New habits: in with the good, out with the bad

There are all kinds of advice out there about how to break bad habits or form good ones. Not to mention that we’re all adults and probably know what we need to do anyway. Habits are part of us. They make us the people we are, for better or worse. But at the beginning of each year many people grow a little introspective about the things we need to change. Whether or not you are a person who makes New Year’s resolutions, chances are there are at least a couple of things you’d like to do differently – quit smoking, lose weight, get in shape, get control of your finances or even get completely out of debt. Perhaps you are saying ‘all of the above’.

These are all worthy pursuits, but before you embark on a plan to change, know this: you’re more likely to succeed if you keep it simple. With that in mind, here are some simple tips for making changes.

Small steps. Some folks have to make changes on an all or nothing basis and can do it successfully. But for most, starting a journey with small steps is more likely to lead to positive results. For example, people who are significantly overweight and in the habit of drinking a six pack of soda or beer each day will likely start dropping weight just by cutting that in half. I’ve been told that some smokers have conquered nicotine by first eliminating (or waiting longer for) certain smoking times, like the cigarette they crave right after finishing a meal. If getting started is a hurdle for you, make the first steps small, but meaningful. Your victory in achieving that small success will embolden you for the next step.

How long? Common wisdom these days is to repeat an action every day for 30 days (some say 21 or 29 or some other number) in a row, and you have a new habit or have broken an old habit. This isn’t rocket science. There may or may not be a magic number. But erring on the high side seems smart. So rather than telling yourself you must never eat junk food again, shoot for 30 days of consistency. Instead of committing yourself to walk three miles a day every day forever, aim for a solid month. If you are consistent for that month, you’ll probably find you’ve got a new habit that is now more auto-pilot than grinding effort.

One habit. This is no time for multi-tasking. We all know someone (maybe the person in your mirror) who starts a new year with a long agenda. Quit smoking, lose weight, workout three times a week, save money, get to work early every day, and stop being a grouch at home. That is a recipe for failure. Rare is the person who will get far with an agenda like that. Instead, decide on one habit to tackle. Be consistent for one solid month. Then if you’re satisfied with your progress, take on the next habit. Rather than torpedo your chances of success by taking on too much, look at it this way. A year passes at warp speed, and by slowing down and tackling one issue at a time, you could change 12 things you don’t like about yourself in one short year. Write it down. Did you know it is a proven fact that behavior which is recorded improves? Making a plan formal simply means to write it down. Whether you write your plan in a notebook or on a sticky note on your mirror, that cements it in your mind and provides a visible reminder, as opposed to a fleeting thought.

Be specific. While you are writing, add a way to measure progress. We all know that promising change is actually promising very little, unless you are specific. Instead of saying you will “walk more,” say you will “walk a mile after dinner three times a week.” That way you will know when you have reached success.

Use “buts.” Bad thinking is one reason so many of us can’t break out of a habit or start a good one. We sidetrack our own results by thinking this way: “I’ve never been able to lose that last 10 pounds.” Thoughts creep into our minds uninvited. But when you catch yourself with that negative thought, add a “but.”

“I’ve never been able to lose that last 10 pounds, but… this time is going to be different.”

“I have no self control when it comes to spending, but… now I’m leaving my credit cards at home.”

Bring in a substitute. If you’re trying to lose an old habit, it will leave a void. Let’s say you want to cut back on TV in the evening. Plan ahead what you will do when it’s time to shut off the tube. Have a book ready, or arrange with a friend to take a walk. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself staring at the blank screen, and it won’t be long until you turn it back on, “just this once.” If you always eat junk food while you watch TV and you want to eliminate that habit, don’t tackle it without having something that you like that is healthier at your fingertips.

In a nutshell, your efforts need to be meaningful, measurable and worthwhile, yet simple and doable. Have what you need to get started, like walking shoes, healthy foods, your financial records to review. Success is yours for the taking, one baby step at a time.

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