12 Principles to Break Old Habits

Starting with make no new year resolution ill-prepared

The start of every new year is the season for change resolutions. Stale platitudes are to lose weight, eat healthier, drink less alcohol, exercise more, reduce stress, improve relationships, and save money. This year, refreshing pledges are gaining in popularity, like reduce your carbon footprint, eat more vegan, waste less, and recycle more.

No matter what the resolution is, within weeks, the majority avowing to change their lifestyle see their resolve crumble. Soon up to 80% pack in their attempt because they are unable to counter the rising crescendo of fallacies telling them their aim is pointless, unnecessary or just plain silly — a dire prospect.

So what can you do? The Internet is full of cliché advice on how to make change stick. Set positive and specific goals, chunk into attainable steps, make an overt commitment, and believe in yourself. Every year the same old, same old. Yet, these tips clearly do not help the overwhelming majority to succeed. But fear not. If you are already dreading the likelihood of falling short on resolutions you recently made, then these mutually reinforcing rules of thumb can help.

Properly prepare

To see your change through, you need proper mental preparation and a clear change program. After all, every resolution requires a conscious transformation of the way you reflexively think and act. That is why it is ill-advised to wait for the arbitrary turn of the calendar to force you to start that what you have postponed all year.

The holiday tradition to pledge self-improvement and to seek a fresh start lacks intrinsic motivation. Without heartfelt motivation, starting around the first of January is setting yourself up to fail. Like trying to run a marathon without training, you will lack the necessary mental stamina and change mindset. So if you did start a change attempt due to the clock, stop now and restart when you are good and ready. Why? Failing puts a dent in your belief that you can be successful next time, thereby increasing your anticipatory anxiety.

Understand why now

The first step in preparing for change is determining why you want to change now. You need a relevant reason to persevere. Having a desired purpose is critical because short term ease and delight often defeat long term benefits. Say you want to quit smoking because it is unhealthy, costly and detrimental for your longevity. Sounds solid. However, you still do not know why you should kick the habit today.

To answer why now, you can make a matrix with the advantages and disadvantages of changing versus maintaining your present behavior. Distinguish between short and long term gains and losses. And if you have tried before, add why you did not stay the course.

Frame what to change

In essence, resolutions are breaking undesired old or bad habits. Often daily routines. To change those, you need to know everything you need to do differently. For habits tend to be embedded in coherent patterns of behavior. Exercising while stuffing yourself with sugars, saturated fat, and industrialized food will not result in weight loss or a tighter body. Avowing to keep the garage clean is pointless without tackling a desire to hoard, excessive buying of useless stuff, and the tendency to leave everything lying around.

Focus on behavior

Conventional advice is to set concrete, challenging, timely, and positively framed goals. Well, this classic paradigm does not work well for behavioral change. The caveat with goals is that they often end in disappointment. Simply because no plan survives reality. And missing your targets demotivates, making it increasingly harder to remain motivated to pursue the end goal.

Setting goals also takes your eye off the ball by highlighting ends instead of means. The objective of behavior change is to automate new behavior by replacing conditioned routines with new ones. Therefore, it is better to focus on the behavior you want to adopt. For example, I will eat no more than 1500 calories per day, instead of trying to lose 10 pounds in one month.

Be specific

Abstract ideas set no one in motion. More exercise or drink less is too vague. Going to the gym on Mondays and Thursdays at 20.00 is tenable. Same as doing 10,000 steps every day, going for a daily half-hour brisk walk, dropping one meal per day, or cutting portions into half. So if you want to change behavior, make it explicit and tangible.

Remember, changing habits requires that you consciously recall how to act out of the ordinary. Without a concrete alternative, you quickly forget how to behave differently.

Explore the side effects

The biochemical processes in our body are accustomed to set routines. Changing them generally comes with bodily reactions, Like withdrawal symptoms or uncomfortable bodily sensations. You can expect those in dietary changes, intermittent fasting, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol or stopping with using drugs.

Besides bodily protest, emotions and feelings also play a part. Countering cravings and desires can make you feel down because the brain rewards repetition. So know what sensations to expect, including how to ease the symptoms.

Visualize all the situations

To change a habit, you need to replace old behavior for new ones. While you are trying to break a habit, your old behavior will still be triggered. The danger that you will fall back in old routines remains until the old neural pathway has died out enough for a new pathway to take over. To prevent such a fallback, it helps to be conscious of what sets off your no longer desired behavior. Typical triggers are specific situations, particular places, a certain time of day, tempting objects, and bodily signals.

Knowing what sets you off allows you to visualize how to react differently. In this way, you mentally prepare yourself to recognize the potential threat of a lapse. Even better is to prevent yourself from being exposed to these prompts.

Take smokers who want to quit. They use visualization to envisage not to reach for a cigarette at those set times and moments. Instead, they imagine a different course of action, like taking a short walk, a glass of water or a nicotine chewy gum. To avoid temptation, they also know not to have cigarettes lying around the house, nor to pass by the convenience stores where you can buy them.

Combat fallacies

Besides visualizing what prompts undesired behavior, it helps to be prepared for all those fallacies that torpedo your motivation. Fallacies are judgmental excuses and criticisms you tell yourself, like not now, perhaps later, one will not hurt, I have earned this, or I will fail anyway. Such self-talk is self-deceiving. Know what you generally hurdle at yourself in order to recognize them when you do.

Crawl before running

Some bad habits, like addictions or substance abuse, generally require a cold turkey approach. But most behavioral changes allow you to follow a more step-by-step path to test the water. Not giant leaps, but small steps. Especially when you are diving into the unknown and uncharted. So are you contemplating to become a vegetarian, but ignorant of what to cook and uncertain whether you will like it? Then start with a couple of meatless days a week with dishes you know and like.

Revisit your preparation

Thus far, the mentioned change principles get you properly prepared. But everything you have prepared must be kept top of mind while reconditioning. Periodically, go back to your original reasons, approach, and visualizations. Remain conscious of what it is you are trying to do. This also allows you to recalibrate aspirations and push yourself to the next level. Furthermore, pay attention to the following.

Reward good behavior

Behavior is reinforced by the dopamine release in your brain’s reward system. Dopamine gives you a good and satisfying feeling, making you repeat what you have conditioned yourself to like. That is why you must recondition your brain by rewarding new behavior. Every time you stick to your newly adopted behavior is a success, and a moment to celebrate. Rewarding doing is more effective than waiting to reach a milestone. Research shows that intermittent rewarding works best.

By rewarding your behavior, there is no such thing as failure to achieve. The only lapse is if you fail to do. A blatant self-fulfilling prophesy. Therefore, savor the moment you stuck to your intentions by proudly sharing your success, eating a (small pure) chocolate, taking a nice hot bath, giving yourself stars or whatever else works for you. The Internet is full of reward examples.

Manage your mindset

While learning to act naturally in a different way, you will hear yourself countermanding your venture. Analyze the fallacies you are telling yourself to make you quit. Assess why you are trying to procrastinate or cop out. When you do skip a moment, do not beat yourself over it, but reschedule asap and reward yourself extra for persevering.

Be careful with clichés. They can also be fallacies. Take no pain, no gain. Oh boy, what a fun thing to aspire. Another textbook euphemism is when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Such mantras are sticks to discipline yourself. If it works to pep you up, then, by all means, use them.

But reciting in your mind why you are doing this could work better. It is the carrot you want to pursue. To boost your confidence, combine your carrot with positive affirmations like I have reached my daily objective, I can do it and I want to learn this.

Besides these 12 principles, well-known change rules apply. By all means, use visual and audio cues to remind you it is time to act. Set alerts and alarms, use helpful apps, watch healthy cooking programs, stick post-it’s on the fridge or front door, and place your sports bag in the hall. See to it that you are exposed to stimuli that promote what you are trying to learn and avoid the triggers that evoke you to repeat undesired routines.

Another important rule is mobilize others. Charter an expert to learn from. Get a coach to show you the ropes and motivate you, preferably someone who has walked the talk. Tell friends what you are attempting and ask for their support. Find a buddy to make learning new ways a fun joint venture. Strong together.

Remember, well begun is half done. But half done is not done.

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