Simple, accessible approaches for employers to create lasting habit change – your questions answered

Red sheoes from above on the white arrows,dilemmas concept habits or changes

How many of us have tried to change our habits and failed? It’s an age-old conundrum that’s particularly relevant if we’re also tasked with trying to get and keep our colleagues engaged with staying well.

Picking up on this challenge, our Make A Difference webinar, sponsored by Holidity, had the tempting title: “New neuroscience: Simple, accessible approaches for employers to create lasting habit change”.

Here, author and former Olympic psychologist Dr Julia Jones (who is also the Founder of Holidity), elaborates on some of the far-ranging questions that were raised by the highly-engaged webinar audience. In particular, questions honed in Julia’s 90-day reset programme, which is based around three simple habit hacks and positioned as an affordable and accessible approach to preventative health.

For context, you can access the recording of the webinar and responses to some of these questions that were given by the other panels during the webinar here

Q: How can I adopt the early daylight habit hack if I work shifts?

Dr JJ – Shift workers experience a disruption of the Circadian rhythm, and we now know this has a lot of implications across many health pillars. If you’re a shift worker (or a manager of shift workers) I would highly recommend reading ‘The Circadian Code’ by Dr Sachin Panda to get a really deep understanding of that master clock and how it regulates all the other cellular clocks throughout the body.

Here are a few things that could help shift workers minimise the health effect of their job:

  • Wear a sleep tracker and start monitoring the amount and quality of your sleep to ensure that you are getting enough of it (7-9 hours of solid sleep cycles through deep sleep and REM sleep stages)
  • Figure out a sleep routine that works for you and tells your brain it’s safe (lighting in bedroom, blackout curtains, temperature, bedding, music, scents, breathing)
  • Try and stay on the same shift for several consecutive days to establish a pattern
  • Be very careful with alcohol consumption as some evidence now suggests that shift workers are more affected than others so it can be increasingly damaging to health
  • Reducing your eating window can also help shift workers – and try and move the final meal as far away from bedtime as possible
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol on work days

Q: Anything requiring too much effort will feel like extra energy spent. How much is too much effort?

Dr JJ – My 5-year research journey dug into the reasons for the failure of the diet and fitness industry to stem the rise in poor health. Most people cannot sustain those practices because they don’t really align closely enough with our evolutionary biology. We don’t have neural reward circuits for restricting food and for moving, because food wasn’t as abundant as it is now, and we moved automatically as part of our hunt for food, shelter, and other humans. So, most of us have to force ourselves to do a fitness activity and restrict our calories. Effort isn’t always physical. It can also be time, cost, or mental energy involved. The 3 habit hacks we now teach are highly aligned with our existing daily habits and also directly support the key evolutionary biological systems beneath them. So, this lower effort result seems to be easier for people to sustain as their new normal routine. They also don’t cost anything at all.

Q: So, is Accountability the key?

Dr JJ – I would say that Accountability Partners are the key. Most humans need extensive human support over a prolonged period to successfully change a habit. Since 2019, during our R&D work, we have delivered various versions of the habit-hacking programme for a long list of employers. We could see clearly that when I delivered it personally the engagement was extremely high (approx. 80% retention across two months). But when we moved it to online content the retention crashed. So, our challenge as a business was to figure out how to affordably scale up the accountability partner service, with me still acting as the daily point of contact. We finally cracked how to do it in an affordable way. 

Q: It’s tough  – what can help support and motivate people to make change?

Dr JJ – Acting as a daily accountability partner vastly increases the likelihood of success. We’ve absolutely seen the power of this during our R&D. However, we spent a long time figuring out what type of language to use in the daily check-in messages and what time of day to send them out to maintain the maximum momentum. The psychology of language is important. It took a while to crack that behaviour code. The other factor that emerged from our R&D years was the simplicity of success. Asking someone to make just 1 change.  Not 2, or 3, or 4, or 10.  Just ONE. Because once they taste the success of making a very small adjustment it opens up the path to continued adjustment to other habits.  For many years we’ve been asking people to make ludicrously high effort changes to their lifestyle. We need to shift the message. Even losing just 1 pound per YEAR from middle age will greatly improve your future health outcome. Even just managing to not put ON just 1 pound per year will improve it. 

Q: How does disconnection and loneliness play into this specifically around diet and fitness, and the stress overwhelm plus burnout?

Dr JJ – When it’s difficult to bring people together physically we should harness the power of an online community. If done well it fosters a feeling of belonging, and that can help. The ones I joined during the pandemic transformed my life. This is why we embedded the daily accountability check-ins with me into our habit change programme. Being physically present with each other is important but it’s not always possible. After spending a lot of money exploring various apps and bespoke tech solutions, we eventually realised that the most successful method of connection was through What’s App. Why make everyone use an app they’re not really interested in when most people are already in What’s App every day?  If we want to reach everyone we need to do it through the path of least resistance. Go where they already are. The ‘opting in’ link covers off GDPR.

Q: The NHS could do more to engage staff in active travel. That could help?

Dr JJ – Active travel is absolutely something that I embedded into my life very early on and have been urging others to do the same. We shouldn’t underestimate the cumulative effect of a standing desk, using the stairs, hanging out the washing, or attending a meeting via audio-only during a walk outdoors, instead of hunched in front of a video screen. These non-exercise activities all require energy, and therefore use calories you consume. We simply need to sit down less if we can. Making tea, coffee, meals, watering the flowers with a can instead of a hose, also involves energy consumption. Small but regular movements throughout the day add up to a lot. In the past we believed that we had to do immense fitness protocols to offset our calorie imbalance but that didn’t work for the reasons outlined above. We simply need to be less sedentary.

Q: Vendors and providers rarely help as there’s always a drive to push new ever more complicated and promised solutions in order to stand out.

Dr JJ – This is true. When I began delivering our pilots for employers in 2019 it was a very different landscape. It’s now a deafening noise and a saturated market of suppliers selling services that don’t really make a difference due to the evolutionary neuroscience reasons I outlined in the webinar.

I would encourage employers to have a spring clean and dramatically reduce the amount of wellbeing content they are offering. Less is more. The workplace is the perfect environment to reach the working population and help them make permanent habit change that improves their health outcome. But there is a risk that overwhelming them with a constant tsunami of wellbeing content will simply switch them off and produce no improvements to the national health crisis. Less is more.

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Q: I’m a nutritional therapist and it can be very difficult to motivate clients to make tough dietary changes.

Dr JJ – We’ve actually stopped trying to address dietary choices on our core behaviour change programme. Decades of public health messaging have been repeatedly telling us all to eat more fruits and vegetables and lots of healthy natural protein. In our experience people do already know deep down what they should be eating but they cannot do it because we’re living in a world where we’re constantly surrounded by unnatural, human-made, foods and drinks. It’s not surprising most people fail.

Our environment and genetics, coupled with the fact that most people aren’t sleeping properly and are suffering from chronic stress, make the likelihood of permanent dietary changes an elusive dream for many people. This is why we’re taking a different approach and instead first encouraging people to make a slight adjustment to these three daily habits with simple, free hacks to improve their sleep, stress and metabolic function.

A well-rested, non-stressed, brain makes much better decisions about food and drink choices than a sleep deprived, stressed one. We need to take a step back in order to move forward. Instead of trying to pull people out of the river, we walk upstream and help them stop falling in. Once we’ve helped them address sleep and stress, and they feel more in control, we then start talking about gut health.

Q: It’s tough  – what can help support and motivate people to make change?

Dr JJ – we are advocating for a much simpler and much lower effort approach. I honestly think this is the only way forward. Asking people to make lots of high effort changes to lifestyle, and bombarding them with confusing and often contradictory content that confuses the heck out of them, does not work. I’m urging everyone to take this much simpler and streamlined approach for the reasons I’ve outlined above.

I spent decades in the diet and fitness industry as a sport and exercise scientist, but even I don’t follow those protocols anymore because I’ve embedded the simple and free habit hacks into my daily routine that has the same effect with a fraction of the effort and no cost. Give everyone a lot less information, and far fewer recommendations, but repeat them over and over and over and over and provide daily accountability support until the habit adjustment is permanent.

Q: How can this approach help remote workers?

Dr JJ – I’m a remote worker and I initially developed this approach for my own health. My book ‘Neuron’ documents what happened to my health pillars in the 12-months after cancelling my gym membership, abandoning calorie counting, and just embedding a few of these habit hacks into my daily routine. My sleep, stress and metabolic scores flew up and are still there four years later.

Q: Many people know they might be getting some level of dopamine hit from a behaviour that is actually injuring them in the long term – but in the moment, when that behaviour gives them relief, the long term doesn’t matter. How to break the cycle?

Dr JJ – As I explained in the webinar, we’re fighting our ancient evolutionary biology and don’t have reward circuits in the brain for some behaviours and therefore have to force them (e.g. fitness and calorie restriction). Similarly, many of our modern actions DO align with our evolutionary biology so it’s a challenge. For example, foods and drinks are formulated to specifically activate the reward system and produce the neuromodulator hit. The neuromarketing sector spends millions of pounds figuring out how to play your brain with formulations, packaging, and advertising.

I believe that firstly helping people improve their sleep and stress levels helps them become better equipped to make better nutritional choices. A tired, stressed brain makes poor decisions. We should focus on fixing sleep and stress first. Then tackle the consumption habits and sedentary behaviour. We must also acknowledge that some care about their health more than others. We can’t always help everyone. Start with those who want to change but are struggling to do it alone.

Q: The 3 hacks you now promote don’t include exercise which is quite surprising. So, would doing exercise also help?

Dr JJ – As a sport and exercise scientist I spent decades convincing people to join a gym and improve their fitness. I built a multi-million-pound health club chain in the 1990s. Then in 2018, as I began investigating the reasons for the failure of that approach, I realised we’re barking up the wrong tree. Fitness and wellness are not the same thing. We’ve really confused the issue because of how we’ve defined the word “exercise” which people now think is something specific and done in a special outfit. In reality, getting out of bed is exercise. Standing up is exercise. Washing up instead of using the dishwasher is exercise. Walking, carrying, etc.

We’ve spent generations inventing labour saving devices that removed those small actions from our lives. We need to explain to everyone how to increase the amount of those low-effort behaviours.  For instance, I always do the opposite of the London Underground escalator signs “Stand On The Right”…i.e. I always walk up the left. Most employees have never used the stairs in their office and don’t walk up escalators even though those actions cost nothing and are available to them every day.

They have trained themselves to “Stand On The Right” on escalators and to join the queue waiting for the lift at the office. The three habit hacks we teach on the 90 Day Reset help people improve their sleep, stress levels and metabolic function. Those who improve those core wellness pillars often experience greater levels of energy automatically, and therefore tend to be moving more during a day. In contrast to a tired, stressed human who often tends to sit down more during a day.

Q: I recently learned about NEAT activity, the movement we all do throughout our day? Like only putting enough water in the kettle for a cup of tea so I have the added effort of refilling it.

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m describing in the answers above. This non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) effect helps us maintain a calorific balance (what goes in = what gets used). For instance, I moved my kettle from the sink to the other side of the kitchen, so I have further to carry it. I carry two shopping baskets around the supermarket instead of choosing a trolley.

Lots of small, simple things throughout the day like that add up to very beneficial cumulative effects. To stay well we don’t need huge fitness levels, we need to maintain a healthy weight through natural foods, move regularly to support circulation/bones/muscle, sleep well, and be relaxed. 

Q: Why 90 days and where did that come from?

Real lifelong behaviour change takes time. During our pilot tests over recent years we found that shorter periods simply weren’t as effective. The daily reminders in my check-in group take just 20-seconds but help put the habit hack at the forefront of their mind. Eventually, ‘thinking’ about them each day, can become ‘doing’ them each day.

Q: What about public health campaigns? Like the 5 a day one.  Wouldn’t it be great if these 3 simple bio-hacks could be developed to roll out across country?

Yes, absolutely we think there is a knowledge gap the size of the Grand Canyon that needs to be filled asap. We need to teach these basics to health professionals as well as to the public. Our first NHS GP surgery partnership actually launches this month with the GPs able to recommend the 90 Day Reset to their patients via their in-house SMS system. I presented this concept to 1,000 GPs and medical professionals at the annual conference of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine last year. We hope other NHS Trusts will also join this referral programme. We are also currently discussing a partnership with a leading food retailer. 

For more information on the 90 Day Reset habit hacking programme you can visit: You can follow Dr Julia Jones on Instagram & TikTok: @drjuliajones and on Linked In: /juliajonesuk



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