As detailed in the last blog, there are certain techniques that will orient you toward success in changing and keeping new habits. I left off discussing accountability, e.g. like keeping a record of your progress or checking in with others, such as a coach or trainer.
Once you have a system for accountability, the next step in “Better than Before” discusses taking the initial action toward habit change. Here’s some ways to get started.
1. Begin now. There’s no reason to equivocate about when is the best time. When starting, don’t go for the gold immediately. The beginning is not as intimidating if you break the habit down into smaller nuggets. Instead of saying, I’ll work out an hour a day, every day, how about committing to walking 15 minutes 5 days a week? You’ll likely be able to reach or exceed that goal, which will encourage further progress. Some people do better when they push themselves to commit to bigger first steps, because it’s more exhilarating to have a “blast” start. Know that you’re unlikely to continue with the intensity if you choose the bigger start.
2. Clean Slate. – Another way to think of and start habits is to try doing it with a “clean slate”. This is beginning something on a Monday, at a new job, with a new relationship or anything else that marks a natural beginning. This is why New Year’s Day is a popular time to make changes. At the same time, if you decide that you must change a habit, today is usually the best time to start.
3. Lightening bolt – This is a useful strategy when you are confronted with a new reality, a new idea, or a meaningful event that compels you to change a habit immediately, and often in a dramatic way. An excellent example of this is when a person with an unhealthy addiction becomes pregnant. Although she may have failed in many other programs, being healthy for another person’s sake is enough to trigger her to change her lifestyle for good.
The following are additional strategies for maintaining your new habits:
a) Abstaining- If we don’t start, we don’t have to think about how to stop- this works well for all-or-nothing types. If you are a moderator, one bite of dessert will be enough for you. Research suggests that when you indulge in something less over time, you want it less. Carbohydrate cravings are an excellent example of this.
b) Convenience- Make the desired habit more convenient to attain. Conversely, make it inconvenient to break the habit. A strategy that I use frequently is ensuring that I don’t have a supply of cookies in the house. I won’t go out and get one, if it’s not here already. If a pack of cookies “lands” in my house, I freeze them, so the added act of defrosting is often enough to deter me from eating one. If they are brought to my house as dessert after a dinner, I send them home with people so I don’t indulge, or leave a small piece here (because I can be a moderator) so I don’t overindulge.
c) Anticipate and minimize temptations- Use safeguards to ensure you keep your new productive habit. Eliminate the trigger or the cue for the temptation, such as doing work in other parts of the house, besides the kitchen, if you have a tendency to overeat when at home.
If we stumble, we may get a better idea of those triggers that cause a lapse in our healthy habit forming. Planned exceptions for worthwhile indulgences have an advantage over spur-of-the-moment decision-making when trying to maintain a habit. For example, when going to a cocktail hour, I make a decision to eat only 2 of the most tempting hors-d’oeuvres, instead of eating anything that looks good that is passed my way.
d) Loophole spotting- Most of us are naturals at creating loopholes for ourselves, in order to avoid and make special exceptions for reasons why we fall short of expectations. For example, you might think, “I can’t exercise today, it’s too hot/cold/rainy or I’m too busy.” Chances are, with a little creativity, you could find a way to exercise inside, even if it’s for a short time.
e) Distraction – Often distracting yourself for 15 minutes by doing a competing activity can allow you to use more will power. For example, when tempted to make an impulse purchase, I’ll try to do the rest of my shopping, and see if I still want that item when I’m finished with my shopping. If so, maybe it’s not so impulsive, it may be something that’s a practical purchase.
f) Reward- Sometimes rewards can sabotage your achievement of your goal. For instance, if you decide to reward yourself with a piece of chocolate cake after avoiding avoid sugar for 2 weeks, it could begin a downward spiral of your return to eating sweets. It also may condition you to accomplish a goal only to get an extrinsic reward, instead of the goal attainment being its own reward. Let’s say you finally fit into the clothing that you wore a few years ago, after exercising and reducing your food portions. If you decide that you’ll buy more clothing that fits your new size, that would be an excellent choice, because that would fit the goal of the behavior.
Many studies have shown that when children are rewarded for good grades or behavior on a consistent basis, they don’t learn to derive the intrinsic benefit of the better behavior. This holds true for adults as well, even though we have more evolved control over our behavior. Try to think of the habit itself as being the reward, and enjoy the natural consequences that come from the improved lifestyle. For example, if you begin an exercise program, and feel more energetic and stronger, you’ll be able to partake in more physical activities and enjoy your time with children and/or grandchildren, as opposed to saying, if I stay consistent with my workout program, I’ll celebrate with a big purchase. If you think about the natural benefits of being stronger and more fit, how about taking a family trip that has you hiking and doing more strenuous things that you may not have been able to do without your improved fitness level?
Some habits are more fragile, and unusual circumstances may cause you to stop. A change in schedule such as business or acute illness may disrupt your habit maintenance. Once the circumstances allow, make sure you “start now”. That way, the fragile habit isn’t broken, just paused.
The major take-away from this section is to use some simple strategies to move you toward your desired habit change, and let the improved behavior be its own reward.