How To Build Good Habits
You had the best of intentions
Remember way back last December? Maybe you did some life reviewing, thought about things that were working in your life and things that weren't. Perhaps you had a list of behaviors that you wanted to change or stop and another list that you wanted to start. So you made a plan, marked your calendar and welcomed in the new year! You may even remember feeling some hope and excitement at how your life would change for the better!
Then, sometime during January, things started to sputter. Maybe you tried something for a few days and got distracted. Or perhaps you realized that you bit off more that you could chew and too much change at once felt disorienting. Or you might not have ever started the new behavior at all. You're left with the same gnawing feelings of regret and discomfort and probably a new feeling of self-criticism that you can't seem to get anything right.
At the end of the year there are always a flurry of articles about all the ways you can have a "new year, new you." Yet, there is plenty of research that says that New Year resolutions don't work. So now that you've once again tried and failed at resolutions, what can you do?
How do you make change stick?
Get in touch with why this is important
Start with remembering why you really want this. Get in touch with your values and ask yourself: why is this important to me? Why does it matter? Take a moment to let it sink in once you've thought of the "why.". Don't just make a statement like "I need to eat fewer sweets" - really consider why you're bothering to do this anyway. Maybe you want your senior years to be vibrant and productive and not a struggle with diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Create a new statement that indicates 1) the behavior you want to see (more, less, different, etc.) and 2) the reason it matters to you.
Consider the inside stuff that is hard
Often change doesn't happen not because of some external stressor or limitation, but because of difficult feelings, thoughts and urges that happen inside of you. You have no problem staying away from sweets until you have an awful day at work. Get in touch with your internal experience that is problematic. How will you handle it when it shows up again? Creating a self-care plan, identifying alternatives to the problematic behavior, meditation, and yes, therapy, can all help with the underlying thoughts and feelings that are difficult. Ultimately, you will need to figure out how to deal with a bad day that doesn't involve chocolate.
Create behaviors that actually make change happen
Simply saying you'll do something and even writing it down isn't enough. Consider creating prompts to remind you to engage in and change behavior. Here is where your smart phone is your friend - create alarms, to-do lists, any kind of prompts that remind you of what you want to do and bring the behavior into your consciousness.
Consider your daily routines and how they might need to change. Adding several new behaviors like flossing your teeth, 20 minutes of meditation, and 60 minutes at the gym all may be good goals, but how are you going to fit them in your schedule? Map out how and when these will happen.
Break your behaviors down into small manageable pieces and start smaller than you might think. If you are having problems sticking with a behavior, scale back your goals. Drop your new flossing habit from every day to every other day, or your new gym time from one hour to 30 minutes. Add one vegetable to a meal rather than radically changing your diet. The key to change is in the small, subtle shifts that you make.
Make yourself accountable
For some, accountability can be very helpful. If you know your friend is waiting for you at the gym, you are more likely to go. If your spouse knows you want to cut out sweets, he can help you by not buying them and checking in with you about your goals. Consider where support from others would really be helpful.
Remember that change takes a while
There is lots of research on how long it takes for a new habit to stick and for change to really happen and become integrated in your identity. At the very least, you should plan on several weeks of consciously engaging in the new behavior before it becomes automatic.
Finally, watch the self-critical thoughts that might show up when you don't have a 100% success. If you notice them, see if you can show yourself some self-compassion instead.