“First, repetition, next a habit, then a lifestyle.” – Sharlene Styles
It’s often been said that we’re creatures of habit. That may be true, although habits can be changed, if you’re motivated enough. This means that you are not stuck forever, trapped in bad behavior you’ve allowed to haunt you for years, forever tainted by past mistakes, failures and setbacks. You have the power to create the life you want to live, including learning how to build new healthy habits.
I won’t presume to dictate what everyone should try. I can, however, share what’s worked well for me. As a preamble, I confess to having perhaps an inordinate number of bad habits I’ve had to work through. Some I latched onto by watching others’ behavior, while most were ones I just picked up on my own. Having fallen down enough times to realize that I needed to make some better life choices, I’ve determined that I alone am responsible for my actions. I can and have learned how to ditch old, bad habits and switch to healthier ones.
I’ll call these tips my five Rs on how to build new healthy habits.
It won’t do you any good to blunder through life repeating the same behavior that’s caused you problems numerous times. It’s also unproductive to blame your parents, upbringing, socioeconomic status, lack of education, friends, a job or career, money or prestige for your behavior. Take responsibility and scrutinize what you’ve been doing so you can recognize not only your bad habits, but also look around and identify healthy habits that successful, happy people do all the time. There’s more than coincidence in the similarity you’ll find. Happy, healthy and well-adjusted people naturally gravitate toward positive thinking, doing what’s best for their overall health and well-being, living in the present, being the best person they can be, being open, kind, respectful of others, pursuing their talents, maximizing their skills and strengths, and sharing love and gratitude with and for others. Positive thinking during psychotherapy years ago helped me overcome a period of depression and a series of personal setbacks.
Suppose you settle on the idea that you’re going to boost your physical and mental health by engaging in regular exercise. One time will not a new healthy habit make. You must commit to the habit you’ve decided to adopt and keep on doing it long enough so that it “takes.” The length of time will vary, no doubt, according to how motivated you are to change, as well as your willingness to forego immediate gratification or see profound results. Expect minor disappointments as you transition from, say, the formerly sedentary to the now-active. Once your designated activity or behavior starts to feel normal, you’ve successfully managed to incorporate the routine and develop a sound, new healthy habit. Case in point: following an unexpected medical diagnosis, I resolved to get up from the desk and start moving more. I bought a Fitbit and began counting steps. While not fanatic about it, I did ease into a healthier daily regimen of walking, either in the neighborhood, on trails, in the mall and even around the yard. I gained strength and lost weight, becoming more toned in the process. This is a new healthy habit I gratefully added to my routine.
Nothing solidifies a commitment more than giving yourself a reward for your efforts. It’s often tough to make substantive changes, especially if they entail a protracted period of engagement. Since you are likely to have some minor successes along the way, go ahead and reward yourself for this incremental progress. Besides, you know there’ll be a lot harder work ahead, so taking some time out now to enjoy what you’ve achieved will only further motivate you to continue. My go-to personal reward is a daily coconut milk latte. So, it was with great interest that I read the results of a recent study that found that the mere scent of coffee is enough to boost math performance. I already knew that my brain appears to work better after a caffeine treat. Apparently, my little healthy habit reward has even more cognitive benefits.
When you’ve established a healthy new habit, you’re far from done. Who has just one thing they want to change about themselves, anyway? Whether you’re interested in broadening your horizons, meeting new people, changing careers, overcoming emotional problems, learning how to open up more with loved ones, family members and friends, or challenging yourself to go beyond your comfort zone, you need to take what worked in your first healthy new habit and apply the same skills, determination and effort to making more healthy choices and behavior changes. Repetition of workable patterns will pay off in unexpected ways. Not only will it become easier to adopt new habits, it will become second nature. Results of another study found that recent memories are valuable in predicting what may happen next and helping individuals better deal with what’s happening now. In other words, retrieve relevant experience and relate it to the present. Then, repeat your healthy new habit.
When others see the changes you’ve made, you’re likely to be asked how you did it. Without appearing a know-it-all, what you can do is recommend the strategies, tips and techniques you employed that you found most helpful. This is akin to a personal Yelp review, only it involves sharing practical behavioral advice. For example, suppose you’ve lost weight – an obviously visible change. Likely your friends will inquire about your healthy new habits that resulted in such a dramatic new you. You may not think yourself an expert, yet you don’t have to be. Your successfully adopted new healthy habits are going to be obvious. Others will want to know your secret. Be willing to share your recommendations. And, listen to what others have to share in turn. You’ll likely pick up more pointers you can readily use.