By Trena-Winans-Bagnall, Education & Community Outreach Director.
You don’t need me to tell you that changing habits is devilishly tricky business. How many times have you tried to lose weight, eat healthier, begin and maintain an exercise program, or quit smoking? The best intentions of the New Year often fall victim to the reality of cravings, excuses or relapse. The good news is that such change is possible!
First it helps to know why habit change is so hard. Habits are a response system that works on auto-pilot. The part of the brain habitual acts are stored in is only interested in benefit within the next ten minutes and decides lightening fast to act. Because these decisions are unconscious, made much faster than your conscious decisions, and are stored in permanent storage in the basal ganglia, it takes a strong strategy and ongoing commitment to override them.
We hear a lot about willpower, but willpower is actually extremely ineffective in making long-term change. It is really only good for powering through a difficult task in the short-term, so you can stop beating yourself up for poor willpower!
Manage your thoughts. How we think about things is extremely powerful. First notice, then challenge your habitual thoughts. Are they really accurate? See if you can challenge your thoughts and expectations about how rewarding the behavior is. You can also look for common mental distortions including “all or nothing thinking,” “jumping to conclusions with minimal information,” or “assuming what others are thinking.”
Note your triggers. Can you create a competing good habit off the same trigger or avoid that trigger completely? Create new associations such as “spinach makes you strong” or “dancing attracts men!”
Work to avoid or minimize stress and increase your sleep. Self-control weakens when we are under stress. It is essential to solve problems or resolve what distresses you.
Enrich your life! Find ways to increase rewards. When availability is low, our drive for gratification becomes very high. More reward opportunities give us breathing room to make other choices and tend to make us less impulsive. Replace the old reward with a reward for the new behavior. Focusing only on deprivation is a recipe for failure. You can set up artificial immediate rewards for long-term goals. If the old behavior garnered praise and attention, set up a system that gets the same for the new behavior.
Focus on replacing the bad habit with a better one. Start small, focusing on the immediate path with daily manageable action steps rather than the final goal.
Habits are catchy! We tend to mimic those around us, so find someone who has been successful or already has developed the good habit you wish for.
Set yourself up for success. Nothing kills confidence like unsuccessful attempts, so set yourself up for success! Make small achievable action steps you are certain you can and will do to build your confidence. Plan for high risk situations and have your alternative solution ready.
Repeat, repeat, repeat! Practice is essential to habit formation! Train your auto-pilot system because you can’t focus constantly forever. Practice the new behavior in your head. The power of the mind to restructure itself is remarkable. Use that plasticity to your advantage!
Create advertising or cues for the healthy behavior. Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing! Setting up your physical space for success can include: giving yourself visual cues as reminders, scheduling time and opportunities for the behavior, creating positive associations with the behavior, and mindfulness—noticing the pleasures associated with the new habit.
Shape how you direct your attention. If you habitually look for stairs, vegetables, happy people, etc. you will find them everywhere! Practice ignoring threats such as unsolvable problems and sugary treats, and you will notice them less over time. Your environment is more what you notice than what is there!
Take steps today! Don’t wait until you are “ready to change.” Take whatever small steps seem possible today—and do the same tomorrow. Steps in the right direction facilitate next steps and make you stronger and more capable when you take on harder steps later.
Don’t start too big! Learn what you CAN control and use that power to reduce exposure to the things you can’t. Plan solutions to avoid crisis. REPEAT!