We all know people who courageously decide to make behavioral changes, whether it’s to exercise more, cut out alcohol, stop smoking, or spend less time on the Internet and more time with family. Some are successful with making new habits stick, while others fall back into the familiarity of their former, even if unhealthy, routines. So, it’s no surprise that changing behaviors can be challenging. It’s rarely a simple process and may require a concentrated commitment of time and effort to make them permanent. But, there are ways to increase your chances of success.
It should help to know that numerous studies indicate you’re not doomed to destructive habits. It’s possible to adopt new habits as well as undo negative ones. It may well rest on gaining some insights into approaches recommended by professionals.
Dr. Monique Moore, clinical psychologist with Deployment Health Clinical Center, explained that “the more frequently you push yourself to practice a new behavior, especially when you don't feel like it, the easier it will be the next time.” It’s important to remember this as you try to make a change in behavior, especially when temptation to settle back into old routines returns.
So, what are key tips to remember to make a behavior change permanent?
- Connect the behavior to a new routine as a reminder. The technique “habit loop model” involves prescribing yourself a new routine to be performed at specific times of the day or in response to specific cues. Your cue may be a sticky note, an alarm (smartphones are great for this) or an associated task or routine (like walking in the front door). It gradually becomes habitual as you identify the new behavior with that time of the day.
- Communicate and be accountable. If you’re serious about creating your new habit, tell someone and share your goal — friends and family can provide positive reinforcement. Logging your progress in a journal or finding a visible way to track your improvement also helps to keep you accountable, and seeing your progress over time can be encouraging.
- Link a difficult task to a reward. This involves associating a new behavior, which may feel uncomfortable at first, with a reward so that the new behavior eventually links to a positive feeling. Rewarding progress is a technique often used successfully to change behavior. Self-praise, a gift or praise from your friends and family are examples of associated rewards.
- Don’t skip your habit. Research shows that if you skip your daily habit, the behavior change you’re trying to make will be less progressive.
- Start with less complex behaviors. By starting small and slow, forming a new behavior can be more manageable. In one study, more complex behaviors were found to take longer to become habits. If you recently embarked on a healthy eating plan, don’t complicate it with counting calories, carbs and sugars. Instead, replace your burger lunch with a green salad each day, and go from there.
- Make a plan. Studies show that having a plan to follow increases the chance of positive behavior change. Structure yields positive results. Put together a thoughtful, step-by-step plan to keep you on track.
- Think positively.If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, try turning them around and look for the positive — find the joy in your new habit.
- Be prepared for the long haul. You shouldn’t start a new behavior or habit with the expectation that it will happen quickly. According to one study, the average time to reach peak automaticity was 66 days.
Changing a behavior is a process that benefits from support. Dr. Wendy Nilsen, health scientist administrator at National Institutes of Health, notes that “learning new habits is helped by sharing your goals with people who care and even asking them to join you in building your new habit.” So, share your goals with people in your life who demonstrate caring, understanding and acceptance. And, it’s important to remember that no one is perfect. Minor missteps on the road to your goals are normal. Resolve to recover and get back on track.
Explore PDF: behavioral change tips in greater detail.