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Michelle Farrell: Developing Healthy Habits

“Motivation is what gets you started, habit is what keeps you going”

As gyms are closed and football is off for a while, I have a lot more time to spare than usual, like most people during this strange time. Luckily for me, I am still working at my full-time job – but my usual routine has been seen big changes. During this spare time, I have got back on the running shoes and found myself wandering the local lanes and enjoying the little bit of sunshine we are getting for a while every evening. I might only be in the door a few minutes before I have quickly changed into some gear and I’m heading off outside with a ball in my hand only to kick it at every wall in site. Similar to the same routine I had in school as a child and teenager - these are just old habits coming back into play.

Habit is the keyword here.

Habits form quickly and are incredibly hard to shake once they’re formed, good and bad habits alike. We all have our own little routines and habits that we slip into so easily without even realising. For example, heading into a café at lunchtime to grab a coffee on your way back to the office: I honestly don’t even know when or how this habit started, all I know is now that the cafes are closed due to covid-19, I feel completely out of sorts not being able to do this.

We are creatures of habit. Thankfully for us, it is something we can control, not easily, but we can. If we can identify, and gain control of our habits, we can gain better control of our health – because let’s be real, “bad” habits are deemed bad because of their impact on our health!

For me, as a coach to both kids and adults, long term health both physically and mentally is the most important element to address. As a trainer, if I can coach my clients to make small changes in their lives that will create a long-term positive change in their life, that’s where it’s at! Each individual is different, where needs and schedules vary. One thing that each person can control, is their own approach to how they manage their time, their thoughts, their feelings and their habits.

In order to start breaking down a bad habit or develop a new “good” habit, we first need to find what our motivation is. We need to identify the purpose of this: the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ and the ‘when’. And so on. You need to ask yourself the questions, write down the answers, and find that motivation. Realistically, if you do not know why you are doing something, it’s likely that you won’t do it for too long!

By identifying the habits that we want to develop for our long-term health, we can then plan and create short term goals in order to reward us when we begin our journey. You can start by creating short-term goals, those goals can literally be on an hourly or day-to-day basis to begin with.

In order to understand our habits, we must understand what influences them. When we start forming a habit, it comes from a “cue” to do so. For example, a bad habit that we may have could be: Eating biscuits with your tea every time you have a cup. Would you eat the biscuits if you were not drinking the tea? Probably not - so the tea is the “cue”. If you can replace the cue with something else, then you are reducing the bad habit.

1. Recognise the bad habit (eating biscuits with tea)

2. Identify the cue to the habit (having tea a few times a day= eating several biscuits)

3. Make a plan to change (replace 1 or 2 of your daily cups of tea with a glass of water and piece of fruit)

4. Recognise your short-term reward (feeling of accomplishment, feel less sluggish)

5. Recognise your long-term reward (healthier diet has a positive effect on your life)

As the quote above says - “Motivation is what gets you started – Habit is what keeps you going”.

You need to have the motivation in order to make a start. It’s easy to get motivated to do something once, but it’s much harder to motivate yourself to do something consistently. In order to work on something consistently, you need to keep reiterating the motivating factors to yourself. This is where we need to work on managing our thoughts and our feelings. We need to provide ourselves with short term goals consistently.

Once you have motivated yourself to do something consistently over a short period of time, and you can recognise the positive effects and rewards that you get, then you will find that you begin to develop the habit of doing it. It now takes less motivation, and thought, and becomes more of a natural instinct.

For example: To someone else it may look like I have incredible motivation to continue to go for a run in the evening, but in reality, yes I was motivated years ago to do so in order to increase my fitness to break into football teams. Now, it’s a matter of habit, influenced by certain cues. I get home in the evening, change out of my work clothes into my running gear, grab my headphones, and head off for a run. The “cue” for me is changing out of my work clothes as soon as I get in, just as I did with my school uniform.

The most difficult part is the beginning, finding that motivation and using it positively. Here are some tips on how to make a start on motivating yourself to develop a long term, healthy habit:

  • Get yourself a notebook/Diary.

  • Write down the following questions and leave a few lines in between each for your answers:

  • What is the habit I want to form?

  • Why do I want to form this?

  • What effect will I get from forming this?

  • Why is that important to me?

  • How am I going to start?

  • How will I know when I have developed it?

  • What is going to be the biggest obstacle or challenges I will face in trying to do this?

  • How can I react to those?

(The 5 Whys Approach is used for Root Cause Analysis in business processes/healthcare etc. but it can also be used to find our own root causes of feelings/thoughts/motivations. Ask yourself why you want to change. Then each time you have an answer, ask yourself why that is your answer. This process of asking all of these questions to yourself is simply finding your root cause of why you want to make a change, which will lead to your motivation to do so)

  • Put away your phone and take time to think about this.

  • Write down your answers to each question, in detail - really think about the questions.

  • Identify what you can do to make it easier for yourself start.

  • Keep this notebook beside your bed and use it daily – jot down some thoughts for 5 minutes before you go to sleep every night.

  • Create a plan, what’s the actions you need to make in order to make this happen. What are the “cues” that I need to create, or reduce.

  • Once you have started your journey on developing the healthy habit, write down how you felt after you done it successfully for the first time. Reiterate the positive effects to yourself.

  • Keep looking back at those answers of why you’re doing it.

  • If you can work hard on motivating yourself to do this consistently, within a short period of time, you will have developed the habit.

Healthy habits to try:

Movement: Move as much as you can throughout the day. Wake up in the morning and do a 10-minute movement sequence. Get your daily steps in. Allocate time for a workout/run.

If you have kids, influence their habits, get them outside regularly for exercise/games etc. Encourage them to experiment with nature, run through fields and jump over drains and climb trees.

Reduce your screen time: At a time were anxiety levels are already high, try to manage what you expose yourself to.

If you have never meal prepped before: Learn how to prepare meals ahead of time. Cooking healthy meals to keep you going during the week is not only good for your body, but also your bank account. Follow @ClareFarrellNutrition for tips on how to meal prep for the week ahead.

Journal/Reflect: As mentioned above, use a notebook to manage your thoughts, feelings, goals, business ideas etc. whatever it is. Identify the bad habits that you have in your life and recognise the effect they have on you. If you are trying to make a change to your life, use this to keep reminding yourself why you are doing it and how it will improve your life.

Remember, to look after yourself, you must understand yourself. Use your notebook and your questions to yourself, to dig deep and find what it is that will push you to make a change. We all have bad habits, but if we can outweigh those with healthy habits, then we are on the right track to a healthier, and ultimately happier life.

To get a deeper understanding of our habits, read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

About the Author :

Michelle Farrell Fitness Coach

BSc in Health and Society, qualified Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer, MSc Business Management

Michelle Farrell is a multi talented athlete, representing Ireland ladies soccer team at youth level, the Irish Banshees in the European AFL championships, and is currently the star player and captain for Longford Ladies GAA. In this article Michelle discusses the importance of habits and how her off field behaviours influence her ability to perform on the pitch.


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