Get more exercise, floss, take medications as scheduled, call Mom every day. Even if we have foresworn New Year’s Resolutions as a losing proposition, most of us have one or two things in our life that we’d like to do differently.
Jeremy Dean, a psychologist and author, wrote the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits,” and he says the key is to think small. According to Dean, the classic mistake people make when choosing to break a bad habit is to bite off more than they can chew. Dean recommends breaking down the behavior that you want to change into manageable chunks. For instance, if you want to start eating a more healthful diet, don’t try to change every meal all at once. Start out by substituting an apple for a sugar treat just once a day. Once you’ve established a habit of eating fruit rather than cookies for a morning snack, you can make another change.
Here are some other highlights from Dean’s book:
Make a very specific ‘if-then’ plan. For instance, if it’s raining when it’s time for me to walk, then I will drive to a mall and walk inside.
Repeat. It could take much longer than 21 days to establish a habit, depending on the habit and your motivation.
Tweak. If your goal is to exercise every day, you might have to tinker with what time you exercise, how you prepare the night before, what kind of exercise you do, etc. You need to figure out what works for you.
Don’t suppress…instead replace. The harder you try NOT to think about something, the more likely you are to think about it. The lesson is that if you are depriving yourself of one thing, you need to come up with a healthy substitute. If you decide to cut back on caffeine, make sure you have a good supply of herbal teas or another alternative.
Shield yourself from backsliding. When you are creating a new habit there are bound to be hiccups. If new habits were easy to form you’d already be doing them. If you know that it’s easier to get to exercise class if your bag is packed the night before, make sure it’s packed.
Pre-commit when you are feeling strong. You know you’ll have weak moments, so try to make it easy to do the right thing even when your willpower is low. Clear out junk food, keep your gym bag packed and ready to go, keep your refrigerator stocked with nutritious foods.
Self-affirmation. If you feel your willpower flagging, think about something that is important to you or something you are proud of. Focusing on something that reminds you of your better self can help boost your self-control.
Make a habit of habit change. The key to change is baby steps. Once you have created one modest new habit you can choose another habit and start the process over again. If you try to change several things all at once, your chances of success are much smaller.
Dean also makes the point that it’s often easier to create a good habit or break a bad habit when your routine has already been disrupted.
We find that moving to Daystar Retirement Village often allows people to get out of some ruts and do things differently. For instance, many of our residents have gotten into the “habit” of participating in exercise classes, book groups, music performances and so much more. We make it easy to develop good habits at Daystar!