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Ask An Expert: New Healthy Habits with Dr Heather McKee

Here at Skin + Me we’re all about expert support and scientifically-proven results. That’s why when it comes to making New Year’s resolutions around our existing habits – and our efforts to build new, healthier ones, we reached out to Behaviour Change Specialist, Dr Heather McKee.

If you’ve followed The Skin + Me Challenge, you’ll know how staying committed to a healthy habit reaps results. However, if 2023 is your year to get started, take a leaf out of Heather McKee’s book below. We promise it’ll be worth it.

How To Build Healthy Habits

Dr Heather uses research-driven methods to help people make lasting positive changes to their lives, with measurable results to find freedom and joy in their healthy habits. It’s about tangible goals with realistic expectations; intrinsic motivation to change coupled with self compassion and a pre-prepared gameplan, to keep you on the right track. 

From choosing nutrient-dense foods to nourish our skin from inside, to sticking to a simple skincare routine (hello, Daily Doser), using SPF daily or moving more to boost those endorphins , we asked Dr Heather to unpack just how we can create – and stick to – new transformative habits this year.

Your personal goals and habit-changing aspirations, however big or small, are unique to you. But the process and mindset that moves us towards them, can be applied more broadly. Dr Heather, who has launched her free Five-day Bite Sized Habits Challenge explains more about the psychology of habit building.

Skin + Me: Happy New Year Heather! Why is it that new habits are so easy to make but so challenging to stick to? 

Dr Heather: It’s actually goals that are easy to make. We tend to make goals. But we don’t always think about the commitment it takes to achieve that goal.

A goal might be, “I want to run the London Marathon”. But your goals are different from your habits. Your habits address what type of person you need to become to engage with that goal and the steps you need to take to get there. 

If we use the example of the London Marathon, what would you need to do everyday to make that possible? What kind of habits do marathon runners have? What’s the first step towards this? It’s actually lacing up your trainers and getting out.

We focus too much on outcomes – think getting larger paychecks, perhaps losing weight or hitting a target on our fitness tracker but goals alone can be fleeting and just focussing on a goal alone won’t affect long term behaviour change.

When we set out to create new habits we need to think of the why behind them. Why is it important personally for us to make this habit? Think beyond the numbers. 

Say again, your habit is to get fitter and to run distances. Why is that important to you? Is it because you think it will give you more energy and focus? Why does that matter? Perhaps it’s because you want to give that energy towards being the best you can be for your family and in your relationships.

If you ask yourself enough whys you’ll be able to get to the root of what that habit can give to you and you’re much more likely to follow that habit. Find your why and then look at your how – what’s the smallest step you can take today on a habit change journey? That might be new trainers, a walk around the block or a ten minute run. Start to look at the behaviours that help you reach the goal. Setting the goal part is easy, following the behaviour changes to get you there is the challenge.

Skin + Me: Is willpower ‘real’? Is it a finite resource? Should we accept that some people have more willpower than others?

Dr Heather: Great question! Willpower is like a muscle – the more we use it the more tired it gets. If you went to the gym and just worked on your right bicep daily that would be exhausting. If you rest properly between sessions on a training plan, that bicep is likely to get stronger over time. The problem is that people tend to throw everything and the kitchen sink at their habit – do too much at once – ultimately this leads to failure because the more we add in, the more we tend to take away. 

There’s a concept in psychology known as ‘goal dilution’. It means that if we’re trying to do too much at once – which we often do in the New Year – give up sugar, drink less alcohol, call our mums everyday – whatever it happens to be, it makes it less likely we’ll achieve our focal goal. We put ourselves under too much pressure. 

Small steps – like my Bitesize Habits course – are an achievable route to change. The beauty of small steps that are easy to engage with and be repeated enough to become a habit. A low barrier to entry makes us much more likely to engage. An interesting study is where they got one group to floss one tooth a night. Then they got another group to ‘start flossing more’. The single tooth group were more likely to build a habit and floss more overall. This is because flossing just one tooth sounds laughably small. But it’s easy to engage with, repeat and invariably leads to flossing other teeth at the same time.

This is the same with habits.

Small is powerful. Building habits improves self esteem. Each time you engage with a desired behaviour change you show yourself that you’re the type of person who follows through towards their goals.

That positivity boost releases a neurotransmitter known as dopamine – a positive signal to your brain telling you that this is something good to do and encourages you to do it again and again.

Studies have shown that the people who have the most willpower are the people who use it the least. They’ve set up their lives to not have to rely on it all the time. This includes setting small goals and creating an environment that helps to support their goals. They make the healthier choice the easiest choice. The floss is by their toothbrush every night. The biscuits are hidden on the top shelf. The notifications from apps on their phone best support their wellbeing and productivity. 

Their home might have equipment for exercise. They might have hand cream on their desk. Your environment can have a large effect on your habits. Think about the cues you can place in your environment to help yourself.

Skin + Me: Being at home more (away from the gym and near the fridge!) particularly during the start of the pandemic made it hard for us to manage eating well. Can you tell us more about how environmental factors affect habits like this?

It’s very hard to stick to healthy habits in an environment that’s not supportive of change. If you open your cupboard and the crisp packets basically fall out onto your face, it’s going to make it hard to resist. If you can make the foods that are the healthiest the ones that you see first – your brain will be cued to thinking about it more often. Where your eyes go, your brain follows and your intention cues us into action.

Your phone is a microenvironment. Anything you have on your phone is a nudge into action. The alerts you get – are they creating an environment and mindset that supports your goals. Prompts to stick to your cleansing routine or meditation are different to social media alerts and distractions from what’s truly important to you.

You can prep your environment to prompt behaviour. Replace the TV remote with a book. Failing that, leave your hand cream next to the remote. Habits are a loop of cue, behaviour and reward. If we can enhance the cues we can reduce the unhelpful behaviours. Engineer your environment to reduce friction towards making and sticking to helpful habits. 

Skin + Me: We’re big believers in self compassion. How do you stay on track if you’re having an ‘off day’. And what advice do you have to recover when one swerves off course or sabotages their routine? Do you have any thoughts and advice?

Compassion is key. Studies have shown that people who have the most self compassion are the ones who are more likely to stick to their goals. When things go wrong, they ask themselves what they can learn from the situation to move forward. They have more of a growth mindset.

What I find in my studies is that successful goal setters longer term have a different outlook to failure. They see it as a system failure rather than a personal failure. They ask themselves what more they could’ve done to prevent that event rather than seeing themselves as a bad person.

A concept in psychology known as implementation intention when it comes to failure, and it’s about ‘if, then’ planning. For example, If X happens, then I will do Y. Say you plan to go out running but it starts raining. Do you have an alternative workout in place or the right kit to negate that? This kind of thinking trains your brain to understand that it’s not ‘all or nothing’ – there are always options available.

Cutivate what Dr Kristen Neff calls a ‘self care check in’ – take time during the day to stop and ask yourself “what do I need in this moment to take care of myself?” Perhaps you need to speak to yourself more kindly, drink a glass of water, take a break or step outside. Cultivating your intuition will bring self compassion and help you meet your own needs rather than looking to external sources.

Skin + Me: Celebrating achievements, reaching targets and milestones. It sounds like a good idea for us but how important is this in building habits that stick and become part of our lifestyle?

Celebrating your new healthy habits is so important. When we do things that stimulate us, the rewards system in our brains kicks in and dopamine is released. Recognising and celebrating our wins – no matter how small they may be, is key because it leads to long-term success. Repeat a positive affirmation that you believe in when you perform your habit, ‘I’m the sort of person who can follow through with their goals’ Or something similar. In sports, players celebrate tiny wins all the time – it’s part of our journey and makes good behaviours more enticing. Experiment with different ways of celebrating that could work for you – and make it genuine.

Just Five-Days to Kickstart Change

Skin + Me: Your new Five-day Bite Sized Habits Challenge resource sounds great. Tell us more.

Dr Heather: In the free Five-day Bite Sized Habits challenge, you’re going to walk away with the tools you need to start creating healthy habits that stick. Get the evidence-based, research-backed blueprint for making lasting positive changes in your life.

Over the five days of the free Bite Sized Habits challenge, you’ll receive a series of videos teaching you the theory of kick starting your healthy habits.

You’ll also receive daily emails to hold you accountable and support you in turning your healthy lifestyle intentions into actions.

Every day, I’ll ask you one simple question that will take less than 60 seconds to answer but could have a lasting impact on your habits and your life.

Each day, I’ll present a research insight on what it takes to make the shift from beating yourself up about every health-related decision you make to having a system in place where the healthy choice becomes the easier choice.

The goal is that, in time, the healthy choice will become an automatic, default choice. A choice that comes naturally to you.

Access Dr Heather’s free Five-day Challenge here.

Sign up to Dr Heathers newsletter here.

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