1.) Know the real reasons why you want to make a change
The first, and often overlooked, step is to get to the bottom of your true motives for
wanting to change a habit. Many times our answers to this question are not entirely genuine. When this is the case, we set ourselves up for failure and lower our confidence in our abilities to reach our goals. For example, if we decide to lose weight because our doctor says we should, or if we decide to quit smoking because our spouse would prefer it, these motives usually don't translate to long-term successful changes.
One of the most important factors in making a consistent change is to first clearly identify and articulate your values. A sustained change will likely only be possible if your newly changed behavior is aligned with the things that you value most in life. For example, let's say that your top five values are family, love, wealth, security, and fun. If you decide that you want to lose weight, this might at first appear impossible because health/physical activity/exercise is not one of your top values. However, by aligning your actions with your most important values, you are far more likely to succeed. For example, you might decide to exercise because the process of losing weight will enable you to increase the quality and quantity of spending time with your family (your most important value). Thus, you are aligning your actions with your values. In order to sustain this new habit, you make a concerted attempt to align your actions with your values everyday. In this manner, we are living honestly, authentically, and with integrity, and this promotes a life of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose.
2.) Beware of threatening self-statements
Remove the words "should" "have to" "need to" and "must" from your vocabulary. These words are like mental terrorism. Whenever we start a sentence with these words we are including a parenthetical second half of the sentence that includes a negative self-judgment. For example, if you say "I should be going to the gym more often," you are really saying, "I should be going to the gym more often; therefore, because I'm not going more often, I'm a loser." What follows the word "should" is nearly always a negative self-statement. Similarly, when you use the word "must" you are really saying: "I must go to the gym ever day, or else I will fail miserably (or some similar catastrophe)."
These are threatening statements that only serve to punish, lower confidence, instill fear, and ultimately derail us in sustaining our new habits. The good news is that these scare words can simply be replaced with the word "benefit." For example, instead of saying "I should go to the gym today," you can say, "I would benefit from going to the gym today." With this word replacement, you are focusing on the positive rewards of enacting the behavior rather than on the negative consequences of avoiding the new habit. This is line with extensive research that shows that rewards are more effective than punishment in terms of shaping behavior.
3.) Be a scientist
Make your goals objective, measurable, and attainable. When trying to get a new habit to stick, operate like a scientist. Make sure that your goal is objective and one that gives you a realistic opportunity to accomplish it. "Feeling better" is a great thing, but how do we know for sure if we've attained it? It is better to set a series of objective short-term goals that can incrementally build upon themselves. For example, a goal could be to lose 1 pound per week or to exercise for 20 minutes three times per week.
It is also important to track your progress. This gives you insight into what is working and what is not. For example, if you are trying to remain smoke free, track your progress each day by writing down when you have a smoking urge, the intensity of the urge, and what else was going on at the time (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, environment). By doing this, you gain more awareness; this helps to predict and eliminate factors that could jeopardize your goals.
4.) Forgive yourself
When making a change, allow yourself to make mistakes along the way. Life isn't about never making a mistake; it's about how you respond after making one. A lapse in the new habit should be viewed as a temporary slip; you have the opportunity to get back on the saddle the next day. A slip is a learning experience that provides valuable information. It can help you better understand the factors that got in the way of the goal, how to prevent those from happening the next time, and so forth. A lapse does NOT have to be a relapse. Therefore, have a sense of acceptance about your humanity and imperfection; you are not expecting a mistake, your are planning for the potential of one.
5.) Reward yourself
Sticking with a new habit is hard work. Give yourself some credit and enjoy each success. It’s especially important that you reward yourself each time you practice your new habit. Rewarding yourself will reinforce this habit, making the newly learned habit more enjoyable to practice.
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At Harte Behavioral Health, we specialize in short-term, goal-oriented, psychological techniques to improve a variety of mental health conditions. Feel free to give us a call at 781-713-4001 or email us for more information about our services. We are here to help!