They may be on your list of resolutions every new year: quit smoking, exercise more, cut down on fast food, stop working so late and finally take a family vacation. Inevitably, if you’re like the majority of the population, this list of good intentions falls by the wayside as soon as life’s daily pressures take hold.
But you don’t have to wait for the start of a new year to get on the right track. Once you figure out what is holding you back from making positive changes, you can start to break those habits that could be hindering you from living your optimal life.
The key may be in thinking of resolutions as evolutions because lifestyle changes are challenging and take time. Avoid getting overwhelmed and quitting before you get a good start by attempting small changes one at a time. Once you master one small positive change, you can try another that works toward achieving your ultimate goal.
Substitute the bad with the good
“A lot of good intentions fall into the realm of wishful thinking,” says Dr. William Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University and author of several books, including the recent Memory Power 101. “Those are not compelling motivators.” Instead, he advises substituting a bad habit with a good one and removing the cues that trigger the unsavoury behaviour.
For example, in an effort to quit smoking, Dr. Klemm says he made himself go jogging every time he felt the urge to smoke. By doing that persistently, he was eventually able to substitute the positive reinforcement he felt from nicotine with the endorphin high that kicked in when he was jogging.
Other examples of positive habit substitutes include restricting all the gossip you engage in to praise or choosing tasty vegetarian meals if you find yourself eating too much meat.
Get strength in numbers
Consider asking family, friends and/or colleagues for help in cracking a bad habit. Exercise with a friend, or ask a colleague to give you a nudge when you’re burning the midnight oil at work one too many times a month. Set up an arrangement with a trusted ally you can call every time you get that urge to smoke or engage in another unhealthy vice—or join a local support group.
Changing lifestyle habits may also require changing routines at home. If you’re opting for takeout several nights a week, solicit your spouse and children to get cooking in the kitchen with you. Make a pact to have a healthy home-cooked meal together several times a week and put the money you save in takeout toward a vacation fund. If sitting in front of the TV is your trigger for junk food, substitute the nightly sitcom with a walk around the block with your family.
Also, be sure to address any underlying health conditions that could be preventing you from engaging in healthy behaviours. If you’ve put exercise on hold because of ongoing colds or allergies, for example, see your doctor to rule out a lingering respiratory infection or other issue. Try an all-natural nasal saline solution to keep your nose clear of mucus.
Write it down
Psychologist James Claiborn, co-author of The Habit Change Workbook, says keeping a record of your environment, actions and emotions leading up to a bad habit can do wonders in changing behaviours. “Surprisingly, just the record keeping itself has a treatment effect,” he says. “It also provides insight into what you may be doing leading up to the problem behaviour so you can make substitutions there if necessary.”
Dr. Claiborn says it’s also important to realize that urges eventually peak and go down, so you can ride them out. “By doing that, you realize you don’t have to give in to urges and over time they will get less frequent or less intense,” he says.
Get back on the wagon
It’s also likely that relapses will happen from time to time when it comes to breaking bad habits, says Dr. Claiborn. “You can never erase what you’ve learned before, which means old habits are always there in your system and may re-emerge,” he says. “But don’t beat yourself up if they do—see them as minor slips that you can learn from and not as complete failures.”