Want to Change Your Habits? Here’s What Really Works

Do your resolutions this year include eating healthier or exercising more often? You may think you need more willpower or motivation to reach your goals, but what really need is to change your habits.

Here’s why you don’t need more willpower to reach your goals and how you can form healthy habits instead.

The Willpower Myth

Research shows that we only have a finite amount of the willpower that we rely on to make healthy choices. Once we run out — like when we’re tired or stressed — we simply don’t have the mental oomph to motivate ourselves to perform that healthy behavior.

And because most of us often run out of willpower, we end up falling back into old habits instead of being able to form new ones.

But if getting motivated isn’t enough to form healthy habits, what is? Here are a few simple steps that can help.

How to Change Your Habits

Instead of relying just on motivation and willpower to change your habits, experts recommend focusing on the things that trigger your habits.

That’s because all habits rely on cues. Maybe having a cup of coffee is your cue to eat a cookie or smoke a cigarette. Or walking in the door after work is your cue to kick off your shoes and slip into your comfy sweatpants so you can hang out on the couch.

By paying attention to the cues that put your old habits into motion, you can stop them before they start. And by associating your new habits with other cues, you can set the wheels of that behavior in motion more easily.

Three Steps to Creating a Habit

Here’s how it goes:

  1. First, break your old habit. Think about what triggers your old, bad habit and find ways to stop that trigger from happening. If you always grab a piece of candy from the dish when you walk by, take a new route so you don’t pass that area or move the dish to another location. If you always pour yourself a glass of wine when you walk into the kitchen after work, head to a different room for a few minutes when you first get home.
  2. Next, repeat your disruption over and over. Chances are it’ll take more than a day or two to break your deeply ingrained habit. Be patient. After a while, your old triggers will start to lose their power.
  3. Finally, find a trigger for your new habit. Now that your old habit is broken, think about easy cues that you can begin associating with the new healthy habit you want to form. Want to snack on almonds in the afternoon? Have them with your afternoon coffee or tea. Want to rest and recharge after getting home from work instead of snacking or drinking before dinner? Try reading a book or magazine instead.

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. For some people, that might be true. But some research suggests that it could take months for a new behavior to become automatic. So stick with it! Eventually, that healthy action that once seemed tough will start to feel like second nature.

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