Forming new habits can be hard, but there are plenty of ways to make the process more manageable.
Back in 2011, l lost 42 pounds in six months, and it was--by far--one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.
The thing is, I wasn't always overweight. In fact, until I started working in an office after high school, I was underweight. But the bad habits associated with that work environment--from sitting all day to ordering unhealthy lunches--took their toll. My weight crept up by a few pounds a year, until I found myself virtually unrecognizable in the mirror.
When I set out to lose weight, one of the first things I recognized was that, if it was my bad habits that caused me to gain weight, I had to replace them with more positive alternatives. The following are a few of the strategies I used to lose weight, though they're just as applicable if you're trying to get out of debt, finish a degree, or effect any other major change in your life.
Create Big Goals Composed of Small Steps
The problem with creating new habits is that big changes by themselves are often too hard to accomplish, but small changes feel uninspiring. The way around this contradiction is to create big goals composed of small steps. Each small step is a sub-habit, helping you make your way to your new, big habit.
When you start very small, you'll reduce the resistance to change, though, to take advantage of this effect, the new action needs to be very accessible. But if you're successful, you'll likely find that starting with small steps gives you the momentum you need to keep going. This is called the "snowball effect," and it can be applied to everything from paying off debt to getting more exercise.
Visualize the Process, Not Just the Result
Visualizing the result you want is a powerful tool, and it feels good to see yourself at the finish line. Unfortunately, this also has the effect of fooling the brain into thinking you've already completed your tasks, which can reduce your motivation. In these cases, visualization takes the place of action, which is counter-productive to your goals.
To overcome this challenge, visualize the process and not just the result. Studies have shown that students who visualize studying for a difficult exam perform better than those who simply visualize getting a good grade. To get your new habit to stick, visualize yourself working hard and overcoming challenges if you want to succeed.
Form Action Chains to Create Cues
Many of our strongest habits are sequential. Think, for example, about how many Americans feel they can't function until they've had their first cup of coffee in the morning. In essence, they've made that cup of coffee such a strong habit that their body refuses to function without it! You can take advantage of this "action chain: effect" when it comes to creating new habits.
When creating a new habit, try to reduce the variability around how and when the action happens. For instance, don't exercise at three different times on three different days. Try to set up a sequence of actions that always result in exercise at the same time each day--studies have shown that this is a very effective way to cultivate a new behavior.
Make It Easier to Do the Action Than Not Do It
One of the most important things you can do to reinforce a habit is to lower the barriers to act, while raising the barrier to not act. For instance, if you struggle to get out of bed in order to make it to the gym to work out in the morning, set your clothes out on the floor in front of your bed. You'll then be forced to step over them if you don't work out. Or, even better, wear your workout clothes to bed! Since you'll have to take them off to change into work clothes, you'll find it easier to get your workout in.
Avoid the "What the Hell" Effect
When trying to form a new habit, it's normal to struggle a bit. Unfortunately, many of us give up the first time we fall short in a new habit. This is known as the "What the hell" effect, because once people have messed up a little bit, they tend to say, "What the hell, I've already screwed up, so I may as well do more." If you've ever talked yourself into eating a small "cheat meal"--only to have it turn into a weekend of indulgence--you've experienced this effect in action.
When forming new habits, it's important not to let a single stumble ruin your day or week. Focus instead on how far you've come and how many days in a row you've accomplished your new habit. Avoid self-blame. Just realize it's a process, forgive yourself, and continue on toward your goals.
Forming new habits can be hard, but there are plenty of ways to make the process more manageable. The good news is, once your positive, new habits have been formed and reinforced, they can be just as hard to break as your old, bad habits! Stick with it, and you'll see the results you're looking for.