About this time every year, many of our self-improvement resolutions center around changing our lifestyle habits. Yet even when we have the best intentions, our resolutions are often circling the drain by about Feb. 15, as we revert to ingrained behavior patterns.
Sure, we'd all be fit, healthy and energetic if we could just get into the habits of exercising regularly and eating nutritious foods, and break the habit of downing a pint of Rocky Road in front of the TV instead of taking an after-dinner walk. But why is it so difficult to cultivate good new patterns and break bad old ones? "Humans were designed to habituate," says Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine. "Our brains are wired that way." It's habitual behaviors like eating and sleeping, after all, that keep humans surviving as a species.
While these two behaviors are instinctual, most of our habits are learned, often in childhood and from repetition. It's been said that a habit is like a sheet of paper: Once it has been creased, it tends to fall into the same fold. But even if your habits are as plentiful as folds in a triple A map, you can learn new ones.
Just don't attempt to change them all at once. A grand scheme to quit smoking, drinking, eating junk food and being a couch potato simultaneously is likely doomed to failure. Pick one habit and focus on it. Decide which will be most encouraging to you: to master the hardest or the easiest one first. When that habit is entrenched, tackle the next one.
Also, be specific. Instead of vowing to "eat better," for example, determine to eat more fruits and vegetables daily for a month, then to have well-balanced breakfasts and then to make menu plans.
Set yourself up to succeed
First, arrange your environment to support your desired new habit, and remove sources of temptation that perpetuate the old one. If you're trying to quit eating so much ice cream, for example, don't keep any in the freezer. Ask your friends and family for their support. Or, if you suspect they might not bolster your efforts or even sabotage them, keep your plans to yourself. You might want to "bribe" yourself by setting up a system of rewards. Do whatever it takes to stack the odds in your favor.
You'll also have to be staunchly resolute until you've established your new habit. "Make no exceptions for the first month," Walsh says. It's easy to convince yourself that just one cookie, just one missed workout, doesn't count. Psychologists say it's like dropping a ball of yarn you're trying to wind: It quickly unravels. Only when you've broken your habit of eating a pint of ice cream every night is it safe to enjoy an occasional serving.
Reinforce your new habit
It isn't the act of starting a habit that counts; it's the routine. Doing something new can be hard at first, but with repetition it becomes easier and, eventually, automatic. As a bonus, you'll likely reach a point when this new activity is no longer difficult, it's actually enjoyable. You'll look forward to having fresh fruit for dessert instead of regarding it a poor second choice to ice cream.
Making substitutions can help you during this stage because many habits are attached to other activities -- eating while studying, for example. You might be most inclined to slip when you find you can't concentrate on your books without snacking. So instead of trying to give up eating completely, switch to fruit or air-popped corn. Changing habits is not about deprivation. But be mindful when substituting one habit for another. Although the end result is for habits to become automatic, while you're in the process of changing you must think about them: It's when you are not paying attention that you're most likely to lapse.
The moment you wake up is a great time to reaffirm your resolution to change, Walsh says. Throughout the day, when temptations prod you to backslide, stop, relax and take a few deep breaths. Consider the consequences of your actions, then do what you know is best for you.
Keep your workouts from waning
To stay on track with your exercise, top fitness experts offer these hints:
Be specific. Determine what you're going to do, when and where you'll do it and keep these factors consistent. "Don't leave any wiggle room when building this habit," says James E. Loehr, Ed.D., mental-training guru for athletes, of LGE Performance Systems, Orlando, Fla. "Wing it, and it'll take much longer to anchor."
Create a compelling atmosphere. "Make exercise more fun and doable," Loehr says. Find a location where you feel comfortable and that you can get to easily; choose a time that suits you; pack your gear the night before; obligate yourself by arranging to meet a friend; bring rousing music.
Goal-tend. Focus on the process, not the outcome. "Set weekly mini-goals, such as to work out three times, rather than to lose 5 pounds," says Phil Dozois, co-owner of Breakthru Fitness Studio. "The results will motivate you to continue."
Celebrate successes. All the little victories -- finishing 20 reps when last week you could only do 15, graduating to Phase II -- bring you closer to your overall goal. Track them in a journal and reward them with new clothes or a foot massage.
Get support. Share your workout plans with co-workers, friends and family. Once the word is out, you'll feel more obligated to follow through. Better yet, recruit a workout partner to cement your commitment and keep your spirits up.
Be realistic. Don't expect to nail this overnight. The "acquisition stage" lasts 30-60 days. Plan for that and it'll be here before you know it.