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3 Rules for Successful Long-Term Habit Change

Posted on 4 m read

Following on from last week’s post about what triggers habits, today I’m writing about the 3 most important to successfully change your habits long-term (according to Charles Duhigg the author of The Power of Habit).

In my previous post I explain that the author says it’s important not to try and get rid of your bad habits but to swap out the habit for a new one (so the circumstances around the habit being triggered and the outcome/reward of taking the action stay the same, but the actual routine changes). However he acknowledges that this only happens to a point. When you have a bad day and things get tough, falling back into the old habits is an easy move, no matter how much you’ve changed your routine.

1 – You have to believe you can succeed

Apparently, to have long-term success it’s absolutely crucial that you have a conviction you can do this, that change is feasible for you. Wanting to believe it isn’t enough, you must see yourself changing before the changes actually occur. Reportedly, being in a group where you can change see that it worked for someone else can strengthen your belief that it can work for you, too. And committing to change as part of a group dramatically increases your odds for success.

2 – Focus on changing just one key-stone habit

I’m sure you’ve done the New Year health kick where you’ve tried to get fit and healthy and change a load of habits in one go?! I used to run a weighloss group and the first week I’d ask clients to pick just 1 thing they were going to work on changing that week. Invariably on week two, having been fired up about starting the programme, a number of people would come back and say not only had they focused on changing the one thing they decided at the last session, they also proudly told me they’d given up caffeine, starting taking the stairs at work and been to the gym four times this week.

Although their excitement was commendable, I knew, pretty much without fail, that by week 3 or 4 or 5 they would have crashed and burned with many of these changes. Behaviour change takes time and when you try and change everything at once, it’s too much. It puts us so far out of our comfort zone that we bounce back almost immediately and start back at square one, more demotivated than when we began.

I’ve know fitness professionals to ask what’s the point in just changing one thing. Why bother changing your diet if you’re still not exercising? Or what’s the point in starting a fitness routine if the food intake doesn’t change?

The point is, that focusing on one thing can be achievable and has a knock on effect on other habits, without even trying.

What I mean, is that changing your routine can be difficult. You forget to plan the things you need. You forget to go shopping for the healthy ingredients, or plan your meals in advance or forget to take your gym kit so you can go to the gym at lunchtime. But slowly, slowly, you get it right. You put it in your diary and remember to bring your gym bag most of the days. You remember to plan your meals for the next few days and go shopping for the ingredients you need. You make enough food for tea to put leftovers in a tupperware box to have for lunch tomorrow.

According to a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, exercise is commonly a keystone habit that spills over and triggers extensive habit change, even subconsciously. It seems to make good habits easier. So by focusing solely on exercise, we often start eating more healthily, being more productive and feel less stressed just as a by-product.

This has been shown to come about by other habits too like:

  • solely focusing on keeping a food diary just one day per week has led to healthier eating patterns as people identify their habits once they’ve seen them written down
  • eating dinner as a family has a knock-on effect on the homework skills of children and greater confidence and emotional control
  • making the bed every day is linked to being more productive, sticking better to a budget and increased sense of well-being

Identifying key-stone habits is a bit trickier. Basically look for something that will allow for small wins and the opportunity to create new systems and a culture where change is contagious.

3 – Have a plan for falling off the wagon

Inevitably the time will come when you fall off the wagon and slip back into your old habits. That’s ok and normal and human. And it’s also where your newfound habits and routines can begin to unravel…

The key to getting back on track quickly (and making your fall a little blip rather than a massive detour) is to anticipate circumstances where you might be tempted to fall back into old ways and come up with solutions of how you’d deal with these. Having a thought-out, written down strategy to refer to and follow when these circumstances do occur, gives you a much higher rate of success for moving forward rather than staying stuck.

So, if you’re looking to stay on track with your new habits then remember to believe this change is possible for you, find one key-stone habit to focus on and have a contingency plan for when things get a bit rocky.





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