If you google “habit change”, you will find articles that provide anywhere from 7 to 29 ways to implement new behavior. There is even a pretty intense flow chart on How to Change a Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s overwhelming to think about making any life changes, especially when there are 29 ways to do it. It doesn’t have to be that complicated, in fact it’s not. By following only four specific rules for habit change it’s possible to achieve your goals.
- Don’t set a time limit on habit change.
Have you heard that it takes 21 days to change a habit? Many wellness programs will even use “21 days” in the title. While it may take 21 days, this is not a hard and fast rule as once thought. The idea came from Dr. Maxwell Maltz in 1960, a plastic surgeon who found that it took 21 days for patients to get used to seeing their new face after surgery. Somehow this principal was applied to all habit change, which still boggles my mind. More recent studies, such as one published in the European Journal of Psychology in 2009, suggests that the time frame for sustainable habit change is dependent on the individual. The minimum being roughly 21 days however, it can take longer. The key is not throwing in the towel too soon. Releasing a possible unrealistic expectation removes stress from the process.
- Make change in small manageable steps.
We set ourselves up for failure when we try to do too much at one time, causing stress which triggers the brain to find a reason to abort the mission. This part of the brain has been referred to as the Critter Brain, because of its nuisance like qualities. Its sole job is to keep you alive, so it will pop up and nag at you when it senses change. Ultimately it determines that you haven’t died yet from doing what you have been doing, so sticking with that is a safer plan. It can’t see past the current moment to understand what is best for you moving forward. To keep the Critter Brain at bay, make change in small amounts.
- Stop the “all or nothing” mentality.
Life is not black and white and neither is habit change. The grey area is progress. The mentality that something isn’t worth trying because it seems so unattainable gets you nowhere fast. Congratulations, you have officially accomplished nothing other than feeling bad about yourself for giving up, again. It doesn’t have to end like this.
Let’s look at the example of giving up sugar. Refined sugar is a major source of inflammation which impacts mood, pain, auto immune disease, weight, etc. It would be great if we could all give it up completely, but that isn’t realistic so we need to come up with something that is. A better approach is to see where you are consuming the most sugars, say it’s breakfast. Make one small change to cut back on the amount of sugar intake just at breakfast. When that goes smoothly, make a second change and repeat.
It’s not about being perfect; it’s about being better. Better than we currently are, even by the slightest bit. Small changes can yield big results and they don’t trigger the panic button for the Critter Brain that ultimately causes us to talk ourselves out of creating new habits.
- Forget the superficial reason for wanting to make habit change and dig deep for your ultimate motivating factor.
Without truly understanding what we want to achieve with these changes, they will never be sustainable. A digging deeper dialog would go something like this:
Q: Why do you want to lose 30lbs?
A: I want to fit into my favorite jeans again.
A: I will feel more confident in how I look.
Q: What will having that do for you?
A: I’ll live life without the worry of my weight and truly experience each moment.
BINGO! That is a goal worth making change for.
When approaching habit change from a realistic perspective, working with the mind instead of against it, we can achieve and sustain our goals.
Jill Sodini, Founder of Habitual Health By Jill, is a Certified Health Coach, author and speaker. She provides realistic strategies for sustainable habit change regardless of the topic. With over 20 years of work experience and education in the field of health and wellness, Jill is an expert in providing the right system, support and accountability to obtain desired health. Contact Jill to take control of your life.