In a previous column, I talked about habits. Most of the things you do every day are habits, and the wonderful thing about habits is that you don’t have to think about them. You can plan your day while you put on your makeup in the morning without having to focus in detail on every step in the process.
The dark side of habits, though, comes when you try to change them. I recommended in the last column that you spend a few weeks compiling a habit diary to get to know a little more about the habits you want to change. Where does your bad habit rear its ugly head? How are you feeling? What are the situations? Who are the people you are with? When you want to change your habits, remember that these moods, situations and people are associated with your habit. So, when those things are present, that is when the urge to do your habit will be strongest.
When you’re ready to start changing your habits, though, here are a few tips to help you through.
The reason that these habits are so hard to break is that you typically try to replace doing something with doing nothing. The problem is that your brain is not designed to help you act. So, whenever you are in a situation where you used to perform the action you are trying to stop, your brain is going to suggest to you that you do it again. That means you have to exert willpower to stop yourself from doing the thing your brain is pushing you to do.
Here are six things you can do to help change your habits.
1) Replace doing something with doing something else. Rather than trying to keep yourself from doing your habit all the time, try to create a new habit that operates in the same situation. If you are trying to stop biting your nails, buy a nail file and file them instead. Whenever you are in a situation where you used to bite your nails, train yourself to do something else.
2) Engage a friend. Your own willpower breaks down easily, so enlist help. If you’re trying to quit smoking, let your friends know. When you feel like having a cigarette, call up a smoking buddy and let her know. She can help talk you out of it.
3) Make yourself think. Habits want to work on autopilot. So, when you’re trying to change your behavior, set things up so that your autopilot doesn’t work. If you are trying to lose weight, then rearrange the dishes in your kitchen. That way, none of the habitual ways that you ate at home before will work. You’ll have to think about every step of the eating process, and that gives you a chance to add new behaviors.
5) Remember that habit change isn’t perfect. It can be stressful to try to change a habit, and sometimes you will fail. You might slip a cigarette, bite your nails or eat foods that are not part of your diet. Just remember that your goal is to change your behavior in the long term. Don’t treat a small failure as a complete failure. Janet Polivy and Peter Herman have shown that people trying to diet will sometimes binge after overeating a little. They call this the “what the hell effect.” To combat this effect, remember that each day is just one small step in habit change.
6) Take your time. The last thing to remember is that you didn’t develop your habits over night. The most persistent habits are ones that have built up over years. Those years have made the bad habit feel comfortable. You aren’t going to undo all of those years of practice in a couple of weeks. Give yourself some time to change. Recognize that changing habits will feel uncomfortable, and it might make you grumpy. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The new you on the other side of habit change is worth the effort.
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