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How to change a habit

July 16, 2020 • read

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How to change a habit

We all have bad habits. And it’s easy to feel like if you just had more will power, you’d be able to stop cracking your knuckles or biting your nails or binge eating pop tarts. But research suggests that habit formation involves multiple areas in the brain. That means that changing a habit isn’t just a matter of mustering up your will — it involves taking specific and calculated steps. That’s why we’ve compiled the best tips on how to change a habit without driving yourself crazy.

Get specific

First of all, you’ll need to figure out exactly what you’re looking to change. Trying to change too much at once is a recipe for failure — which is why diets don’t work long term. Saying you want to eat better, for example, is such a broad goal that it’s hard to know if you’re achieving it. It also makes it easier to make excuses for not sticking to it — and doing things like rewarding ourselves with four brownies after having a salad for dinner.

So start with a general goal, then narrow it down. What part of your eating habits do you find the most egregious? Is it the burrito bowls you eat for breakfast every morning? The mid-afternoon cookie binge you can’t stop going on? Figure out what specifically you consider to be the bad habit and address that.  Changing one thing at a time is a lot easier than overhauling a whole aspect of your life. 

Prepare yourself to be successful

Your environment cues you throughout the day to engage in certain habits — everything from washing your hands after you use the washroom to locking the door when you leave the house. So your environment should be set up to help, not hinder you. Looking to make a habit of eating breakfast before your 9 o’clock meeting each day? If you wake up hoping that today will be the day you’ll finally do it, your chances of success are slim. But if you pre-pour a bowl of cereal or whip up some overnight oats the night before, you’ve significantly upped your chances of succeeding. The same applies to most things in life: if you have to prepare before doing something you’re less likely to pull the trigger, but if you’re all set up to get it done, you’ve significantly lowered any barriers you face. Looking to cut some foods out of your diet? Stop shopping for them and bringing them into the house. Find yourself getting sucked into Facebook during the work day? Set up website-blocking software that keeps your biggest temptations inaccessible during work hours. We all have moments of weakness. If you lay the groundwork, you won’t be relying on willpower alone in those moments.

Make yourself accountable

We know that enlisting a buddy to work out with makes you more likely to do it. And this phenomenon is transferable to a number of other things in life. Let your wife know that you plan on breaking your nail-biting habit, for example, and she can remind you when she finds you doing it. Telling everyone around you what you’re aiming to do makes you more likely to do it. Not only can they check in on you to see that you’re sticking to your guns, they can also point out when you’re self sabotaging. So gather your support circle and keep yourself accountable by getting your friends and family on board.

Tie your new habit to something else

Because habits are part of our routine, we often associate them with other things we do without even realizing. This can make it much more difficult to stop an unwanted behaviour, or to begin a desired one. So take some time to think about any associations you have with the habit you’re looking to address. Do you find you want to light up a smoke as soon as you take that first sip of coffee? Switching to tea for a while might help to break that association. Having success with quitting until the minute you have a glass of wine? Try a delicious mocktail next time, or experiment with going “dry” for a month. Changing the behaviour we associate with the habit makes the pull towards the habit less powerful.

Humans are creatures of habit. Routines give us a sense of control and calm in an otherwise unpredictable world, so it’s no wonder that changing a habit can be really hard. But you can do it by taking specific and deliberate steps, whether you’re looking to stop an embarrassing behaviour or begin a healthful one. And if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to get help

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