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The Secret to Creating Long-Lasting Habit Change

Our lives are built on habits.  These habits drive many of the actions you take on any given day.  Brushing your teeth, working out, eating healthy food, and drinking alcohol are all habits in which we knowingly choose to partake. Generally speaking, creating beneficial habits leads to more positive outcomes and, in turn, the creation of other beneficial habits. But what if you’re in a cycle of damaging habits?

Say you’re going to bed late, which means you’re snoozing your alarm, which is making you tired at lunch, which causes you to choose less healthy food options, and your evening workouts are suffering or not happening altogether.  How can you begin to lift yourself out of this cycle?

The secret to long-lasting habit change

Creating beneficial habits and getting rid of those that can be damaging is easier said than done and can often feel overwhelming. As I referenced in my article on habit stacking, it can take up to two months to form a new habit. That’s quite a long time to stick with something and probably a big reason why many people cease to change their ways entirely.

My secret to long-lasting habit change?  Small, balanced, incremental changes. 

And my preferred way to do it?  One week at a time with adding one beneficial habit and removing one damaging habit.

I try to refrain from using the terms good and bad since sometimes, habits are perceived differently for different people.  A pattern of staying up late could be viewed as “bad” for a lark, but “good” for a night owl.

What are beneficial habits?

Beneficial habits are any repetitive activities you perform that enhance your quality of life.  Some of my favorite beneficial habits include:

  • getting more sleep (7-8 hours is ideal)
  • increasing your veggie intake by adding a side of steamed broccoli or a salad to dinner a few days a week
  • committing to a workout plan
  • upping your overall step count

What are damaging habits?

In opposition to beneficial habits, damaging habits are those that decrease your overall quality of life.  These are the types of practices that you want to try and limit or avoid entirely.  Some of my damaging habits over the years have included:

  • eating an unhealthy sweet treat after dinner every night
  • allowing myself to get caught up in the opinions of others on social media
  • spending too many hours per week watching tv
  • not adhering to a regular workout schedule

How can you implement a foolproof strategy to change your habits?

The key is deciding on habits that are manageable and don’t require much effort to do.  Trying to change too many habits at once can have damaging effects and discourage you from making any changes at all.

Generally, people find very little success when we try to jump into too many things at once.  New Year’s resolutions are a great example of this.  Most people decide they’re going to get healthy after the first of the year.  They do this by going from being completely sedentary to committing to going to the gym five days a week. They’ll completely uproot their eating habits by diving headfirst into the Whole30.  Oh, and also they’re going to do a sober January when they usually drink 4-5 days a week.  What could go wrong?

What tends to happen is people burn out. When you try to initiate too many habit changes at once, you’re setting yourself up for failure.  Sure, the first week is excellent, motivation is high, and things look rosy.  But when you get into weeks two and three, the mindset starts to change.  Things begin to feel challenging and overwhelming, and suddenly you start craving that happy hour special at your favorite margarita spot, and it tends to win out over the gym.  Then, you’ve already missed your workout, broke your sobriety, and ate your entire day’s worth of calories in chips before your entree arrived.  Better luck next year, right?

Wrong! You can use this method of adding one beneficial habit and removing one damaging habit to make profound changes in your life in a short amount of time. But what’s better is it tends to be far more manageable in the long-term.

Show me how it works

Once a week on Sundays, pick one beneficial habit to add and one damaging habit to remove for the following week.  For example:

Week 1:

  • Begin to wear a Fitbit or other step tracker to gauge daily step count
  • Try to avoid snacking on foods after 7:30 pm

Week 2:

  • Drink one 16oz glass of water within 15 minutes of waking each day
  • Limit screen time after 8 pm and be sure to turn on “night mode” on all devices

Week 3:

  • Incorporate one extra serving of vegetables with dinner three nights this week
  • Avoid drinks containing caffeine after 1 pm

Week 4:

  • Start a practice of saying out loud three things I’m grateful for each morning
  • Limit alcohol intake to a maximum of two drinks per day

The benefits of the incremental habit change method

If you follow this method of adding and removing habits weekly, you’ll be able to make a significant number of changes by the end of a month.  If you were to change all the habits above, you’d likely be more active, sleeping better, more hydrated, a bit healthier, and more gracious after just one month!

But as anyone who has tried to change a habit knows, you will not always be perfect. Part of establishing new habits is being okay with failure and committing to getting back up if you fall. One of the most detrimental things you can do in habit formation is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If you’re trying to avoid snacking after 7:30 pm, but you were just so hungry last night at 9 pm, and you just had to have a few cookies, that’s okay. Today is a new day and another opportunity to flex your habit-building muscles and do better.

By choosing to identify beneficial and damaging habits, you’re already one step closer to being the person you want to be. So what habits are you going to add and ditch this week? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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