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How to Make or Break a Habit

This New Year's, creating a healthy new habit or breaking an unhealthy old one doesn't have to hinge on sheer willpower.  Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen suggests 5 steps to help you make a change for the better.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
January 16, 2014
Episode #142

New Year's always dawns with shiny-eyed optimism and bucketfuls of willpower.  We decide that this is the year we'll finally "just do it:" get in shape, get ahead, or get it together.  But two weeks in, we're starting to realize change is easier said than done. 

Before the swoosh, the original Nike was the winged Greek goddess of victory (for you trivia geeks, it's pronounced "knee-keh").  Who knows if the gods have a problem with abandoning resolutions, but regardless, we mere mortals can achieve victory over our bad habits.

Here are 5 tried and true steps to get you started.  Victory shall be yours!

Step #1: Reality Check  

Make sure this is something you actually want. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this?  If the answer starts with a hedge like, “Well, it would probably be good if I…,”  or “I should maybe…,” it may be time for a rethink.  

Also, for whom are you doing this?  If no one could see you and you were guaranteed not to get any recognition, gold stars, or pats on the back, would you still do it?  If you feel some misgivings rumbling in your gut, consider changing your goal to one that puts a smile on your face and butterflies (the good kind!) in your stomach.

Step #2: Make Your Task Specific

Oftentimes our goals are vague, like “Feel better,” or “Stop getting in my own way.” 

These vague ideas are hard to carry out. It's time to bring on the concrete mixer.  A concrete goal is something that you can either measure or observe.  “Lose weight” becomes “Be a size 10.”  “Feel better” becomes “Get 8 hours of sleep each night.”  “Socialize more” becomes “Join two community groups and stick with it.”

Step #3: Break it Down Into Ridiculously Small Steps

If you’re feeling anxious, reluctant, or intimidated by a task looming on the horizon, break it down into ridiculously small steps.  And by ridiculously small, I mean truly ridiculous.  You want to zoom in, way in.  Not only should you not be able to see the forest, you shouldn’t even be able to see a tree.   To extend the analogy, you should be focused only on one leaf or one branch.  Zooming in this far allows you to forget the rest of the task and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

For example, one of my patients—we’ll call him Jeff—has diabetes.  Last year he reluctantly committed to exercising 3 times a week because his doctor told him it was either that or some minor consequence like dying prematurely.  Hmm.   Despite the motivator of adding years to his life, it was overwhelming to go from being a couch potato to a gym bunny.  No wonder the remote had stayed in his hand for so long!  Whenever it was time to go to the gym, Jeff made excuses. It was too intimidating. 

But then he broke down the arduous task into bite-sized pieces......

So instead of flipping back to Bravo, he made one ridiculously small step after another.  His first step was to eat a banana.  Second was to find his gym clothes.  Third was to change his clothes.  Fourth was to find his car keys.   Fifth was to drive to the gym. He didn’t let himself think about the next step until he was done with the current step.  And banana by banana, Jeff got to the gym 3 times a week.

If you feel the least bit overwhelmed or resistant with each step, break it down further.  Make peeling the banana a separate step if you must.  Make tying each shoe two separate steps.  No one has to know but you.  (By the way, for some extra brainpower on this topic, Get-It-Done Guy has an excellent episode on breaking tasks down into small, easy chunks.)

Step #4: Make it Brainless

If it’s not convenient and easy, you’re not going to stick with the change.

If it’s not convenient and easy, you’re not going to stick with the change.  If you have a recurring goal, link it to something you do routinely already.  This often requires some change in your surroundings to include cues or reminders.  For example, if the goal is to remember to take an oft-forgotten medication, link it to brushing your teeth in the morning and put the bottle next to your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.  

Changing your surroundings or routine to make things convenient may require some substantial inconvenience at the beginning.  For example, you may need to invest some time in changing your gym membership to a nearby location rather than the one by your old office.  But once everything is automated, linked, and convenient, your already-established habits will kick in and take over, like The Blob engulfing and assimilating your new goal (but in a good way).

Step #5: It Will Feel Wrong and Awkward at First

The first few times you do almost anything new, it’s not going to be particularly rewarding.  At your first Pilates class, you won’t know what equipment to fetch.  Your first book club meeting will be awkward.  During your attempt to write your children's book, you'll probably end up surfing on Facebook.  No matter what you try, you will probably be anxious.  Here’s where imperfection is encouraged.  Give yourself permission to get it wrong, screw it up, and do it badly.  Just keep showing up, fine-tuning your system, and see what happens.

So there we go.  Commit to a change, start out with 5 steps, achieve victory. 

Hey, maybe you are a god or goddess!

 

Just do it signbaby steps, and Nike images courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions.

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