Sunday, November 18, 2012

How can you cement a healthy habit?

Yesterday I talked about breaking an overwhelming plan into smaller "bite-sized" chunks and then making those smaller chunks into habits to increase chances of success. That sounds pretty simple. I mean, if biting my nails comes so effortlessly then I should easily be able to form a healthy habit, right?

You may have even heard a general rule of thumb that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Only 21 days - that's three short weeks - piece of cake! Why don't more people latch onto this brilliantly simple way to enforce positive behavior?

It may take longer than you think

Habit formation is basically the process of forming a mental link between a trigger and a response. With enough repetition, the responsive behavior can become so automatic that you do it without even thinking about it. That sounds like a great way to embed healthy behaviors in your life. But the 21-day formation myth may be just that - a myth. Cementing a healthy habit takes different times for different people. Research also shows that there's a great deal of variability in how strong the habit becomes for different people.

Make concrete plans to do the right thing at the right time

So how can you cement a healthy habit? Having a specific goal in mind helps, but when it comes right down to it, a goal is really not much more than a good intention. Remember what paves the road to hell? Sometimes we just don't act on our good intentions.

Don't give up hope. Studies have shown that going one step beyond intention to good old fashioned strategy can be helpful when we are distracted from our good intentions. Psychologists identify implementation intentions as specific plans of action to prevent circumstances from derailing our  pursuit of goals. (If you clicked on that last link, congratulations on persevering through an academic research paper!) Implementation intentions address the what, when, and how of contingency planning. If my goal is to drink more water but I find it difficult to get to a water fountain throughout the day, it would help to carry a water bottle with me.

Replace the charge you get from bad habits with an equivalent reward

It also helps to remember that your bad habits are giving you some sort of reward. If you can identify the charge you get from the bad habit, then you can work to identify a healthier habit that gives you an equivalent reward. Motivation is key. You've got to pick something you really want and that you can reasonably achieve.

Like eating a really big sandwich one bite at a time.

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