Motivation is the driving force behind your habits. And though some of your habits have you biting your nails, lighting up after lunch or grabbing one more fistful of fries, they didn't start out bad. There's a reason behind them.
"All habits — even bad habits — start out as true friends. They help, or helped, us deal with something," says Meg Selig, a counselor and author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.
For example, when you want chocolate to feel better, you don't really want chocolate. "You want a dopamine release," says Marie-Josee Shaar, founder of Smarts and Stamina in Pennsylvania. Dopamine is a chemical that makes you feel good, and chocolate helps your body release it.
That good feeling is the motivation behind your craving. But if you can find another way to get the dopamine — through sleep, exercise or human interaction — you can satisfy the craving without the calories, Shaar says. By identifying what you want and how you'll get it, you can shape new behaviors that, with a little practice, will become as routine as your bad habits ever were.
"Tell yourself that mistakes are just a part of change. Begin talking to yourself like your own best friend rather than your worst enemy."
—Meg Selig, counselor and author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success
1. Figure out your "why."
When people are trying to halt a bad habit, they usually rely heavily on self-regulation: "I'll stop eating cake by turning down cake." That strategy can work — but usually only for a while.
Self-regulation functions like a muscle, Shaar says. Eventually, you'll find the muscle just can't perform any more self-regulation reps. After turning down cake 40 times, there's just no strength left to turn down temptation 41. You need something more.
When performing interviews with weight-loss research subjects, Joanna Buscemi (a psychology researcher at the University of Memphis) focuses on things that her subjects want to change, and then helps them find motivators. And these motivators can stem from any number of influences.
The motivators you find should be specific to you, Selig says, and make you want something positive for yourself. Instead of, "I don't want to die," choose a statement like, "If I quit smoking, I'll have a good, long life."
2. Stay the course.
Once you've found a motivator, staying on track can be challenging. People who want to make a change "are very motivated, but that motivation is teetering on the brink of collapse," says Jared Meacham, owner and personal training director at Precision Body Designs.
You can strengthen faltering motivations, though, with quickly noticeable results. Set an easy, short-term starter goal to give yourself an early boost, Meacham says. Choose a one- or two-week mark, and pick something very attainable.
Let's say you choose to reduce your fast-food consumption by one meal per week or you want to increase your workouts by one session per week. Use your success with the smaller step to get pumped for the next, bigger step.
3. Be specific and realistic.
Think back to the chocolate mentioned earlier. When you're craving chocolate, you know specifically what you want. You don't want candy. You don't want sugar or even just a treat. You want chocolate.
But when we resolve to make changes, we're rarely this specific. We want to "lose weight" or "eat less junk food" or "exercise more." And such vague goals are problem number one, says Selig.
"You have to know how you'll know when you've succeeded," she says, adding that a good goal is "S.M.A.R.T." S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for "Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely," and the first two in the list are the most crucial.
Creating a measurable outcome — losing 20 pounds, drinking two fewer sodas a week or going to the gym three times per week — makes your goal as specific as your craving.
Start by analyzing and recording where you are now, says Buscemi. If you'd like to drink fewer sodas or go to the gym more, she suggests recording how much or how little you're performing these behaviors now to set more realistic targets. If you're drinking four sodas per day, for example, cutting back to three per week is probably too ambitious at the start.
Turning your larger goal into smaller, bite-sized steps will help you reach the bigger outcome. The smaller goals build to larger goals and can have a domino effect.
4. Don't let slip ups stop you.
Be aware: You're likely going to falter along the path to your big goal. Everyone does; it's inevitable. But dealing with these small failures properly is the key to lasting change, Selig says.
"Change your self-talk from discouraging to encouraging," she says. If you fall off the diet wagon and double up on dessert, don't beat yourself up and consider the day a waste. Instead, Selig suggests telling yourself "that mistakes are just a part of change. I'm not going to make matters worse by overdoing it for the rest of the day. Begin talking to yourself like your own best friend rather than your worst enemy."
Even friends can make us trip up, offering temptations to slip. Be ready with a plan of how you want to react, says Shaar, and rehearse it. "Be ready with what you'll say: 'No thanks, I'm good' or 'I don't want to feel bloated,'" she says. Rehearsing the exact words you'll use will help keep you from fumbling or clamming up when faced with an enticing offer.
"Telling other people will help hold you accountable," Selig says. "They'll give you support, and it gets your pride into it in a good way — you don't want to have to tell them you didn't exercise this week. But be selective. Tell the people who can really help you, rather than those who can undermine you."
5. Reinforce your commitment.
Turning a behavior into a subconscious habit can take a while — about 66 days on average, Selig says, but up to 250 days for a more complex habit. You get there with practice — and not always in a direct way.
If you're trying to avoid junk food, for example, you can make the behavior stick better by finding other ways to practice the habit, says Shaar. "Speak your resolution, write your goals and visualize yourself doing it," she says.
Find creative ways to reinforce your goal. Make a text version of the goal, for example, and use it as the screensaver on your computer. Or change your password. Instead of your birthday, use "GymTime203" suggests Shaar. So every time you type it in, you remind yourself of your commitment to go to the gym.