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Getting On The Wagon: An Expert Reveals Why It's So Damn Hard

Did someone say doughnuts?
This week's the week.
This week's the week.

How many times have you vowed to be "healthy" and then... "Ooh Nutella!"

Getting on the wagon for more than just a few days (and yes, weekends count too) can often feel near impossible and quite frankly, like you're missing out on all the fun.

Not only that but when you're forced to choose between the gym and working late to meet an important deadline, rewarding yourself with a glass of wine at the end is probably one of the few things keeping you sane.

According to Barbara Mullan an associate professor who specialises in habit formation at Curtin University's School of Psychology, there are two components at play which make forming, and sticking to healthy habits so difficult.

"Firstly, the rewards of being healthy tend to be much further into the future, whereas the rewards of our bad behaviours are much more immediate," Mullan told The Huffington Post Australia.

Eating chocolate makes you happy now as opposed to avoiding chocolate makes you healthier (and eventually happier) in the future.

"Anything that's bad for us generally gives us immediate pleasure whereas the things that are good for us, like exercising and eating well, you don't tend to see for a long time," Mullan said.

The importance of healthy habits

A new report by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration at Victoria University revealed:

  • Australian teenagers get 40 percent of their daily meals from junk food
  • Nine in 10 don't do enough exercise
  • Three in 10 are either obese or overweight

Secondly, competing priorities play a role.

"You might want to be healthy when you get up in the morning, plan to exercise and stick to healthy meals but life gets in the way -- your kids get sick or the car breaks down -- and suddenly, the good intentions are lost," Mullan said.

To makes things even harder, the habit of healthy eating itself is extremely complex.

It's not as simple as choosing to floss your teeth everyday. With making changes to diet, you have to target lots of different behaviours from not putting sugar in your tea to educating yourself about what a healthy salad dressing looks like.

The importance of goal setting

Taking it back to basics and setting concrete goals is really important when it comes to starting a new habit.

"The key thing about habits is that they're automatic, you don't think about them or give them any conscious thought whereas when you want to start a new behaviour, you have to consciously set that goal and work towards it," Mullan said.

The good news is that within a period of time, that goal becomes just a part of the automatic process.

Take for example the way health researchers encourage healthy eating. They suggest having fruit or vegetables with every meal and snack. Therefore if you get used to having an apple at 4pm where you used to have chocolate, hopefully there will come a point where the apple replaces the chocolate altogether.

Make your goals specific

"A key finding in our research is that you have to have fairly single-minded goals for forming habits," Mullan said.

Basically, stop promising to be healthy or exercise more because that's far too general. It needs to be more specific than that.

"Promising to exercise everyday is going to make habit formation hard because you could go to the gym, Pilates, a walk or a swim and therefore there isn't a habit starting," Mullan said.

Most habits happen because they are related to a situation, context and time and having too much choice at the beginning, when you are trying to form a habit can actually be quite unhelpful.

Know the disruptions

Hours of routine play a huge role in healthy eating. How many times have you blamed the weekend for that bottle of red and the hot chips that followed?

"Monday to Friday you might have a packed lunch and only eat what you bring to work. Then at the weekends you're out at cafes and restaurants," Mullan said.

Other disruptions include injury, holidays and unsupportive friends and family but Mullan said having friends who are supportive, on the other hand, can be extremely powerful when forming new habits.

"Also habits that we've had and then stopped doing are easier to restart than those we've never done before," Mullan said.

Friends can be extremely helpful in forming new habits. Workout buddy, anyone?
Friends can be extremely helpful in forming new habits. Workout buddy, anyone?

The 21-day myth

There is a lot of misinformation floating around about how long it takes to make a habit stick.

"Habit-forming is a very under-researched area but a crucial one when it comes to healthy eating," Mullan said.

Mullan said there's only been two studies that looked at how long it takes to form a habit. London researchers found it took 66 attempts while Mullan's team found an average of 30.

"There is a combination of complexity and frequency at play here, because if you wanted to form the habit of going to the gym twice a week, well then that would take almost a year because you are not doing it everyday," Mullan said.

Just start

You've heard personal trainers preach "of you don't feel like exercising, just start and by the time you do, your motivation will kick in". Well, they're right; initiating the behaviour promotes habit forming.

"If you can get into the habit of starting something, you are more likely to follow through on it even if the following through isn't completely habitual," Mullan said.

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