How Do We Actually Change Our Habits?

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How Do We Actually Change Our Habits?

Habits. Google the word “habit,” and in less than half a second 130,000,000 search results come up. At the top of the list is a simple definition: “A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” That last part is the kicker. We all have our regular tendencies and practices, but the difference between a routine and a habit is that routines are relatively easy to adjust and change, while habits can be especially difficult to give up.

That is the bad news.

The good news is that you can change your habits. Contrary to popular belief or what you might think, habits are not stagnant creatures we are doomed to carry around for the rest of our lives. But they are also not generally changed overnight. The act of changing habits has many stages, and there are concrete ways to improve your chances of actually sticking with the changes you make.

One of the most difficult habits to change is addiction – to alcohol, drugs, food, or any other substance. Over 20 years ago, Carlo C. DiClemente and J. O. Prochaska studied the actions of alcoholics attempting to change their habit. They observed six distinct stages that were common in this process:

  • Precontemplation: When the habit or addiction is identified.
  • Contemplation: Understanding that there is a problem, and that a change needs to occur.
  • Determination: The decision to change is made, and a plan to change is created.
  • Action: The plan is put into place. Lifestyle changes are made in support of the plan, and support in various forms is gathered.
  • Maintenance, relapse, recycle: This stage acknowledges that there may be times of relapse or faltering. This does not mean change has failed but that the stages must be re-entered with renewed commitment.
  • Termination: At this final stage, the habit is completely changed. There is no chance of relapse.

This model is simply referred to as The Stages of Change. While it may seem simplistic, for alcoholics or others struggling with addiction, this can be a powerful model for those who feel like they are making no real progress towards change, especially when they fall back into the old habit. Because it takes an average 66 days to actually change a habit (not the previously touted 28 days), this model can provide support, structure, and encouragement to the effort.

Understanding how we form habits in the first place is another powerful way to bring about change.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that most humans function within a loop. Some of these loops are routine and easy to change if needed, like feeding the dog after coffee instead of before, but others can be habits that are harder to break, like swinging through the drive-thru for a greasy breakfast sandwich every day or turning on the TV after dinner. The key, he says, is to break that feedback loop with cues that prompt the desired behavior, and then reward that behavior with something meaningful. Duhigg found that changing the habit was more about setting up a powerful cue and instituting a meaningful reward.

So what kind of cues and rewards work? That is entirely up to the person who is making the change. Maybe you want to exercise more and watch less TV. Hanging your dog’s leash by the door where you hang your coat reminds you that it’s time for a walk. That’s the cue. The reward should be something tangible; maybe it’s a movie, a special treat, or a new pair of shoes. Whatever it is, the reward needs to be something you would actually want to work towards.

Making these small changes to cues and rewards can help change habits, but sometimes a short-term grand gesture is the ticket.

Matt Cutts’s TED Talk urges his audience to try something new for 30 days. In these short periods of 30 days at a time, he climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro, wrote a novel, biked to work every day, and took one photograph a day. His experience made him feel more adventurous and alive, but the one thing he learned from this was counterintuitive to the 30-day experiment model:

“I learned that when I made small, sustainable changes, things I could keep doing, they were more likely to stick. There’s nothing wrong with big, crazy challenges. In fact, they’re a ton of fun. But they’re less likely to stick.”

In the end, it was the small changes within the larger ones that made the changes stick, not the grandiose gestures.

The Evans Health Lab, made most famous for its popular whiteboard video 23 1/2 Hours, has written extensively about what it takes to change a habit. While there are strong arguments for the fact that changing a habit can be a small, daily re-examination of smaller habits, there is also some evidence that changing habits around New Year’s results in changes that stick.

So what does this mean for you, making changes in the new year?

  • First, now is the time to make a change. More than any other time of year, for a variety of factors, resolutions to change habits made on or around New Year’s Eve are more likely to stick.
  • Next, understand that small, incremental changes in habits will be the most successful. This may mean instead of quitting smoking cold turkey, you get some help with a nicotine patch, nicotine gum, and a support group.
  • Finally, change your environment so that you can be successful in changing your habits. Just as alcoholics who wish to quit drinking no longer go to bars to see friends, so, too, must other environmental changes be made for other types of behaviors. If you want to watch less TV, put the TV in the basement or in an inconvenient or uncomfortable room. Instead of waiting for the urge to exercise to strike, schedule a weekly workout with a friend or join a team with weekly practices and games. If you want to lose weight or eat more healthy foods, chop a week’s worth of vegetables and keep them within easy reach in the refrigerator.

The best time to start changing a habit is right now. What steps will you take today to make positive, lasting change?

Photo by Al Ibrahim via Flickr

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About the Author:

At Holistic Pain, we have a passion for helping you and those who around you who suffer from pain find relief. Part of that passion extends to education and transparency. In our Holistic Pain blog, we focus on new research studies, along with our own tips, for maintaining and improving your quality of life, even with pain.

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