Changing habits is not often easy. While some people appear to be able to make change happen simply by setting their mind to it, most people struggle, fail, and try again, sometimes going through many cycles before succeeding — hence the popular saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But with perseverance and a little help, you, in fact, can teach both old and young dogs new tricks.
Make your old habit difficult or unpleasant
One of the factors that keep us locked in a bad habit is that it may be easier and more rewarding than a good habit. You want to reverse that balance. For example, if you want to stop playing video games and get more sleep, try moving your computer or game center out of your bedroom and into the unfurnished, unventilated basement. Likewise, people who want to give up snacking on unhealthy chips or cookies should ban them from the house.
Write it down
There’s something about committing a promise to paper that makes that promise more real. Researchers have found that just writing out a goal and keeping it handy to look at every day (or as many times as day as you need to) can help you stay on track. So write down your promise to yourself and read it before every meal and at bedtime. That’s a prescription that has no side effects and is likely to help.
Keep it simple
Habit change is not that complicated. While the tips below will seem overwhelming, there’s really only a few things you need to know. Everything else is just helping these to become reality.
Make changing habits rewarding
Just as you make your old habit unpleasant, try to make your new habit easier to do and more attractive. For example, if getting enough sleep is the issue, make your bedroom more comfortable and relaxing. If healthy eating is your concern, find ways to make nutritious snacks more available and tasty.
Do just one habit at a time
Extremely important. Habit change is difficult, even with just one habit. If you do more than one habit at a time, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Keep it simple, allow yourself to focus, and give yourself the best chance for success. Btw, this is why New Year’s resolutions often fail — people try to tackle more than one change at a time.
Make a plan
While you’re writing, also write down a plan. This will ensure you’re really prepared. The plan should include your reasons (motivations) for changing, obstacles, triggers, support buddies, and other ways you’re going to make this a success. More on each of these below.
It often helps to be with other people who are trying to change similar habits. This can give you emotional support when times get tough as well as tips and ideas for achieving success.
Get yourself a buddy
There’s a reason that many recovery programs include group meetings and individual sponsors or therapists. Being accountable to others is a powerful incentive to keep on keeping on. By both giving and receiving support, you keep the goal in focus. Working with an individual sponsor or counselor can help you deal with the basis of your bad habit and find positive, healthy ways to take care of yourself instead. Being accountable to a friend (in person or virtual) helps you just stay on track.
Deal with the real problem
Sometimes dealing is relatively easy. If snacking on junk food all afternoon is a compensation for not eating lunch, it’s obvious that the function of eating whatever is in the vending machine is to satisfy hunger. Your “habit” is telling you that you really do need to stop and take the 15 minutes to have lunch. But if your time on video games is your way to stay out of fights with your partner, it may be painful to face how dysfunctional your relationship has in fact become.
Believe in yourself
People who believe in their ability to carry out lasting change and feel competent enough to carry out the various steps involved, whether that means switching to a healthier diet or learning to use condoms for safer sex, are more likely be successful in changing habits. One way to strengthen your belief in yourself is to take note of small successes on your way to the big goal.
Give yourself enough time
Conventional wisdom is that it takes 28 days to get free of a bad habit. Unfortunately, that notion is just plain wrong. Bad habits are hard to break because they are Habits (with a capital H). Remember: your brain has put your bad habit in the “automatic” category. Once there, it’s difficult to shake it free.
Take baby steps
Break the process of change down into steps — and take note of your success at each stage. This will build your belief in your ability to succeed. The steps you take can include: committing to making the change, education about the change you want to make, preparation for change, practice, and repetition.
Cut yourself some slack
Habits are hard to change because, well, they’re habits. There’s a reason why they are hard to break. We actually need most of the habits we have. We go through most of our days engaging in good habits, routines and activities. If we didn’t, everything we did every day would be something we’d have to think about. Instead, we’re wired to learn and put in place activities that sustain us without giving it a moment’s thought.
Identify the underlying cause
All habits have a function. The habit of brushing your teeth every morning prevents trips to the dentist. The habit of checking your email first thing at work helps you organize your day. Bad habits are no different. They too have a function.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.