Building a healthier lifestyle almost always requires breaking some unhelpful or unhealthy habits, but routines related to eating and exercise (or lack thereof) are notoriously resistant to change. A structured approach like the one described below can put you in control and give you the confidence that you need to achieve success. These steps will take you through the process from start to finish.
Step 1: Acknowledge that breaking a bad habit is harder than building a new one.
Habits are typically automatic, meaning that we engage in a pattern of behavior without having to think very much about it or exert much control. Changing the habit requires taking control of the pattern of behavior, but habits are slippery. It can be hard to get our hands on them and make them do what we want. That’s especially true when it comes to habits related to eating, exercise, or lack of exercise. Every time a habit is repeated, it gets stronger, and habits related to eating, exercise, and lack of exercise are often repeated daily or more often for a period of years or even decades. It’s important to keep this in mind when a habit resists your efforts to change it. Changing a long-established habit often requires a lot of patience, so be prepared for the process to take some time and try not to get discouraged if it’s more difficult or takes longer than you expected.
Step 2: Get specific about how you want the habit to change and what will replace it.
Changing a habit necessitates having a clear and specific sense of what you want to change. For example, “I want to break my bad eating habits” is not nearly specific enough. “I want to stop eating so much junk food” is not even specific enough. Try to focus on a specific pattern of behavior that you can measure. Here are a few good examples: “I want to… drink no more than 8oz of sugar-sweetened soda per day… visit a fast-food restaurant no more than once per week… end my screen time at 8pm… eat no more than 600 calories in a single meal or snack… go to bed no later than 10:30pm.”
Changing a habit often leaves a gap in our routines and it’s important to decide on how to fill that gap. For example, if you want to stop drinking sugar-sweetened soda, what will you drink instead? If you cut down on TV/smartphone/computer time, what will you do instead? This is often your chance to not only break an unhelpful habit, but also replace it with a new, healthier, habit. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “nature abhors a vacuum” but unhelpful habits love it when you neglect to find something to replace them. If you leave a gap in your routine, you can be sure the old habit will be there waiting to fill it as soon as you stop paying attention. But when you replace an old habit with a new one, you crowd out the old habit so that it no longer has room to operate.
Step 3: Identify triggers and reinforcers.
Habits are typically automatic but they aren’t random. Rather, they activate when triggered. An important part of breaking a habit involves figuring out what triggers it. Many habits are triggered by the time of day and some part of a larger routine. For example, being in the habit of visiting a drive-through on the way to work to order a high-calorie coffee drink may be triggered by a combination of morning time, getting in the car, and following the route to work, and seeing a drive-through on the way. In order to break the habit it’s best to interrupt as many triggers as possible. Figure out which ones are easiest to change and start there. In this example, we probably can’t change the need to go to work in the morning, but we could try taking a different route that avoids drive-throughs. Depending on how slippery the habit is, we may need to work harder to change the habit. For example, if it’s very resistant to change, we might try having a friend or spouse drive us to work for a week to help us get a good enough grip on the habit so that we can do more of the work on our own. Regardless, because habits are automatic, we will need prompts and reminders to help us change triggers (e.g., a note on the dashboard to take a different route to work).
Habits live on because they are reinforced, meaning they serve some useful purpose. For example, the coffee drink on the way to work may make the morning more pleasurable and build motivation to get out of the house on time. In order to get a firm grip on a habit, you may need to identify the reinforcers and find substitutes. One of the most effective strategies involves trying to find a substitute that is similar in type and timing that preserves the rest of the habit. This might involve ordering an iced tea with low-calorie sweetener instead of the coffee. Sometimes the whole habit has to go, in which case an alternate reinforcer might involve saving the money spent on the coffee every morning and using that to do something fun like going to see a movie or buying a new outfit.
Step 4: Decide on whether to change gradually or all at once.
The tendency is to try to change a habit all at once but that might not work if the habit is too strong or too slippery. To weaken a habit, try chipping away at it with gradual change. This works best if you come up with several steps in advance. For example, to switch from sugar-sweetened soda to water, you could start by mixing regular soda with diet soda, gradually phasing out the regular soda until you’re fully on diet. Then start diluting the soda with water until you’re fully on water. The gradual approach has some additional benefits. It allows you to keep some of the reinforcers and gives you more time to experiment with substitutes. It also makes changing the habit less of a fight, which can help you stay in control. However, it can make the process take longer and it may feel like progress is slow at times. If you you want to try making the change all at once, you can always fall back on a graduate approach if it doesn’t work.
Step 5: Identify tools and sources of support.
Trying to brute-force habit change can be grueling. It’s worth taking stock of the resources at your disposal that can make it easier and increase the likelihood of success. One of the biggest resources is other people. You may have family and friends who can provide support in various way from simple cheerleading, to providing accountability (e.g., “Would you be willing to ask me how much soda I’ve had at the end of each day?”), and instrumental support (e.g., “Can you drive me to work for a week to help me get a handle on using drive-throughs in the morning?”). If you have the resources, paid counseling can be a very powerful tool to help you get organized and learn skills for changing slippery habits.
Get creative about other tools. Some of the best are very simple, such as alarms to remind you to change triggers and activate plans that you’ve made in advance. Other tools can be very specific to the habit that you’re trying to change. For example, placing a standing order for seltzer to be delivered to your house every week so that you have a substitute for soda.
Step 6: Build your first plan.
If you’ve worked through steps 1-5 then you’re ready to build your first plan. You may find it helpful to brainstorm a variety of different options and then pick the one that seems most promising. Consider writing/typing out your plan so that you have a concrete record of what you intend to do. This also tends to strengthen the comment to the plan, which increases success. Next, you’ll need to figure out what parts of the plan you need to put in place in advance. Often this involves gathering resources and getting other people on board. In the examples given so far, it would be important to buy some diet soda to begin phasing out regular soda, or talking to a friend or family member to arrange a ride to work for a week.
Step 7: Track your progress and refine the plan.
You won’t know whether your plan is working unless you track your progress. Depending on the type of habit, there may be apps or printable diaries that you can download online. Keep it as simple as possible so that you’re more likely to stick to it. If the plan is working, keep working the plan! If you’re not seeing much progress, try adjusting the approach. Keep in mind how long the habit has been in place. It often takes coming at the problem from a variety of different angles before you master it. Again, the key is often patience.
Step 8: Celebrate success, no matter how small.
There’s no two ways about it, changing a habit is usually unpleasant. It takes hard work, it involves disruptions to routines, and it often means giving up sources of pleasure and enjoyment. It’s best to acknowledge that head-on, and offset it by celebrating any positive change. Cheerlead yourself, and brag to your friends and family as often as you feel comfortable. Give yourself credit for trying new things and take pride in what you achieve! Remember that changing a habit can put a dent in your life enjoyment and it’s important to get creative about how you replace it. The satisfaction of a healthier lifestyle can be worth a lot, but it’s not going to take the place of junk food after a stressful day at work. Be deliberate about trying new things that you might enjoy.
Step 9: Consider challenging yourself to build flexibility and resilience.
Once you’ve changed the habit, it’s time to think about sustaining your new healthier habits! Of course, the great thing about building a new habit is that it will tend to get stronger and more automatic as time goes on. To really snuff out the last remnants of an unhelpful habit, you can consider deliberately exposing yourself to some of your old triggers without engaging in the old habit. For example, if you’re taking a different route to work to avoid the drive-in, start taking the old route again and relish in the new control that you have over your habits. This is a powerful strategy not only because it helps you to celebrate your success, but also because it helps to extinguish any little power the trigger may still have. That way, if you’re ever exposed to the trigger unexpectedly, you’ll be well equipped to handle it. Just be sure to save this step until your old habit is well under control!
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