How to create change that sticks; it’s possible—just not easy
Grabbing cookies in the middle of the night, staying up late binging shows on Netflix, skipping morning exercise sessions. Many of us have taken on habits that don’t boost our health. Yet, changing behaviors is challenging—so challenging that many of us don’t try for fear of failing. Or we try and give up within a few weeks.
Why is changing behavior so difficult?
Habits are behaviors that we perform automatically, without thinking. To successfully change our behavior, we must replace our existing habits with new ones. If only it were that simple, though. By default, our brains prefer to take on habits that are easy (like lolling in bed versus going for a run) and immediately rewarding (like eating ice cream rather than kale salad). We tend to perform delay discounting, meaning we value smaller rewards now more than larger rewards later.
Odds are the habits we want to take on are more complex and less immediately rewarding. This means that to adopt them, we need to force ourselves to repeat them over and over for a prolonged period—until they become our new default modes. When the reward is not immediate, as with exercise, it helps to constantly remind ourselves of the long-term benefits.
Use these tips to change your habits
Here are some surefire strategies to help you substitute positive routines for negative habits, for good.
Pick a specific behavior:
Reflect on your overall goal, such as becoming more fit, losing weight, or cutting smoking. Then, narrow down until you come up with specific, measurable, small, and attainable goals. Here are some examples:
Take a brisk one-hour walk three days a week.
For lunch five days a week, eat a lightly dressed salad instead of a sandwich.
Quit smoking within two months.
Go to bed by 10 pm at least five nights a week.
Limit alcoholic beverages to one drink per week.
Remind yourself of the benefits:
Since changing a habit takes a lot of conscious effort, you need to be sufficiently motivated to buy into the process. That’s why you should tell yourself repeatedly why you’re making the change. Here are some examples:
By quitting smoking, I’ll help prolong my life so I can watch my grandchildren grow up.
By getting in shape, I’ll be able to keep up with my kids when they run around.
By losing weight, I’ll be able to fit into my old clothes.
By going to sleep earlier, I’ll feel more rested and alert.
Log your behaviors as you work towards your goal. If you’re old-school, use a small notebook that you bring with you. Otherwise, take advantage of tracking apps on your smartphone or watch.
Find an accountability partner:
Support is priceless when it comes to staying the course—think of the effectiveness of Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous.To help you remain on track, seek out a friend with a similar goal or someone who’s successfully navigated the change process. If they’re also working towards change, check in with each other on a regular basis and cheer each other on when you reach milestones.
Anticipate and plan for roadblocks:
Since changing behavior is so challenging, setbacks are usually a given. Prepare for them by reflecting on triggers that cause you to engage in less-healthy behaviors, like your boss criticizing your work. If you’re trying to stop smoking, the first three days after your target quitting date will pose the highest risk for relapse, according to research.
Then, instead of defaulting to habits like reaching for a cigarette or binging on ice cream or beer, choose productive coping strategies. At the bar, sip on seltzer instead of Sauvignon Blanc. Rather than indulging in a solo sundae, meet a friend for a brisk walk in the park. When you feel a strong urge for a cigarette, seek out a comfortable spot and meditate.
Learn from setbacks:
Often, when we slip while working towards behavior change, we’ll throw in the towel completely. “By eating those cookies, I already ruined my diet anyway,” we’ll say, sighing. “So, I’ll just have a few more.” Don’t.
Instead, when you experience a setback, take it in stride rather than using it as an excuse to quit. After all, relapses are part of the long-term process of change. Ask yourself how you can learn from your slip and work towards preventing it from happening again. For instance, next time, bring a healthy snack (like Whipped Muhammara Dip with fresh vegetables) so you won’t reach for the cookies.
Get back on the saddle:
Rinse and repeat. Change is possible—if you remain committed long-term. Just keep your eyes on the prize.
Keep track of what you've accomplished with journaling:
It's easy to forget what you worked so hard for and achieved, especially if the road is long or if you've had setbacks. A great way to keep a record of everything that you've accomplished is to keep a daily journal. This can be part of a daily mindfulness routine for you, where you sit down in the evening or whenever you choose and take note of what happened during the day:
if you hit any milestones, big or small
if you experienced any rough patches
what you learned so you don't have to hit those bumps again (and any new habits you'd like to add to your daily routine that will help)
your thoughts on the day
what you are looking forward to celebrating
How you keep your journal is up to you, whether in a spiral notepad, a hand-tied leather book, or a handy app on your phone. What's important is you mark the important moments for you on your health and wellness journey and acknowledge your hard work along the way.
King, B. (2020). Blog - Habit Formation, Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com
Latham, A. (2016). Blog - Careers, Forbes. forbes.com
Lombardo, E. (2017). Blog - Perfectionism, Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com
(2018). Blog - News, Columbia University Irving Medical Center. cuimc.columbia.edu
Call, M. (2022). Blog - Resilience, Health, University of Utah. accelerate.uofuhealth.utah.edu
Hooker S, Punjabi A, Justesen K, Boyle L, Sherman MD. (2018). Fam Pract Manag. 25(2):31-36. PMID: 29537244.
Zimlich, R. (2022). Blog - Mental Health, verywell Health. verywellhealth.com