Four years ago, I was faced with a choice. I was dealing with some debilitating health issues. The diagnosis indicated that I was headed towards developing Type II diabetes. The path of treatment was clear: I could go on drugs or I could alter my diet. I wasn't willing to manage the side effects of the medication, so I decided to alter my food habits. Since that day, I stopped eating sugar and refined foods, which was not a small or instant decision to make. Over the years, my health slowly improved, and the threat of developing diabetes disappeared.
The key to all of this was radically — and permanently — changing my eating habits. This wasn't a diet for vanity's sake . I wasn't allowed cheat days. I had to alter and rebuild the way I shopped for, prepared and consumed food. I had to develop a totally new support structure around my food choices.
Part of my process was learning about the behavioral research around changing habits and maintaining new ones. Whether you're considering making a diet change, trying to quit smoking or working on checking your social media less, knowing the mechanisms around changing habits can help support your success. Here are nine key tips to consider if you're thinking about changing a habit permanently:
1. Decide that the benefits to the new habit outweigh your current state. For me, I knew a lifetime of medication wouldn't be the future I wanted. I also wanted my health back, and I set the intention that I would reclaim that health no matter what it took. Making that clear distinction with a firm goal in mind was critical to helping me stay on track. Achievinng that future state of being has to motivate the new change.
2. Make a plan to change one habit at a time. Making just one permanent habit change is a difficult task. The research is clear. By changing one habit at a time, you might find yourself with an 80% chance of success. That rate falls sharply when you add more than one habit change at once. So choose one thing to change and stick with working on it.
3. Know your old cues and choose new ones. BJ Fogg at Stanford University and Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, both point out the dynamic around habits that include cue, routine and reward. Know what cues might trigger the old habit, and intentionally chose new ones to distrupt the tendency of repeating the old habit.
4. Have an accurate expectation for the time it will take to adopt the new habit. While 21 days is the number commonly thought of as the time it takes to adopt a new habit, the science tells another story. A study done in 2009 by University College London psychologist Phillippa Lally found that it could take as little as 18 or as many as 245 days to change a conscious habit into an automatic one. The average number of days was actually around 66 days for a habit to become semi-automatic. She also found that missing a day has no effect on the success of adopting the new habit. Which leads us to the next point:
5. Focus on consistency. Don't judge your performance at the beginning. As Lally and others have found, even if you don't perform the new habit every day perfectly, making the attempt will still support the likelihood of adopting the new habit as a permanent one. The idea of falling short of perfection or 100% success can actually have a harmful effect on building up the new habit. It's about being consistent, not perfect.
6. Celebrate all victories, especially the hard-fought breakthroughs. Building and keeping a sense of positive momentum can help support a new habit change in a big way. Behavioral scientist refer to these developmental stepping stones as approximations. Finding ways to positively (and visibly) celebrate victories can be a way to help keep the momentum going and cement the shift in habit.
7. Build a system of positive and encouraging accountability and support. Optimism and support are critical to permanently kicking and replacing habits. So is friendship. A study by Rena Wing found that when friends enrolled in a four month weigh loss program, they were measurable more successful than those that did not. The positive benefits of having a system of support can also extend to a group text with friends or updates on social media. The important thing is to make space for others to cheer you on.
8. Think about how success will feel at the end. Let that feeling of success motivate you to keep moving forward. Thinking about how the end result will feel is particularly important at those times when you feel like you are backsliding or hitting a wall with your progress. Remember, it might take a much as two months for the newly adopted habit to become automatic. Thinking about the future success can help you through more challenging times.
9. Let new rewards crowd out old habits. Punishment as a motivator for behavioral modification isn't effective, which is why restricting against an old habit might not be effective. Instead of restricting, consider rewarding yourself with something that could entirely displace the old habit. This is sometimes referred to as an incompatible behavior. So when I decided to stop eating sugar, I would "reward" myself with a walk or 10 minutes of knitting. It was critical that I replaced my reward system with something that was not food-based, therefore short-circuiting and displacing the potential for backsliding.
Tanya Tarr helps people connect with the power of collaborative negotiation and burnout recovery. Since 2000, she has supported executive leaders in government and public education, and managed political and advocacy campaigns across the US. Tanya has a masters of science in performance measurement from Carnegie Mellon University and is a certified health coach. She is currently writing a negotiation manual for introverts.
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