How to Change Any Habit
This is a brain-dump on everything I’ve been researching when it comes to habit change. This post contains many methods researchers are studying with what you can control to change habits – especially harder, deeply engrained habits. Every single thing written in this post is backed up by at least one scientific source and real-world results.
The bottom line when it comes down to habit change or changing in general, especially hard and life-altering habits:
Expect good things and more often than not, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that good things will happen. But don’t ignore reality completely. Be willing to put in the work. Work without hope is deadening to the soul, and hope without work leads to the same end. Have both hope and do the work and you’re on the road to change.
With that said, avoid visualization unless you’re visualizing the plan of what you need to do and are simultaneously thinking that the change will be hard; almost any other visualization technique almost backfires. Visualization is different than setting goals though. Don’t confuse the two.
Create Your Own Reality
As such, you should also Create Your Own Reality. You create your reality in a number of ways, which include:
1 – How you view a mistake – either as a Universal character trait or something specific to the situation. Don’t make it universal – it rarely is.
2 – If you’ve failed often enough, do you learn to give up on yourself or do you continue to have courage and enthusiasm for your future self and goals…Be Courageous
3 – Do you have shame for a mistake or do you have some guilt from doing something that goes against your values. Guilt is better, shame is useless (you will still feel shame though)
4 – Do you have self-compassion for yourself after a mistake or do you try to protect your self-esteem…self-compassion allows you to forgive yourself, move on and have the energy and drive to take on the challenge again…trying to protect your self-esteem makes it much less likely that you’ll try again as you’ll tend to try to distort reality by using cognitive dissonance and call the thing you wanted earlier, “stupid” and as such, you give up trying. Be Kind to Yourself. If a friend failed, would you berate them the way you do yourself for being stupid and lazy? I hope not. Treat yourself like you would a good friend.
5 – Do you believe that if you work on your will-power you’ll be depleted or over-time strengthened? If your muscle is weak (self-control here), do you get stronger by resting the muscle or by working it? Work your will-power muscle and get stronger!
6 – Self-Efficacy versus self-esteem…self-esteem is a universal mindset about how “good” you are, typically as a person, whereas, self-efficacy is a more specific recognition of your ability in one aspect. Do you believe you can make a change in one area or not? You don’t need high self-esteem to change a specific habit, so forget about it. Learn to get better at the habit you’re trying to change.
7 – Mindfulness versus Mindlessness…do you pay attention to the habits you’re trying to change or do you simply allow yourself to go on auto-pilot believing that you should be able to change without having to pay attention? The more mindful you are, the better your odds of being able to change the habit.
8 – Do you believe your abilities are fixed and you won’t be able to change them, whether it be because you believe you’re controlled by your genes or “that’s just how I am,” versus believing that you can make the changes and continue to grow from your various attempts? You can always grow, in any realm and it’s never too late.
9 – Is your goal for the change you’re trying to make one that you’re making to learn more about yourself, what you’re capable of and that each misstep just teaches you a new lesson? Or do you believe that it’s all about achieving the goal as quickly as possible and that’s all that matters? Simply learn more about yourself.
10 – Are you motivated to make the change to avoid the pain of not changing or are you motivated to the positive effects of the change. Research shows with this one, there’s no winner in overall actions you take. We all lean towards one realm, but the way you word the way you want to change can have an impact on your motivation to change. Learn the language that motivates you and you’ll be better off for it.
12 – Do you believe you “have to” change otherwise you will lose your family, think less about yourself, etc or do you want to change because it’ll be fun? The more autonomous your decision, the better your odds of adherence to the change and hence better odds of achieving your goal.
13 – Are you living your values and are you making the commitments to live up to those values or are you focused on living up to others expectations? Combining mindfulness with why you’re trying to change is a powerful one-two combination.
14 – Do you make choices to get the maximal satisfaction out of your choice and go back and forth between the possible options or are you content with making a choice because it’s good enough? Surprisingly, good enough is the way to go with this one. Trying to get “maximal satisfaction” is a straw-man and you will inevitably be worst off for it. Do what you need to be happy enough and surprisingly, you can enjoy other things in life, as opposed to having something be perfect (nothing’s every perfect forever).
15 – Do you truly embrace mistakes and the ability to learn or do you try to avoid them like the plague and build them up in your head as though it would be a catastrophe if something went wrong? We all over-estimate how pleasurable certain experiences will be and how non-disastrous mistakes are. You will survive if a mistake happens. How you survive is up to you.
16 – Are you willing to ride the urge of temptation, knowing that you can have the urge and not act on it, that you have the power to change it or do you try to ignore the urge and eventually end-up giving in to the urge? “Riding the urge” combined with more mindfulness and remembering your commitments allows for the one-two-three combination that allows you to recognize that a feeling, even a strong ass-feeling such as an urge that you may have known for years or decades, does NOT mean that you have to act on it. The more you are able to ride the urge and come out victorious, the better you are at making a new habit on how you respond to the cue of the habit.
Know why and how you identify yourself
1 – A large part of how you identify yourself comes from the company you keep and as such, you should be able to control your social environment…
2 – If you can’t control your social environment, then take to writing. Writing is a great way to create your own reality, where you can delve into your fears and put into print how and who you want to be.
3 – Group identity will often make us act against our own desires and is a better predictor of actions taken when you care about the group…(now you know why most Republicans vote against their self-interests)
4 – Recognize that different techniques work for different people and that you may have to experiment with your change and as such, you should experiment with different techniques. Different techniques work depending on where on the change continuum you’re at…Use the Stages of Change model to your benefit…
Life-changing Habits are Hard to Change
Principles don’t change though…Changing hard habits is hard…it requires more thought…meditation helps, controlling your breathing helps…and it requires much more than 21 days…on average 66 days, but for harder habits it can take up to 284 days…so your 3-week plan to change a habit is just BS…
Changing is hard only at the beginning, until your new habit kicks in and becomes more “automatic”…
You will never get rid of a habit…at least in your brain. You will always have the habit engrained, but you can find replacement cues and rewards, while also possibly being able to replace the habit with something else that gives you a similar reward…
Your Past will Effect How You See Life
Every parent has f’d up their kids. Every single one. Accept it. They did as best as they could, given the situation they were at in life. Accept it and talk to someone about it…it’s Ok, it really is. Every parent will mess up their kids in some way, even if they do their best…and that’s ok…because as long as you have someone in your life you love and can communicate with someone about it, life will go on and you can overcome it…and when you overcome the messed-up-ness, you will be in a much better position to forgive yourself and take on more and better things…
Practicing Will-power will increase your will-power…(so will sleep…but NOTHING is essential for willpower except your commitment to your changes)…you just have to remember your commitments when you’re tempted…
Self-Awareness is essential for change…without it, you will be on the treadmill of habits you hate controlling your life…
Tracking your changes can be extremely beneficial to increasing self-awareness and accountability…
Verbally stating your goals can increase your odds of hitting them (if you have a conscientious personality…aka, if you care what others think of you…), but if you’re in the wrong stage of change or if you have low impulse control, you can expect that stating your goals to lessen your odds of hitting the goals. Like visualization, stating your goals activates the parts of your brain that make you feel as though you’ve already achieved them and therefore you take less actions to achieve the goal that you’re seeking…
Your Beliefs and Conditionings will function to filter everything you see and as such will cause people to be very resistant to change and even cause bounce-back from positive changes…You can change your beliefs and conditionings, but it takes a lot of work. It’s worth it, but it’s not easy.
Beyond that, how we view things and the context which we state things to ourselves (Good/Bad) makes us either more likely to stick to a goal or break the habits needed to achieve that goal (Moral Licensing)…
Know what your goal is…remember it often, but more importantly remember that you’re human and that you will falter…you can and will survive…as such, bounce back. Practice is essential and practice, by default, requires mistakes.
After you hit your goal, continue to improve…
Strategies for Changing Smaller Habits that Assist with Larger Habits
Your environment and the context in which your habits reside play a huge factor in activating the habit you’re either trying to break or make…therefore, the easiest way to help break a habit, especially a mild habit is to change the set-up in your environment.
The second best way is to have your environment control your actions with intentions implementation…aka, “If-Then” planning.
Most psychological theories don’t account for all of human action and probably never will…therefore, stop trying to figure it all out and do the best you can with what you have.
I believe in taking on large change when you’re ready…(this one isn’t supported by research, hence the term “I believe” at the beginning of the sentence). This could be based on personality though. I’m higher in impulsiveness and therefore it’s easier for me to make larger changes than I would recommend to others, but others work better with small gradual changes. Have I said, find what works for you?
Changing two inter-related habits work better than changing one habit by itself. For example, changing your diet when you start exercising is better than just doing one at a time.
Do you try to take on too much change all at once or do you ingest too much information all at once and therefore get stuck with the status quo…? If you do, then you’re inundating yourself with too much information and/or change and that’s causing you to cling to your old habits and hence the “status quo.” Pick a path, have confidence in it and stick to it, but don’t try to do 50 different paths of change simultaneously.
Sleep and a healthy diet will always help with increasing your self-control. The issue is most people want to change their sleeping habits and eating habits for the better. A catch-22 if I’ve ever seen one. In other words, do what you can, when you can and grow from there.
Recognize that changing some habits can have other, unexpected, benefits to other habits. As such, the reverse is also true. You can’t predict everything and trying to is an exercise in futility.
Knowing your intentions to change can help with increasing motivation to change, but often, increasing motivation does not lead to better habits – the only thing that truly leads to better actions, is taking different actions.
If you truly don’t want to change though, you will never change, therefore, if you had to pick between knowing your intentions and increasing your motivation, I would know your motivations and intentions as every “mistake” on the road to change is just a stepping stone closer to your goal.
You can control your thoughts, but more often than not, it’s damn hard and it’s going to be hard as hell. As such, allowing yourself to think certain thoughts can actually decrease their persistence. Either way, by allowing them or knowing you can control them, know that the ability to control your thoughts doesn’t happen instantly.
Get a Support Network – It may be the most important step
Other people that support you and what you’re trying to achieve is absolutely essential. The more you can build up a network of people that genuinely care for you is your best tool to ensure long-term success…Period! (Ended with an exclamation mark).
Know Why You Have the Habits You Do and What Your Goal Is
Breaking down the reasons why you still have a habit that you don’t want any longer will help to increase your motivation to change.
Combine that knowledge of why you still have a habit with the benefits of changing, ensuring the benefits are more poignant in your mind than staying the same. This sounds almost so common-sensical that I shouldn’t have listed it, but so many people have habits that protect them in one way or another – and without ever understanding those deeper reasons, they get stuck trying every technique out there to no avail. And this happens all because they’re not willing to take the time to discover why they still have the habit that they’re trying to change. Take the time to uncover that and you open yourself up to some deep insight.
Know what’s important when it comes to the changes you want and what’s superfluous. For example in quitting smoking the goal is to not smoke, at all. Even one cigarette a day can have truly negative consequences. How you do it, with or without nicotine, using an e-cigarette, with the support of a group, while starting to work out, etc is totally up to you.
A Quick Synopsis of What Works in “Large Habit Changes” – Working Out and Losing Weight
The goal of working out though may be a bit different: You may have purely aesthetic goals and often those reasons undermine the more important (*at least to long-term adherence) health and wellness goals such as feeling better or feeling pride about finishing the workout. Feeling better and feeling pride about doing the workout are two of the largest reasons why people exercise versus people that don’t exercise. Your goal should then be to feel better and be healthier with a secondary cause that you may lose weight.
With weight loss, you want to ensure that the weight loss is permanent and not a transient condition. You achieve this, by obviously eating less calories than you take in, but more importantly over the long-run it’s achieved by best keeping the muscle you have (strength training should be included), establishing habits that you can keep for a lifetime in terms of finding other physical activities that you enjoy and can vary from any and everything from more walking to riding a bike, to doing Zumba, to gardening to taking Spin or Crossfit classes to taking bootcamp classes. Allowing yourself to do these things in a manner that you choose and enjoy (either by yourself, with friends or a trainer) and recognizing how it makes you feel better, without moral licensing will allow you to stick to the workouts more consistently. In addition to that, eating more protein tends to help with hunger signals, along with consuming more vegetables, but people have lost weight using almost any system of eating and that’s the key – it has to work best for you. Usually, higher protein, lower carb, moderate fat intake is best for health, especially if those things come from all natural, unprocessed foods. Therefore, if you want to keep the weight off over the long-term, eat more vegetables, eat more protein, eat a balanced mix of healthy, natural fats and eat more unprocessed foods. Alter your carb intake based upon your activity level, enjoyment of the carbs, ability to handle the carbs in an efficient manner and then adjust the protein and fat levels down. Don’t go super low-fat and learn to listen to your body. Indulge every once in a while and have a cut-off point where you will need to amp up the workouts or the dieting based upon that “cut-off point.” You can eat as many times as you’ll like, as few times as you’ll like and your eating habits tend to play the more important part than how often you eat. So don’t worry about it.
Your Life Is Yours
In the end, Success is how you define it and as such, take control over your mentality and don’t be swayed by unearthed motivations that lead you living a life that truly isn’t yours…this may contradict a lot of what I said above, but at the end of the day, what you need to do more than almost anything else is to know yourself, accept yourself, accept the fleeting nature of life, take the actions to make your life better, for yourself, embrace yourself, embrace change and mistakes and work on getting better for reasons you want to. And after you’ve done all that, know what you want to do and go out and do it.
This doesn’t have to be for a career, but ensure that every day, you’re doing something that matters to you for the reasons you define. When outside forces hi-jack your reasons, take them back and work on them because you want to. Do what you should, but also do what you want. Remember most of the “bad behaviors”, even if you’re more impulsive in nature, has less to with wanting to the “bad behavior,” (especially after the initial novelty wears off), but more with deadening the pain you feel in response to unwanted feelings and insecurities. Unearth those unwanted feelings and insecurities and you are will on your way to success.
That’s the bottom line on making changes…that’s it! 😉