Note: This post is the third in a three-part series on habit change
Why are habits so hard to break? Because you’re going about it the wrong way.
The key is to change habits — not break them. Trying to break habits never works, because it’s almost impossible to completely stop doing something you’ve trained yourself to do, sometimes for years. (Not to mention trying to stop doing multiple things at once, like you do when you diet.)
You learned in my last post how habits are formed. You have a trigger that leads you to take a specific action, which then gives you a reward. If you take this action over and over, your brain senses a pattern and rewires itself to take that action automatically. I used the example of stress eating: the trigger is stress, the reward is feeling better, and the action you’ve consistently taken to get from one to the other is to eat. So stress eating is now a habit.
The key is to change what you do in the middle of the trigger/reward loop. If you change the behavior, your brain picks up on a new pattern, and you start engaging automatically in the new behavior. That’s when you’ve “broken” the old habit and formed a new one.
Sounds simple, right? Not really. You don’t just start going from stressed to not stressed by doing some deep breathing instead of bingeing on potato chips. You can’t expect yourself to go from A to Z — that is a recipe for failure. And if you’ve tried to go from A to Z by dieting over and over again and failing over and over again, you’re probably not confident that you can change anything at all.
You have to make changing a habit as easy on yourself as possible, so you can get the small wins that help rebuild your confidence and stay motivated to continue. Here are three strategies to use to help change your habits effectively and easily.
Add, don’t eliminate. Trying not to do something makes that thing more desirable. If you usually have fries with your lunch and all of a sudden make yourself order a salad instead, you’re going to be staring at everyone else’s fries trying to figure out a way to steal some. On the other hand, ordering a salad in addition to the fries is not hard in the least.
When you consistently make additions to what you already do, you eventually displace your habit. If you keep adding a side salad to your meal, you may start eating only half of the fries. Then you may start ordering a salad instead of the fries. And the feeling of accomplishment you get after making these small changes may compel you to make your entire meal a salad. Instead of trying to break your habit, you changed it.
Doing this also helps you make distinctions that you wouldn’t usually make because you’re so busy focusing on what you can’t do and feeling the stress of that. You may learn that greens really can fill you up. Or you may realize how shoving down fries makes you feel kind of gross. Sometimes just adding something healthy is enough to make you feel like you’re making progress, even if you don’t eliminate anything.
Start with the easy ones. This is self-explanatory. If you start with habits that feel easy to change, you’re obviously going to increase your odds of being successful. If it feels easier for you to stop eating fries every time you eat out than it does to quit shoving down a half a bag of chocolate every night, then start with the fries. Successfully changing any habit is an accomplishment and keeps you motivated.
Make tiny changes. Making small, incremental changes to what you already do is easy. And getting small wins is critical to your success at changing a habit, because it makes you feel confident — the opposite of how you feel when you diet and fail over and over again. If you feel good, you keep going.
Also, when the changes you make are small that means you can make several of them simultaneously, which compounds your results. If you make micro-changes to several habits, you get multiple small wins that make you feel like you’re capable of making bigger changes. Then when you start changing the more damaging habits that are derailing your efforts at losing weight and being healthy, you really start seeing results.
Entire books have been written about this topic, so there’s obviously much more to say. For now, just know that you have your particular habits for a reason and that you can easily change them if you go about it the right way.
The excess weight you have on your body is a result of your habits, and you can’t change them by forcing yourself not to engage in them — which is exactly why diets don’t work. Habits aren’t broken, only changed. When you diet, you miss this critical step and keep yourself stuck.
Losing weight won’t change your life — but changing your habits will. Start small, stay motivated, and see results.