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It’s common knowledge by now that setting big, sweeping resolutions for the new year doesn’t actually work; if you want to effect real change in your life you need to start small.

Unlike grand resolutions (“Lose weight!” “Spend less!”), habits are simple, measurable, brain-friendly actions that you can complete almost without thinking once they become part of your routine. Anyone can learn a new habit—the key is to choose something small that you actually want to do (trying to make a habit of adding kale to your smoothies when you hate how it tastes isn’t gonna work).

If your goals this year revolve around a happier, healthier lifestyle, the four essential habits below are a good place to start!

 

Engage in positive self-talk

No, we’re not asking you to stand in front of the mirror every morning and tell yourself, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important” (although you totally are).

Self-talk is “the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head” and, thanks to our tendency to be our own worst critics, these thoughts can often skew negative. From flashes of insecurity (I’m not good/smart/attractive enough) to anxiety and catastrophizing (I spilled coffee on my shirt so I’m a failure and the rest of my day is going to be awful), negative self-talk can have a serious impact on our mental health over time.

Flipping the switch in your brain from negative to positive isn’t complicated, but—like any habit—it does take time and effort. The best place to begin is with this one essential rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend.

Would you tell a good friend that they look ugly today or that they don’t deserve to ask for a raise at work? Probably (hopefully! 😱) not—and you shouldn’t say those things to yourself, either.

Whenever you feel a negative thought bubble up, take a second to evaluate it rationally and counter that negativity by affirming what is good about you and your situation. Positive self-talk is, at its core, the act of reframing your perspective to view things in a kinder, more accepting light. And let’s face it, after the doozy of a year that was 2018, we could all use a little more optimism in our lives.

 

Tighten up the boundaries between work and personal time

The idea of burnout has been the subject of many a feature article this past year (including this viral Buzzfeed article that dubs millennials “the Burnout Generation”) and for good reason: technology has taken up residence in every last facet of our lives and created a world in which no one is ever truly “unplugged” or unavailable, blurring the line between our work and personal lives and making it difficult to decompress.

According to Psychology Today, burnout is “a state of chronic stress” that leaves us unable to function like we should on a personal or professional level. People experiencing burnout feel tired all the time, get sick more easily, have trouble sleeping, feel depressed and anxious, are unproductive, and find themselves struggling to enjoy the things they used to.

Lots of different factors contribute to eventual burnout and we can’t control them all—what we can do is draw a decisive line between work time and downtime and do our best to stick to it.

What does that look like?

  • During weeknights and weekends, turn off notifications for your work email, Slack, Asana, or any other work-related app you may use. (Seriously, it can wait till tomorrow.)
  • Take your vacation days—yes, all of them—and leave your laptop at home when you do.
  • When you’re at home, prioritize the hobbies and activities that bring you the most joy (playing with your kids, working out, gardening, reading, painting, cooking—whatever they may be) rather than ones that feel like more work (sifting through the articles and newsletters piling up in your inbox, studying something you find uninteresting but that you feel obligated to learn).
  • Try reducing your screen time as much as possible, especially in the hours before bedtime and especially if that screen time revolves around scrolling mindlessly through social media.
  • Practice saying “no” to any social commitments or work-related favours (stuff that’s not part of your job) that feel more like stressful obligations than things you genuinely want to do.

 

Give intuitive eating a try

Our relationship with food, like any relationship, can be a tricky one to navigate. How and what you eat plays a big role in the way that you feel about yourself—not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, too.

It can be tempting to hop on the dieting bandwagon this time of year, but a growing body of evidence suggests that there is, in fact, no “best” diet or single way of eating that everyone should follow. The key to good nutrition is (and has always been): eat whole foods, as close to their natural form as possible, mostly plants.

So what’s a person to do when they’ve resolved to “eat better” this year but don’t know what that looks like? Give intuitive eating a try.

It may sound like another fad diet, but intuitive eating is all about listening to your body rather than struggling against it—giving your body permission to eat when it’s hungry, respecting it when it tells you it’s full, and feeding it what it’s craving without judgement.

When you find yourself craving unhealthy foods more often than you’d like, take a moment to think about why you’re craving that specific treat. Is it the sweetness or the salt? The texture? The iciness or the warmth? If you can pinpoint the root of the craving, you can often satisfy it with a healthier option without feeling like you’re restricting yourself.

 

Move every day (bonus points if it’s outdoors!)

Exercise is important (duh), but for anyone who doesn’t inherently love working out it can be a struggle to force yourself to actually get up and go to the gym. Rather than resolving to hit the gym six days a week and then beating yourself up when you inevitably fall off the wagon, try making movement a habit instead of a goal.

Vacuumed the house for 15 minutes? Walked home from work instead of taking the bus? Went bowling with friends? Congratulations, you’re on your way to forming a healthy habit!

Even better than getting some exercise is getting some exercise outdoors. Recent studies show a direct link between time spent in nature and a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression. The Japanese even have a name for it: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”

To double up on the twin benefits of exercise and nature, cultivate your movement habit outside whenever possible. Strolling through your local park, playing a pick-up game of frisbee or soccer with some friends, skating on an outdoor rink, or even trying your hand at gardening are all awesome ways to take in some nature and get moving at the same time.

Remember, the most important rule of forming a lasting habit is to choose something that’s not only healthy but that you actually desire to do—work on figuring out what you enjoy and then focus on doing it consistently.