There is a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
You’ve probably heard this, and I’m sure you agree. After all, you wouldn’t renovate your house without using an architect, and a trip overseas goes a lot better when you have an itinerary.
Having a plan can be the difference between success and failure — and this is the reason you usually fail when you try and eliminate behaviors to lose weight.
Most of us say we’re going to change a habit, but we don’t really change it at all — we just try and break it. We say, “I’m going to stop ordering dessert,” “I’m not going to drink alcohol,” or “I’m going quit snacking.”
I used to do this all the time, and it never worked. I would wake up in the morning and make a vow that I wasn’t going to binge on chocolate that day. And then . . . I would binge on chocolate. Sometimes I held out for a day or two, but then I would go right back to my bingeing.
You set yourself up for failure by doing this: when you have nothing to replace the behavior, you eventually go back to it. However, it’s a lot harder to quit doing something than it is to substitute another thing in its place.
If you want to be successful at changing your behaviors, you can’t just quit, you have to replace. You can’t just dive straight in — you have to have a plan.
Your goal should never be to break a bad habit. It should always be to gradually modify a bad habit until it becomes a good one. You’re going to be a lot more successful with this approach, and here’s why.
When you try not to do something, you create a void that focuses your attention squarely on the behavior. You intensify your desire to do whatever it is you’re trying not to do. And you have to use willpower to do it, which creates resistance. Feeling resistant drives you straight back to the behavior that you’ve trained yourself to engage in. All of this adds up to one big failure.
For example, let’s say you’re trying not to end your day watching TV with a glass of wine in your hand. First of all, this habit is a ritual you’ve created that helps you relax at the end of a long day (which probably involved doing a lot of things for a lot of other people). You look forward to doing this, and it relieves the stress that accumulates all day.
So telling yourself first thing in the morning that you’re not going to engage in your relaxation routine creates immediate resistance, because you’re eliminating something you look forward to. Furthermore, when you have no plan, you have to use willpower — and knowing this inserts an element of fear that you won’t have enough of it by the end of the day when you need it most.
However, if you have a new ritual or behavior to substitute in place of the old one, you are much more likely to be successful. Having a plan makes you feel in control, because you put yourself in charge and take action, rather than helplessly be a victim of your desire to engage in the old behavior — which will intensify throughout the day. Taking action makes you feel confident, calm, and in control.
Also, having a plan means you now have unlimited options available to you, as opposed to just two: succeed or fail. You can create hundreds of different scenarios to replace the behavior, which means you can’t fail. If one change doesn’t work so well, you just pick another one.
Having a plan also starts you on the path of actually changing the habit. When you have another routine or behavior to replace the old one, you’ve started the process of habit modification already. You replace the routine with a better one, and you make adjustments over time to shape it into a healthy habit.
So let’s go back to our example of trying not to watch TV and drink wine. Instead of waking up that morning and having all day to focus on how miserable it’s going to be to try and not do something you really look forward to, you could plan to do something equally rewarding.
You could buy ingredients to make a drink in place of the wine, like sparkling water with crushed raspberries and lime juice. You could plan to read a book by the fire instead of watching TV, or you could watch an inspiring movie. You could set up for an at-home spa night, or you could go get a mani/pedi when you would normally be drinking wine and zoning out (and probably also eating even though you’re not hungry).
If your goal is to stop bingeing on chocolate after lunch, you can make a plan that morning to go for a walk around the block after you eat. If your goal is to quit snacking during the day, you can prep some healthy items the day before to have on standby when you feel like snacking, like a boiled egg, cheese slices, veggies and hummus, or fruit salad (or all of the above!).
Even better is to have a visual reminder of your plan: put your running shoes out that morning, organize your bathroom for your spa treatment, put the ingredients for your mocktail on the kitchen counter. Seeing evidence of your intention to make changes in your life is motivating and gives you confidence, which makes it more likely that you will stick with it. And making one change leads to others, which gives you momentum — which changes everything.
Just making the plan prevents you from failing — because even if you don’t stick to it, at least you did something and took action.
What’s something you’ve been trying to quit doing that you could replace instead, and what would you use to replace it? Leave a comment and let me know.
Remember, you’re not a failure because you have bad habits — you’ve trained yourself to engage in them. And trying to use willpower to eliminate them sets you up for failure. Make things easy on yourself and have a plan!