We all have habits we want to change, but habits resist alteration and getting out of our ruts is hard. Just telling yourself to change without a lot of conditions around you to support changing is not likely to be successful. A broad array of tools is needed to overcome the power of the “well-worn groove” in our brains, bodies, and behavior that maintains every habit. All behavior has physical, mental, emotional, social, and environmental influences and roots, so efforts to build constructive new habits must work on all these levels to be successful.

The body is necessarily the vehicle of all change, so discovering its role in behaviors that you do and don’t want often makes the pathway to change clear. Use basic questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) to find your body’s role in your habits and learn how it can help you change. Subtle actions like good posture and smiling have an enormous effect on behavior, self-confidence, and ability to change.

Anchoring new behavior to existing habits
One of the best techniques for establishing new habits is to tie a small, new behavior to an already-established constructive habit. For example, to get yourself to wash dishes more often, try doing them immediately after your meal to make the new behavior just a continuation of what you are already doing.

I recently anchored dusting (generates many dirty dust cloths), washing my cat (many washcloths), and changing the bed linens to doing the laundry so that A) these tasks get done on a regular, scheduled basis that I won't forget, and B) all the soiled items don't hang out taking up space and overflowing my hamper. Before connecting these tasks to the laundry, they were done much less frequently and my allergies were out of control. It is more pleasant to live in a home that has less dust, a kissable kitty, and fresh bed linens (a real treat!), well worth the effort, and now, easy to remember. Each task was added to the laundry day list one at a time with about three weeks between each addition so it was not burdensome to build the new habits.

Writing your to-do list in long-hand
Written to-do lists are more effective than mental ones. To-do lists on an electronic device may be appealing, but a longhand list may establish a connection in the brain that more effectively focuses on what is needed. Putting habits you want to build on your daily to-do list reinforces efforts to do them.

Each element of a new behavior/habit should be small and easy to do. Congratulate yourself for each element when done and for each small step towards the new behavior even if you don’t get all the way there. Just do a little more of the new habit each day or week. Celebrations are also deserved for each barrier to the new behavior removed and for every support for the new habit put in place.

Use different colors to write tasks to make their priority an emotional reality as well as an intellectual one. Our understandings need to reach us emotionally to motivate action, and color helps to do that. Listing your most important tasks or behavior for each day in red grabs attention in a way that nothing else can.

Tell yourself stories or get stories from others
Stories are among our most powerful learning tools. Look at past experiences to see where you succeeded in changing a behavior or habit before. What made your effort effective? How did you go about it? What hindered? What helped? What can you apply from that experience? Ask others to tell their stories of how they changed a habit. Read stories on the Internet or in books about how people have solved the same issues you are working on.

Harness the power of intermittent rewards
Intermittent rewards affect us more intensely than constant rewards, making us keep hoping and working for a favored outcome even when the hope is not rational. Intermittent rewards are powerful for building good or bad habits, so recognizing their effects and using them to work for you rather than against you is important for successful change. The subject of intermittent rewards is too long to cover here so see my article on this subject on my website:

Puncture self-defeating self-images
Change is hard and if you unsuccessfully tried to change a habit or behavior before, your self-image may be of someone who cannot follow resolutions or make life better. In many cases, ingrained habits must be divorced from your self-image to make habit change possible. Addictions such as hoarding, compulsive overeating, smoking, or drinking are likely to be emblazoned in the brain via a mental image of ourselves doing it. Consciously visualizing yourself acting the way you wish to will ease change in the real world. If you lapse into the old behavior, quickly stop whatever you are doing and visualize yourself doing it correctly to prevent future slips. Don't wait for a slip to use visualization – begin mental practice doing it right as soon as you decide to change. Don't worry about mistakes in the past – just use that mental energy to fix the future.

Put reminders for new behaviors everywhere you might look or be distracted. There is practically no such thing as too many reminders for a new behavior. When the behavior is more established, you can reduce the number of reminders. The more important creating a new habit is, the more reminders are needed. Make your reminders appealing by using pretty colors, goofy print, cartoons, or whatever else will catch your attention. Switch reminders often as even the best of them become invisible in an amazingly short time.

Think in terms of what you do want to do rather than what you don’t want to do. So if you are trying to change a behavior, identify what constructive replacement activity you want to do instead. The classic examples are chewing gum instead of smoking or over-eating or talking to a friend rather than lapsing into addictive behavior, but there are many more possibilities.

Arrange with a friend who also wants to change a habit to support each other in these efforts. Daily calls, texts, or e-mails telling each other what you plan to do that day to support your behavior change can make a vital difference in successful change. Relationships with people who undermine desired changes may need to be reduced, suspended, or eliminated.

Behavioral engineering
Our environments are usually tailored to allow or support the behavior that we want to change, and this tailoring occurs in numerous, often subtle ways. Analyzing your surroundings to see what encourages or discourages particular behaviors is essential. Changing your surroundings to support your efforts can make developing better habits more possible. Some obvious examples of this are removing unhealthy food from your home when you want to eat healthier, getting cigarettes or alcohol out of the house when you want to abstain, or making credit cards hard to get at when you want to control spending.

Positive examples of environmental change might be making extravagant salads (when I wanted to be healthier I made salads with 5 different kinds of lettuce, baby carrots, palm and artichoke hearts, and every other delicious, healthy vegetable I like) instead of eating junk food, keeping gums or mints everywhere while giving up cigarettes or alcohol, and putting money you do not spend wastefully into savings for some important goal or treat.

© Gloria Valoris, 2013

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