Whether you want lose weight, quit smoking, or start exercising, changing your habit—and sticking with it—is hard.
From my experience, most people know at least one habit or behavior they would like to change in order to improve their health and wellbeing but struggle to make it happen. The challenge is moving from knowing to doing. How can you get started, gain momentum, and avoid slipping backwards?
Changing any health habit requires having a clear, realistic, step-by-step plan.
In my practice, I like to use the following 8 steps to help my patients successfully accomplishing their health goals. They borrow from traditional goal setting techniques as well as from one of the most common medical frameworks for motivating change, called the transtheoretical or “stages of change” model.
In the “stages of change” model, changing any behavior involves moving through 5 predictable, patterned steps: Pre-contemplation (“I’m not interested”), Contemplation (“Let me think about it”), Preparation (“I am committed to changing”), Action (“I am taking the steps I need to change”), and Maintenance (“I am making this change the new me”).
Step 1: Stop being your own worst enemy. If you have been contemplating changing a habit, what is preventing you from making the change? Begin by thinking through obstacles that may be standing in your way. Are you too busy taking care of others that you aren’t leaving time for yourself? Are you subconsciously sabotaging your motivation for change out of a fear of failing and disappointing yourself and those who care about you? In order to move from Contemplation to Preparation, you have to value and prioritize your health, and believe in yourself and your ability to change. Until you are mentally dedicated, you aren’t ready to successfully make a change.
Step 2: Convert your wish into a goal. Once you are ready to make a change, the next step is shaping your wish, or vague desire, into a goal, or concrete plan. If you simply wish to lose 20 pounds this year, odds are you will be wishing the same next year. If you instead create a well-defined actionable plan, such as losing 1 pound per week for the next 20 weeks by doing x, y, and z, you are far more likely to succeed. Thinking in terms of goals rather than wishes is a hard step because it requires plunging into commitment.
Step 3: Make sure your goal is realistic. The best goals include five key elements, which you may know by the acronym SMART. Besides being Specific and Measurable, they also have to be Actionable, Realistic, and Time Bound. Try setting yours through this tool. When you are done, give your goal a reality check. For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds over the next 20 weeks, you can propose eating 250 fewer calories and exercising to burn 250 calories each day for the next 20 weeks. Since one pound is the equivalent of 3500 calories, you should be on track to losing a pound a week by achieving your proposed 500 calories a day deficit.
Step 4: Break down your goal into small incremental steps. A large goal can be daunting. The best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed and discouraged is to view your goal as a series of smaller goals. Small goals are more manageable. They make it easier to see the tasks you need to move forward. And, accomplishing each small goal can help you build the momentum you need toward reaching your larger goal.
Step 5: Stay on track. In order to stay on track, you need a way to objectively measure your progress. Keeping a written log, using mobile technology apps or working with a personal trainer are all great ways to hold yourself accountable. If you are not meeting your small goals, don’t get discouraged. Troubleshoot obstacles and make any necessary modifications. What matters most is consistency. Don’t forget to reward yourself for each hard earned accomplishment.
Step 6: Use the power of visualization. Invariably along the path to changing a habit or behavior, you will have successes and failures. Making it through the lows requires persistence. A powerful technique to help keep your eye on the prize is to visualize what you will look like or what your life will be like when you accomplish your goal. By envisioning accomplishing your goal, you amazingly build the same pathways that are used when you are actually doing the habit.
Step 7: Make your habit stick. In order to avoid relapsing, you need to identify and work through the situations or triggers that led you to the behavior you are working so hard to change. You have to be honest and introspective. Do you associate the behavior with comfort, with pleasure, or with stress reduction? This is a hard step to do alone. Consider getting help by joining a support group, working with a therapist, or keeping a diary to problem solve your triggers.
Step 8: Self-identify with your new habit. The final step to creating a lasting change is changing how you describe or label yourself. For example, you aren’t someone that had their last cigarette 3 months ago—you are a non-smoker. You aren’t wearing exercise clothes—you are a walker. And, you didn’t eat a healthy meal—you are a healthy eater. Make the change your new identity. This can solidify your habit.
Although changing any habit takes hard work and determination, it is also extremely rewarding. By following a step-by-step plan, you can have the clarity that you need to be successful.