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How to improve your life one step at a time

Have those New Year resolutions already gone to pot? Nora Rosendahl, co-author of The Book Of You, reveals how to cut out your worst habits, writes Hannah Stephenson

Still eating to excess, when you resolved to cut down after New Year's Day? Still drinking, when you vowed you'd get on the wagon on January 1?

Each year, millions of us make New Year resolutions to quit alcohol, carbs, smoking and a plethora of other temptations, or vow to do more exercise, be nicer to people and tackle other perceived weaknesses. And each year, most of us fail.

But making small changes over time, instead of drastic ones overnight, can make a massive difference, says Nora Rosendahl, former management consultant and co-author of The Book Of You, developed from the popular YOU-app, which now boasts more than 120,000 followers since being launched in 2014 in collaboration with Jamie Oliver, who contributes all of the food actions and challenges.

Rosendahl's belief is that bite-sized self-improvement - in the form of micro-actions, encouraging users to focus on one simple action a day - is key to building a happier, healthier you.

"It's about self-discipline, but it's also about doing things in the community and your surroundings, which encourage you to change," she says. "It's not about the guilt trip form of dieting and depriving yourself of things, but rather to focus on the positive."

The three authors - Nelli Lahteenmaki and Aleksi Hoffman, YOU-app co-founders, also penned the book - have all themselves made small changes in their lives.

"For me, personally, it was more about finding a work/life balance," Rosendahl recalls. "I used to work really long hours, to the point where I was really tired. I changed very small things, one thing at a time, to get out of that difficult everyday routine.

"I decided not to have a meal in front of my laptop and not to have any digital devices around when I had meals, or was with someone, so that I gave myself text-free time.

"I ditched the car and walked to work. I used to have a big clean-up in the house on Saturdays and it led to me hating Saturdays. So I took up the habit of straightening something out, or picking something up off the floor every time I left the room instead."

Now, her Saturdays aren't associated merely with cleaning and Rosendahl believes the app took off so well because so much self-improvement is about depriving yourself. Her mantra is to do something positive instead.

"We don't say, for instance, 'You should never eat chocolate again'. It's a better approach to say, 'I'm going to eat chocolate this Saturday'.

"Two types of habits make our lives worse - the ones that we do and the ones that we don't do.

"The ones that we do include eating when we're bored, taking the car everywhere, procrastinating about small things that would take a minute to do, like calling the dentist to make an appointment, or reaching for a phone every time it bleats, or ending the day scrolling through our phone in bed.

"Those habits do not make life happier. They are not necessarily harmful as single habits, but when you add them all up, it makes a huge difference. The problem is, we do them mindlessly. It's about losing those habits and taking up better ones that make life better."

Micro-actions, like standing up during the day at work and walking around the office, can make a big difference.

"I got into the habit of standing at work for 20 minutes, which really helps to keep you more alert. It may look odd, but if people knew what sitting down does to your body, it's crazy. Standing for three hours every working day, for a year, uses the same energy as running 10 marathons."

The Book Of You contains 365 micro-actions, one for each day of the year, in four categories: Mind, Food, Move and Love, with expert hosts for each.

For those who have problems with food, micro-actions include making sure you always plate your food before you eat and not eating standing up, or on the move.

"Even if it's just a biscuit, put it on a plate and don't eat it until you're sitting down. It's a small action, but it shows to you how much you eat and makes you think twice about it."

Others include doing two-minute workouts during the working day. If you're waiting for the kettle to boil, do some exercise like squats instead of playing a game on your phone. "I do squats when I brush my teeth," says Rosendahl.

"Micro-actions make you feel successful. They are small, manageable and achievable. It's about the small things you can do today which make you feel good, which slowly build into your life so they become the norm.

"If you do a lot of micro-actions one by one and keep them up, you are going to completely revolutionise your life. It's the sum of the small things you do every day which will make all the difference."

The Book Of You by Nora Rosendahl, Nelli Lahteenmaki and Aleksi Hoffman is published by Michael Joseph, priced £8.99

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