Want to break those bad habits for good and stay on track with all those virtuous New Year’s resolutions? It’s easier than you think, our experts tell us.
If you’ve made a few new year’s resolutions, – they’re likely to trigger one of two reactions. Either “Help! How on earth can I keep this up?” or “Yawn, I’ve tried it before, and it never works”. If you’ve attempted to lose weight, cut back on booze, or give up smoking, but never quite stuck with it, we hear you. So, we’ve called on behaviour-change experts to help you get to the bottom of what’s really driving your bad habits – and help you achieve your goals.
Change bad habits by starting with these tips:
Make micro changes
At this time of year, we want to break bad habits, wipe the slate clean and start afresh. We aim high by signing up for Dry January, a new gym membership and the latest diet. But it’s a mistake. “Doing too much, too soon, wears out your willpower muscle and sets you up for failure,” says Dr Heather McKee. “Habits are a complex mesh of behaviours; you can’t resolve them all at once. You must work on untangling them one by one until the habit knot is sorted.”
Start with the bad habits that are easiest to change first, as research shows these smaller, simpler actions become habitual more quickly. “Each time you accomplish a micro-change you get a sense of satisfaction, and this spurs you on to stick with your goals,” adds Heather.
Set yourself one small change each week. For example, plan a healthy snack at 4pm to avoid the biscuit slump, or aim to walk 100 more steps on your fitness tracker each day.
Our resolutions often look like this: lose 5kg, give up red wine, keep the house tidy. Sounds sensible, right? But if you want to stay on track, generalised goals won’t help. Why? Research shows we’re more likely to change our habits when motivated by ‘intrinsic’ goals linked to higher values. Heather says, “Examples could be that you want more energy to put into work, or be a positive role model for your kids.” Intrinsic, here, means ‘good for the soul’.
Ask yourself what improving your health or eating habits will help you achieve. How will it help you feel? What type of person will it make you?
Have a plan
Willpower alone rarely works, says Heather. But, having a plan does. Known as ‘implementation intention’, a plan helps you anticipate triggers, and figure out other ways of dealing with them. If you stress eat, ask, “What would be a healthier way to deal with this stress?”
Next time you have a run-in with your partner, rather than reaching for wine or food, take a few deep breaths, play music, or call a friend instead.
Learn from the lapses
Research shows that people who manage to stick to long-term health goals have a ‘learning’ view of failure. When they fall off the wagon, for example, or overeat, they don’t berate themselves but instead look at the circumstances and learn from them. They pick themselves up and start again.
“Most of us think we can simply go from A to B without deviating from the path,” says Heather. “But life doesn’t work that way. Improving our bad habits is more a process of trial and error and learning what works for you.”
Next time you give in to temptation, don’t waste energy beating yourself up. Instead, examine why you gave in. How were you feeling? Tired? Bored? Emotional? Hungry?
If you’re drinking too much coffee, a typical ‘ingredient-led’ approach would be to switch to decaf or exert willpower to resist drinking coffee. “However, this surface-level change will become too difficult to maintain,” states Heather. “Eventually, you’ll be back to drinking the same amount of coffee, feeling like you’ve failed again.”
Look at what’s triggering your coffee habit – in what circumstances are you drinking it, what time of day and where? Ask what it means to your routine. If you’re using it to stay awake, maybe you need to work on your sleep.
It’s not a sprint
“Research tells us it can take 66 to 122 days to break or make a habit,” Heather points out. Consistency is key with habit formation. As time goes on, it gets easier. “Once a habit forms, it no longer uses up your willpower, and then you don’t have to think about it.”
Set yourself a routine, say, two days a week you go to the gym at 8am. Put your gym kit or trainers by your bed as a ‘trigger’. It takes the wrestling with your willpower out of the equation.
We’re more likely to stick with a healthy habit we enjoy. “‘Want to’ goals are more likely to be achieved than ‘have to’ goals,” claims Dr McKee. Why then do we order kale salad when we think it tastes like cardboard? Because we think it’s good for us – but it’s not if we can’t stick with it. So, ask yourself, “What could I eat that I actually like?”
Here’s a delicious kale salad you’re bound to enjoy:
Do something else
Consider the context of the habit you’re trying to break and do something else. “So, if you always have a glass of wine while cooking dinner, rather cook a big batch on a Sunday morning when you won’t want a drink, then just warm things up for a while to break the habit?” suggests Helen Foster.
Ask yourself what the glass of wine gives you – and whether you can find it another way. “Maybe you hate cooking and it’s your treat for doing it. What else could help you unwind?” says Helen. “Try playing your favourite music loudly while you cook instead.”
We often blame a lack of willpower for the inability to make a change in life. “It’s as if it’s a commodity we either have or we don’t, but that’s not true. Everyone has willpower,” says Helen. “Think of it as determination under another name – it makes everything easier to stick with.”
Decide where you need to direct efforts; stay focused. Be clear on what you want to achieve.