Change: So easy to desire yet so hard to sustain. Most of us find it fairly doable to make short-term shifts in our behavior. We can curb our spending, keep our closets neat, pay our bills on time, engage in regular exercise or reduce our consumption of alcohol and sweets — for a week or a month or sometimes even a year without too much difficulty. But sooner or later, we invariably slip back into our old habits.
The problem is related to our thinking. When we are highly motivated to achieve a goal, we tend to have such thoughts as “It’s good that I’m about to do this.” And if we have counterproductive thoughts like “I don’t feel like doing this,” we are able to brush them aside and proceed in accordance with our goals.
But when we’re stressed or tired or busy or out of sorts, unhelpful thoughts are harder to resist, and we “give ourselves permission” to disregard the plan: It’s OK to skip doing this because … it’s OK to eat or drink this because … . In our busy, stressful lives, it’s easy for motivation to flag. As a result, there’s never a shortage of rationales.
Then the cycle starts to feed on itself. Once we’ve failed to follow through with something, we lose confidence that we can make ourselves do what we’ve committed to do — which makes it more difficult to get ourselves to do it the next time — and the next time, and the time after that.
So what can you do? In my 28 years of clinical practice helping clients achieve their goals, I’ve identified six specifics steps that you can take to bring about lasting changes in your mindset, so you can make lasting changes in your behavior.
6 Steps to Create Healthy Habits
- Set a specific goal, with modest subgoals. If you think, “I should walk an hour a day, seven days a week” or “I’m going to lose 15 pounds in two months,” you may quickly abandon your efforts because you’ve aimed too high. You’re more likely to be successful if you start off with a smaller objective — for example, walking for 15 minutes, three times a week or eating in a healthier way to lose (the first) five pounds.
- Schedule every step. When it comes to non-dietary goals, saying you’ll find the time to engage in your desired behavior without making a formal plan might work — but even if it does, it will probably only be temporary. Life gets too busy and we get distracted, which gives us endless excuses. Designate a specific time each week for engaging in the behavior. Mark it in your datebook and send yourself reminders as if it were an actual appointment.
- File the behavior as “non-negotiable.” You probably don’t struggle much with whether or not to fasten your seatbelt: I should do it. I don’t want to. But I really should. I’ll skip it this one time … . You just automatically buckle up every time you get into a car. This is because wearing seatbelts is in a category of activities about which you simply don’t give yourself an option. The next time you want to skip working toward your goal, or eating or drinking too much, or having a cigarette, tell yourself, “No choice.”
- Neutralize sabotaging thoughts. Anytime you think, “It’s OK if I eat this now, or don’t do this now because … ” answer back: “No, it’s not OK. I know from experience that letting myself off the hook always leads to eventually abandoning this goal, which is important to me.” When you find yourself weakening, hold in your mind an image that corresponds with what the attainment of that goal would look like.
- Acknowledge your successes. If you don’t give yourself any positive feedback until you reach your ultimate goal, your motivation will likely sag. Instead, every time you take even a baby step in the right direction, tell yourself, “It’s so good that I did that.” That feeds the “reward center” of your brain and makes you feel good, bolsters your self-confidence, increases your sense of self-efficacy and increases the likelihood that you’ll continue engaging in the desired behavior.
- Disempower counterproductive feelings. Ask yourself: “What is my goal? Is my goal to do what I feel like doing, or is my objective to change my unhelpful habits permanently?” The bottom line is, you can’t have it both ways, so keep reminding yourself of the two mutually exclusive behaviors.
Patterns are hard to break, and it actually gets harder as we grow older. So it’s not surprising if you’ve struggled to sustain long-term changes in your behavior. But understanding the relationship between your thinking and your actions gives you more power to stay focused on your objectives and makes it more likely that you'll attain your goals.