You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, old habits die hard, force of habit… These and other classic idioms are ingrained into our psyche, reminding us time and again how difficult it can be to make a change. Day after day, we follow the routine of rituals that keeps all of the moving parts in our lives chugging along. In many ways, doing the same things daily can be comforting and give us a base on which to juggle the less stable elements of our lives. After a particularly crazy day at the office for example, it feels good to escape into your favorite TV program for an hour, or curl up with a glass of red wine and a book before bed. The trouble starts when that one glass of wine turns into 3 or 4, and an hour of TV becomes inextricably linked to a junk food binge with a hefty side serving of guilt. The longer we continue these habits, the more powerless we feel to change them–and we give in to what we feel is inevitable, whether or not it may actually be.
“Routine” doesn’t have to mean “rut”, though the two words are often used synonymously; and habits can be just as good as they can be bad. In fact, a routine can be undoubtedly helpful in forming good habits. By creating a routine you eliminate optionality, therefore giving yourself less chance to veer from the course. Although this may sound dull at first glance, the feeling of pride from succeeding to implement these new habits can be as exciting as a spontaneous treat. How good does it feel at the end of a week where you’ve finally managed to meet your fitness goals? Or imagine the feeling in both body and spirit when you’ve been eating well for an extended period of time? It is this feeling of success that is often the impetus for making a change, and the motivation that keeps us going.
Then there are the bad habits, the things we tell ourselves we shouldn’t do, but we do them anyway. Some, like smoking, are more of a physical addiction than a habit–but many are simply patterns of behavior that we’ve built on our own. And breaking them, is something that we are also entirely capable of doing on our own. Here’s how:
BREAKING BAD: How to break bad habits
Just like addiction, the first step to kicking a habit is to acknowledge that it is one.
Rather than vowing to quit something because your doctor/friend/significant other told you to, think about the real reason and potential reward for doing so. If you’re trying to avoid processed foods and start to associate them with decreased longevity and gradual illness, those potato chips will begin to look a lot less appetizing.
Habits are often linked to others. If you know that certain activities make you more susceptible to a bad habit, avoiding or rethinking these activities can help you stay strong. If happy hour drinks with friends often leads to late night eating, try cooling it on the alcohol for a while or stocking your fridge with healthy snacks.
REWARD, DON’T PUNISH
Quitting anything cold turkey without any relapses is difficult, so allowing a margin for error is essential. Rather than kicking yourself for sleeping through your Pilates class, assess why it happened, and commit to a yoga class on the weekend instead. Then, reward yourself for making the next class with a fancy smoothie or a pedicure.
GETTING GOOD: How to create good habits
Devise a concrete goal, along with why it’s important to you. Deciding to cook at home 3 nights a week is more attainable than a general goal of “eating healthier.”
IDENTIFY OTHER HABITS
Think about other habits that you stick to–and create a similar structure for your new goal. If you eat a healthy breakfast every morning because your roommate prepares it for you, think about creating a similar buddy system. Or if making time for the elliptical is easy for you because you can answer emails from your phone while exercising, find other ways to multitask your workouts like walking to work.
IDENTIFY WHAT’S STOPPING YOU
Think about the roadblocks to your goal, and make a specific plan to remove them. If you eat well at home but lose willpower at restaurants, try reading the menu before going out and committing to a healthy option before the temptation even has a chance to sneak in.
Set up reminders and rewards for yourself along the way. Fitness photos as your laptop background can be a healthy reminder to get to the gym, and making a reservation for the end of the month at a nice restaurant, or planning to buy a new dress can be a welcome treat after sticking to your dietary goals.
Of course whether the objective is making good habits, or breaking the bad: it will take time. Slipups shouldn’t be seen as failures but as speed bumps on the road to success; and success should be measured only by your own personal gage. Remember the old tale of the tortoise and the hare? So take it slow, celebrate little victories along the way–and don’t wallow in the pitfalls. We all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day.