difficult to make a new habit for something you haven’t identified with yet.

Our habits embody our identity. Do something once or twice, and you won’t see much change. But do something daily for 6 months, and you will see the evidence.

Working backwards: What type of person would you like to be? What would that person do? Carry these questions around with you.

For instance, if you want to be healthy and fit, you can routinely asked yourself, “What would a healthy, fit person do?” Ask the question when faced with a choice of stairs or elevator. Again when deciding on a wholesome lunch or a burger and fries. Make the question routine. Ultimately, we must seek to identify with being healthy and fit to form our best systems and habits.

Our lifestyle can be our best medicine, a tonic always within reach. But it can also be our largest obstacle to being well. But change is always possible, even when it’s not always easy.

It’s a step-by-step continuum that sometimes feels like we are taking two steps forward and one step back. Yet, with the best knowledge, tools, and hacks, I believe it’s the way to a fulfilling and healthy life. Since our habits create who we are, who do you want to be? — LP