It’s not revolutionary to say change is hard, and changing your habits can be particularly challenging.
Habits are our routine (and even automatic) behaviors that we engage in regularly, often prompted by internal or external situations.
They are evolutionarily beneficial because they can allow us to exist on autopilot in response to a particular situation and not consume too much energy to do, once they are ingrained in us.
Think about tying your shoes – this task was once really hard to do and required a lot of focused energy and perhaps even reminders from others, and now can probably be done without thinking. Your habits can be such an automatic part of your life that you don’t even think about them, and many of your habits may be quite useful, like brushing your teeth after you wake up or locking the door when you go inside.
But, you may find yourself in the process of changing your habits, or at least wanting to change your habits. Maybe you want to clean your apartment more, stop procrastinating your emails, drink or smoke less, eat healthier snacks, or spend less time on social media.
Replacing an existing habit, like laying on the couch at the end of the day, with a new habit, like doing yoga, can be challenging because it requires replacing an existing, comfortable, routine behavior with a new, unpracticed behavior.
The challenges in our minds – how we think and feel about the change in habit – and in our lives – how we can make space for a new or changed habit in our sea of existing habits – combined with any physical discomfort of a new task can be enough to prevent anyone from changing a habit.
The good news is that the more we engage in a new behavior, often the easier it becomes.
We just need to push ourselves to starting a new behavior and sustaining the behavior to the point that it eventually becomes habitual.
Below are a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind as you try changing your habits.
Don’t: Keep it all in your head.
Rather than just thinking about changing your habits, begin the change process by writing down what habit you want to change. Maybe changing this habit is something you’ve been thinking about on some level each day.
Writing down your desire to change helps to set your intention for making the change and can support your motivation in actually changing your habits.
Write down the habit you want to change or create in non-negative, actionable language, and post the reminder somewhere you interact with regularly to reinforce your intentions and remind yourself of your change in progress. If you’ve been thinking about being more active since your New Year Resolution, try writing, “I want to work out regularly” and post it by your front door, as reminder each time you enter and leave your home.
Do: Gather more information.
To know where you want to go, you need to know where you’re at. Before even attempting changing your habits, spend at least a week tracking your baseline behavior in relation to the change you want to make.
Use a behavior log or a journal to record information about your current actions in relation to the habit you wish to cultivate. Depending on what habit you’re trying to change, you might benefit from tracking the behavior you engaged in:
- When you did it,
- How you felt before, during, and after doing it, and
- Any thoughts you had about the behavior.
If you weren’t able to engage in the behavior you wanted to, track that – as well as what interfered with you doing your desired habit.
For someone who desires to work out more regularly, gathering data for a week revealed that they worked out once for 30 minutes and thought about working out each day but had trouble finding the time between work and family obligations.
Don’t: Have unrealistic expectations.
You might wish you could snap your fingers to make a new habit, but changing your habits takes time and energy. Looking at your baseline data, you might be tempted to try to make a major goal to overhaul your habits completely or to crumple up your paper and give up altogether.
Landing somewhere in the middle is the key – recognize that you are capable of making changes and that it will take time to change the habit completely. You can close the gap between where you are and where you want to be through incremental, sustained change along the way – this helps to integrate a seemingly impossible habit change into a part of your daily or weekly routine.
Someone who wants to workout regularly who has a busy schedule may not be reasonably able to workout for two hours every day, but they probably will be able to build on their existing success and find another 30 minutes in the week in which to work out.
Do: Set goals – and be SMART.
Now that you’ve gathered the data on your current behavior in relation to your habit, it’s time to set a clear goal around changing your habit.
A goal that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART) is much easier to track progress towards and to attain than one that is generalized, amorphous, and unrealistic.
SMART goals can help you be accountable to yourself and to see your growth along the way.
Writing out your habit-related goal in specific detail can increase your motivation by connecting your intention with your plan.
Writing it all out can help you to see how doable – or overly ambitious – your goal is so that you can revise it.
Your goal needs to be challenging, pushing you beyond your current habitual status quo, without being so daunting that you do not even start. Attaching specific days or times of day in which you plan to engage in the habit can increase your self-accountability – and you can even schedule it in your calendar!
One SMART goal for someone who wants to work out more regularly could be “Work out using cardio, yoga, or weights for 30 minutes in the morning three times a week, for the next two weeks.”
Don’t: Beat yourself up.
Now that you’ve set your goal around your habit, go out there and try it. Coming up with an encouraging phrase or mantra to encourage yourself can support you in changing your habit, especially in hard moments.
Continue to gather data on your new habit:
- When and where are you able to engage in the behavior?
- How do you feel when you do your new habit?
- What makes it harder or easier to practice your new habit?
- How often do you think about your new habit?
You may find that the old habit was easier to do than the new habit, and that you weren’t able to achieve your goal.
Do: Try to view setbacks as learning opportunities.
In these moments of setback, it’s tempting to feel bad, write yourself off as a failure, and give up, but try to view setbacks as learning opportunities:
- What happened that prevented your success?
- Were there any times in which you were successful in changing your habit?
Trying to understand the reason you were unable to meet your goals for ourselves is often more useful than yelling at yourself. You may find that the initial SMART goal you set for yourself was too ambitious and you were unable to achieve it, so perhaps revising your goal might help.
You may find that other aspects of your life interfere with changing your habit. Someone trying to workout more regularly might find it harder to complete a workout in the mornings before work if they haven’t slept well the night before, so perhaps they tweak their goals to allow for a shorter workout on weekday mornings or a workout later in the day, or they commit to go to bed earlier the evening before a workout.
Do: Get support.
Changing your habits is hard, especially behaviors that are longtime companions of yours. You shouldn’t go it alone.
Finding a friend or family member to talk to about the change you’re trying to make or an accountability buddy to try to make the change with you can be helpful in maintaining motivation. Sometimes getting another person involved if you’re having a hard time changing your habits can be particularly helpful.
Some unwanted habits you engage in may stem from your upbringing or may have been useful to you at one time of your life, so they’re tougher to give up.
Understanding the needs that your habits meet for you as well as your relationships with your current habits can help you to find other ways to get those needs met and to increase your motivation for changing those habits.
Meeting with a Therapist
Meeting with a therapist can help you to better understand the role of the existing habit in your life, identify and overcome barriers to change, and to learn tools for successfully maintaining new, healthier habits. Changing your habits comes with enough practice, time, and support, and each person goes through the change process in their own way.
Once you’ve found a strategy that works for you, you can implement it again and again to change other habits in your life.
If you’re interested in working with a therapist to better understand the role of the existing habit in your life, identify and overcome barriers to change, and to learn tools for successfully maintaining new, healthier habits, we can help.
Click here to schedule your free consult.
About the Author
Sharleen says “I see my role as a therapist as holistically supporting clients to attain and sustain changes in their lives.”