WHEN Austin’s alarm clock goes off, he is sleepy. But he immediately gets out of bed, puts on the exercise clothes he laid out the night before, and goes for a brief jog—just as he has three times a week for the past year.
Laurie just had a fight with her husband. Angry and frustrated, she storms into the kitchen, pulls out a bag of chocolate candies, and eats them all—just as she seems to do every time she is upset.
What do Austin and Laurie have in common? Whether they realize it or not, both have been affected by a powerful force—the force of habit.
What about you? Are there good habits that you would like to build in your life? Perhaps your goal is to exercise regularly, to get more sleep, or to keep in closer touch with loved ones.
On the other hand, maybe you would like to break a bad habit, such as smoking cigarettes, eating too much junk food, or spending excessive time on the Internet.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to overcome a bad habit. In fact, it has been said that a bad habit is like a warm bed on a cold day: it’s easy to get into and hard to get out of!
So how can you harness your habits and make them work for you instead of against you?
1. Be Realistic
It can be tempting to try to change everything in your life immediately. You tell yourself, ‘This week I’m going to stop smoking, stop swearing, stop staying up too late at night, start exercising, start eating better, and start calling my grandparents.’ But trying to reach all your goals at the same time is a sure way to reach none of them!
A modest person is realistic. He recognizes that there are limits to his time, energy, and resources. So rather than trying to change everything at once, he makes improvement gradually.
Trying to reach all your goals at the same time is a sure way to reach none of them!
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Work on your habits in realistic increments. The following steps may help:
Create two ‘master lists’—a list of good habits that you would like to build and a list of any bad habits that you need to get rid of. Do not limit yourself; on each list, write down as many as you can think of.
Prioritize the items on your lists, numbering them in the order of importance to you.
Choose a few habits—even just one or two—from each list, and focus on those. Then move on to the next one or two habits on each of your lists.
Speed up the process by replacing a bad habit with a good one. For example, if your list of bad habits includes watching too much TV and your list of good habits includes keeping in touch with loved ones, you could resolve: ‘Instead of immediately turning on the TV when I get home from work each day, I will contact a friend or a relative and catch up.
2. Manage Your Environment
You resolved to eat better, but that tub of ice cream seems to have your name written all over it.
You decided to quit smoking, but once again, your friend—who knows you are trying to quit—offers you a cigarette.
You planned to exercise today, but even digging through the closet for your running shoes seems like too much work!
Can you see a common thread in those scenarios? Time and again, experience has shown that our environment—the situations we put ourselves in and the people we spend time with—influences our success in building good habits and breaking bad ones.
Make it harder to do the wrong thing and easierto do the right thing
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Make it harder to do the wrong thing. For example, if you want to eliminate junk food from your diet, try not to keep food in your kitchen that you know is not good for you. That way, when temptation strikes, giving in will require more effort than not giving in.
Make it easier to do the right thing. For instance, if you plan to exercise first thing in the morning, set your exercise clothing next to your bed the night before. The easier it is to get started, the more likely you are to follow through.
Choose your friends carefully. We tend to become like the people we spend time with. So limit contact with people who encourage habits that you are trying to break, and seek out those who can reinforce good habits.
3. Take a Long-Range View
There is a popular notion that it takes 21 days to cement a new habit. In reality, though, research shows that it can take some people less time—and others a lot more—to make significant changes. Should that discourage you?
Well, think of this scenario: Imagine that you want to build a habit of exercising three times a week.
The first week, you meet your goal.
The second week, you miss a day.
The third week, you are back on track.
The fourth week, you barely exercise once.
The fifth week, you reach your goal again, and from that point forward, you meet it each week.
It took five weeks to solidify your new habit. That may seem like a long time, but once you reach your goal, you will be glad you have cultivated a new good habit.
What counts in the end is, not how many times we fall, but how many times we get up again
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Do not conclude that a relapse is a permanent failure. Expect to face some setbacks as you work toward your goal.
Focus on the times when things went right. For example, if you are trying to improve the way you communicate with your children, ask yourself: ‘When was the last time I felt like yelling at my children, but didn’t? What did I do instead? How can I repeat that?’ Such questions can help you to reinforce your successes rather than dwell on your setbacks.