4 Tricks to Make a Healthy Habit Stick for Good
Here, steps you can take to arm yourself against less-than-healthy impulses, and minimize the angst you feel on a daily basis.
Wake up 30 minutesÂ earlier to walk before work. Swap candy for fruit when a sugar craving hits. Do 60 fly-ups during Dancing With The Stars. Healthy goals always seem so straightforwardâuntil temptation strikes and you end up hitting snooze, raiding a vending machine, or vegging out on the couch.
âThe fact is, weâre surrounded by temptation,â writes Gretchen Rubin in her new bestseller Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives ($16, amazon.com). She cites a 2011Â study which estimated that we spend about a quarter of our waking time resisting some aspect of desire.
But hereâs the good news: There are steps you can take to arm yourself against less-than-healthy impulses, and minimize the angst you feel on a daily basis. In her book, Rubin calls themÂ safeguards because they're designed to protect a new good habitâwhatever it may be.
In the excerpt below, she describes four of theseÂ simpleÂ tricks:
Make âif-thenâ plans
These strategies (âIf ____ happens, then I will do ____â) help you plan for habit challenges that might arise, so youâre not forced to make a decision in the heat of the moment. Making a plan in advance, when youâre in a cool and detached frame of mind, means you can act quicklyâwithout much internal debateâin the face of temptation. Over time, Iâve come up with a list of my own if-thens:
If Iâm writing, I shut down my email.
If Iâm invited to dinner, I eat a snack before I go so I wonât be too hungry.
If Iâm offered wine, I decline. (Almost always.)
Catch yourself early when you stumble
Because of the colorfully named âwhat the hellâ phenomenon, a minor stumble often becomes a major fall. Once a habit is broken, we act as though it doesnât matter whether itâs broken by a little or a lot. People on a healthy eating plan seem especially susceptible to this pattern. A friend once described what happens after she breaks her diet: âItâs like a rush to gobble down as much forbidden food as I can that day because I know the next day Iâll have to start to eat right again.â
âHow about this,â I suggested. âInstead of feeling that youâve blown the day and thinking âIâll get back on track tomorrow,â try thinking of each day as a set of four quarters: morning, midday, afternoon, evening. If you blow one quarter, you get back on track for the next quarter. Fail small. Not big."
And donât judge too harshly
Although some people assume that strong feelings of shame help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and show compassion toward themselvesÂ after a slip-upÂ are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty struggle more.
Instead of viewing your stumbles as evidence that youâre weak, see them as part of the habit-formation process. Tell yourself, âIt happens,â or, âWhat I do most days matters more than what I do once in a while.â That kind of self-encouragement is a greater safeguard than self-blame.
Break your habit deliberately
Sometimes we want to break a habit, to take advantage of a rare opportunity, say, or to celebrate. A very effective safeguard in that situation is the planned exception, chosen very consciously, ahead of time. These exceptions work best when theyâre limited. (For example, go ahead and skip the gym so you have extra time to prepare for the annual retreatânot the weekly staff meeting.) A good test is to ask yourself how youâll feel about the exception later: Will you think, Looking back on it, I wish Iâd made a different choice? Or: Iâm so happy I took advantage of that opportunity.
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