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Tips for successful long-term habit change

  • McClatchy-Tribune
  • Published Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, at 11:30 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, at 6:45 a.m.

1. Limit yourself to two changes at a time. Odds are great that trying to “focus” on more changes will burn out your brain and just lead to depression and a relapse.

2. Only work on habits that you can commit to changing right here and right now with who you are and how your life is today. Don’t pick habits that you “should” be able to do in the future when you are a better person, or when life will be easier. All you have is right here and right now, and you’ll never become that better person if you continuously commit to things you can’t succeed at.

3. Give yourself three to four weeks (or maybe more) to absorb this habit into your life. Basically, you need to repeat a new habit for long enough that it becomes nearly automatic, and part of your life. Don’t move on until you are doing the new thing (maybe grocery shopping, which is a powerful habit if you do not already do so every week) without fail, and pretty much without thinking about it.

4. Track your compliance. Make this simple, but do keep the numbers. If you are supposed to be working out three times a week, then make a simple log so you can see how well you are doing, not how well you feel you are doing based on your mood. If you are not doing the new habit, you need to take a step back and see how you are failing instead of trying to beat your head on a wall.

5. Do things that work. When you spend your precious time, energy, money and willpower on a new habit, you want to be rewarded with results. To that end, focus on the changes you can make with the highest return on resources invested. Examples are resistance training (not something like walking), or cutting out liquid sugar (and replacing it with tea, coffee and seltzer water). Those are two changes that can give you a new body and skyrocket your fitness.

6. Look at the mechanics. In his excellent book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg breaks down the structure of a habit that you can apply to any change that you want to make. A habit cycle has three parts: one, a cue; two, a routine; and three, a reward. You really can’t do anything about part one or three, but you can change two.

Here’s an example from my life: When opening a new business, I began to eat terribly (and it showed in my body and energy levels). I would be exhausted and hungry after working 16- to 18-hour days with no days off. I knew that I had no food at home because nobody had been to the store in a month. My routine became eating anything on the way home from work (burgers and fries, pizza). My reward was tasty food that was ready fast.

Solution: I was not in a position to balance out my schedule, but I spent five minutes looking at Google maps of my route home to find at least three places I could get tasty food that was also good for me. I switched the routine, and I felt and looked much, much better. Calling myself fat or lazy wasn’t going to help, nor was answering probing questions about my childhood. It was a mechanical problem — there was a cue, and a reward, I just needed a new routine to bridge the gap.

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