Developing bad habits seems to be one of the easiest things in life to do. You pick something up one day and the next its a habit. You constantly hear people talking about how they can’t quit smoking or biting their nails or eating junk food. All bad habits, all addicting in one way or another, all easy to start, and all very difficult to stop. So why is starting a good habit so difficult? Maybe its because many good habits start with the stopping of a bad habit, which as already mentioned is extremely difficult. Maybe its because we set ourselves up for failure by expecting too much? How many times have you heard that it takes three weeks to make a habit or change stick? If only it was that quick and easy. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t really matter. The important part to focus on is that it is possible.
The first step in building a good habit is understanding the process. Many theories of psychology reference the stages of change. This is a process a person goes through in order to make changes, whether starting something positive or stopping something negative. Not everyone will go through every stage and the stages may be fluid, meaning a person may go back and forward through them a couple times before coming out on the other side. The first stage is precontemplation, during which a person has not yet started to think about making changes. In some cases they may not have recognized a problem. This stage probably looks about the same whether you are looking to start a positive habit or stop a negative. During this stage the focus is generally a denial of a problem and an acceptance that this is just who a person is. The next stage is contemplation. During this stage people start to acknowledge that there is a problem, but don’t know how to move forward or feel ambivalent about change. This stage may involve thinking about making a change or wanting a change but not quite being ready to take the steps. Generally this is the stage that people weigh the pros and cons of change. Next is determination, or the commitment to action. This is where ambivalence starts to resolve and people start to prepare to make change, but generally don’t have a plan yet. Next comes the action stage where plans are put into action. This is where a lot of the work really starts. Changes are made that lead towards the stopping of negative habits or starting of positive. And finally comes maintenance and termination. During this stage a person lives a significant amount of time free of the negative habit or successful with the positive, finally reaching the point where it is no longer something that must be worked on, but is part of normal every day life.
What does all of that mean for starting or developing a good habit? It means that it’s not something that you can just do overnight to be successful and that different techniques may come into play as you move through the processes involved in making change. It also means that you are not alone if you have thought about making changes numerous times without actually taking the steps or have tried and failed only to keep trying again and again. It also means that steps to develop these habits must be appropriate for the stage that you are in in order to be successful and help you move through the stages. No matter what stage you are in or what you are doing, its important to remember not to rush yourself. Success won’t happen overnight. Making major changes too fast leads to being overwhelmed and works against making permanent and long lasting change. Everyone needs to move at their own speed. And if making the changes on your own becomes too overwhelming, it’s always okay to ask for help.
- Focus on developing an understanding of the problem that motivates change. (overweight, health concerns, addiction)
- Don’t give up if you have “failed” to make change in the past.
- Visualize your life after making the change or mastering the habit.
- Educate yourself on all of the risks of the problem or benefits of the change.
- Weigh the pros and cons of change.
- Review pros and cons frequently.
- Make lifestyle changes that are necessary to follow through with the plan in the action stage. (if the habit is going to the gym, making sure you have set time aside to make it realistic)
- Set a realistic start date, soon enough to not lose motivation but far enough to be prepared.
- Write out your plan, hang it in a place you will see it frequently, make a copy to bring with you, or keep it on your phone.
- Set small goals to show progress while you work towards your larger goal. (these can be length of time, one week, one month, etc. or things like weight lost, five pounds, ten pounds, etc.)
- Identify triggers that could derail you. Know when you can avoid them and when you can cope with them.
- Find a support person, either someone who wants to make a change with you, who has done it before, or a professional.
- Remember even the best laid plans need adapting.
- Be flexible, if the plan isn’t working change it.
- Reward yourself when you reach your smaller goals, they are success and will keep you motivated.
- Watch for triggers that can derail your plan, don’t allow yourself temptation to quit if you are not yet able to handle it.
- Don’t let mistakes derail you, focus on moving forward, not the mistake.
- Ask for help if you need it.
- Remember that this stage isn’t about making changes, but keeping the changes you made going.
- Don’t push changes made to the back of your mind, remind yourself frequently of what you have done and what the goal is.
- Keep visual reminders present.
- Goal achieved, you no longer need to think of things as a habit your are stopping or starting but as your lifestyle.
- Not everyone reaches this stage with every habit. Some people may always need to be in maintenance where there needs to be more thought about maintaining success rather than it just being part of your life. THAT IS OKAY!
- Remember that there may still be days where problems occur. Your good habit may not be perfect, but it doesn’t put you back to stage one, just keep moving forward.