Good habits are the bedrock of consistency that create success–whether in health and fitness, learning a new language, or whatever.
Very frequently I mention habits as being fundamental to good health, and to losing weight and keeping it off.
But good habits don’t just materialize overnight; in fact, there’s a whole sub-genre of self-help books devoted to understanding and reworking habits.
Let’s consider a few of the challenges with reaching health goals or even developing the habits necessary to make them a possibility.
Willpower, as we know, is limited, and therefore we can’t rely on it to help us always make the right choice or even to set in motion the right habit.
Likewise, having an arbitrary goal is not enough to ensure we stick with a plan and accomplish that goal. (How many people have fallen off a diet how many times, despite having a clear (though arbitrary) goal to lose x number of pounds?)
Some fascinating psychological research found that humans inherently carry a mindset of “indulge today — be healthy tomorrow” in which we indulge, or procrastinate, or otherwise put off the healthy behavior today and assume that tomorrow our future self will have the willpower and initiative to be better, healthier, or more committed. But tomorrow always becomes today and thus the ‘tomorrow’ cycle continues.
So, how, then, do we replace bad habits with good?
Below we’ll look at 5 strategies and 2 fundamentals to help develop good habits.
To help illustrate the strategies, let’s use afternoon snacking as the scenario. It’s something I’m intimately familiar with because over the years it was a big stumbling block for me. Heck–it inspired the creation of a product, which grew into this business.
1. Discover the trigger and build on that
In his book, The Power of Habit, the author, Charles Duhigg, had a habit similar to mine–going to eat a cookie every afternoon. Through the course of his book he examines his own behavior, trying to unravel not only the trigger but what role that afternoon cookie served in his daily routine. One of the methods he teaches for creating or changing habits is to follow the process back to the trigger. Then, knowing that trigger, use it to spark a different behavior.
With the afternoon snack, the trigger might be low energy, boredom, a lull in the day’s work, brain fog, the clock hitting 3pm, or whatever. The key is to trace back through all the incremental steps to discover your initial trigger. Once the trigger is clear, then use that to prompt a different behavior. For example, with the snacking habit, use the lull/low energy as the trigger to make a cup of tea (my preferred solution), instead of going for a snack.
If you’re trying to workout every morning, the trigger would be the alarm going off. To help facilitate follow-through, people have suggested setting out the clothes the night before and placing the shoes right next to the bed. Or even sleeping in workout clothes.
First, define the trigger for the bad habit, then make it as easy as possible to begin implementing a new behavior at every instance of that trigger.
2. Stop compensating
Our brains like to feel pleasure, so we tend to excessively reward ourselves for rather small successes.
In the case of afternoon snacking, if you skip the afternoon snack, you may feel like you’ve been deprived so you think you’re entitled to a reward such as cheesecake after dinner. Compensatory behavior like this won’t actually help you achieve your health or weight goals.
Instead, take a mindful moment to celebrate your snack-skipping success. And take another mindful moment before dessert to remember your goals.
3. Create positive reinforcement
Rather than compensating for good behavior or the incremental development of good habits, create positive reinforcement. Using a calendar or habit tracking app, mark down each day you skipped the afternoon snack and try to create a string of successes. Each day try to grow that string.
Another way to create positive reinforcement is to notice how you feel when you follow through with your habit. Accomplished? Proud? Empowered? Successful? Confident? More energized? Revel in that feeling and let it encourage and support you rather than looking for an external reward.
You can also celebrate your success as long as it isn’t with compensatory behavior or excessive reward. A celebration might include a few moments to dance, leaving work early, spending extra time playing with your dog or kids, a few minutes of relaxation (something we don’t allow ourselves enough of), or whatever raises the pleasure center in your brain without the use of food or sugar.
4. Set a limit
In changing a habit, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll fall off track at some point. Here’s where self-forgiveness becomes crucial: to avoid dieter’s compensation of ‘making up for it tomorrow’ with tighter restrictions or extra gym time.
Or better yet, acknowledge there will be slip ups and set a limit on the old behavior. With snacking, perhaps you allow yourself 2 afternoon snacks a week, reserving those for days where lunch wasn’t sufficient or dinner will be especially late. This removes a lot of guilt even when old patterns of behavior crop up. The limit must be firm and decreasing overtime to ensure the new habit is being developed.
5. Wait 10 minutes
Implementing a 10 minute rule, where you have to wait before following your bad habit can be very effective, particularly if you know what triggers the old behavior. After that time, if you still want to follow through with the old behavior you’d allow yourself to do so.
Ten minutes is enough time for mindfulness to return and remind you of your goals, or to find a distraction from the old habit. It also can help you realize how much of human behavior is done automatically–due to unconscious patterns or as a reaction to stress.
With afternoon snacking, you could just wait the 10 minutes or make tea and enjoy a cup to help pass the time. After those 10 minutes, if you still felt in need of a snack, you could have one.
Now that we’ve looked at 5 strategies to overcoming bad habits and implementing new better ones, I think it’s important to consider a couple of fundamentals. No matter how committed you are to behavior change, if you’re living in a constant state of stress or self-sabotage, all the strategies above are going to feel impossible to incorporate.
1. Stress less
During periods of intense stress, as humans we shift back into unconscious, fear-driven patterns of behavior–self-protective mechanisms that have kept us alive this long will surely continue to do so. That’s why you may have found that your behavior always reverts to old patterns when you’re stressed, anxious, fearful, overworked, or feeling attacked.
Therefore, I’d recommend looking to implement habit changes during periods of lower stress. Or developing a stress-management practice concurrently with improving habits.
From the strategies above, numbers 3, 4, and 5 can actually help reduce stress. Setting a limit, where the behavior is allowed a certain amount can make it easier to be flexible and offer yourself forgiveness, which avoids creating extra stress. During the 10 minutes wait time, you can proactively engage in a stress-reduction practice such as deep breathing, meditation, or laughing. Creating positive reinforcement boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain, which offset stress hormones.
2. Reconsider your beliefs
If you find that in trying to change your habits you’re suffering from self-sabotage, it could be that you feel like the person you are is being forced to change. When that happens, there’s a part of your brain throwing up resistance–insisting I’ve survived this long, why change now.
As this point, you have to consider what version of yourself plays through your mind. Do you see yourself as the perpetually unhealthy person? In the snacking scenario, are you the person your colleagues rely on to always finish the leftovers in the breakroom? Do you feel like your role among your circle is defined by your current behavior and that by developing new habits you might lose friends or alienate family?
If any of these beliefs, conscious or subconscious are swirling around, all your best efforts will be thwarted by self-sabotage.
In this case, you have to change your beliefs about yourself. Visualize yourself as the healthy person you desire to be. Use tapping (EFT) to clear old beliefs. Repeat affirmations. Try hypnotism or guided meditation. Start living how you want to feel, behave, and look. The habit changes then will come much easier.
As you’re trying to change bad habits into good, keep in mind both of the fundamentals.
Think of your goal, then choose 1 of the habit change strategies that you feel would work best. Just one. Implement it today to provoke behavior change. There’s no better time than now.
And finally, leave a comment below. Tell us what strategy has been most effective for you in creating better habits.