11 Expert-Backed Ways to Change A Habit

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Helen Foster
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It’s that time of year. The one where we decide that the health habits we fell into last year (or the year before, or when we were young and a bit foolish) need to be changed because they’re not doing our health any favours.

NB: spelling mistake not mine!

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You may have been here before. You may even be trying to break the same habit as last year – but that’s okay. Changing habits is tricky. The very nature of a habit is that it’s an autopilot setting in your brain so losing a bad habit, or, starting a new one, is not going to happen automatically. You’ve got to rewire new behaviour pathways in your brain – but you can help that process along a bit by knowing why you’re making the change and having some tips and tricks to make it happen.

Which is where we come in; we’ve combed the latest science and tapped up the best experts to come up with ways to change your habits you might not have tried before.

1. Try Resolution Maths

One of the best books on habit change ever written is The Power of Habit by author Charles Duhigg. It delves deep into why habits form and how to break them and one of the best tips in it is this simple formula…

Habit + Cue = Reward

I’ll explain

First up decide what new habit you want to create – let’s say going to the gym three times a week

Now, you need to create a signal that cues your brain to do it. So, maybe set your alarm to ring 10 minutes before you are supposed to go workout playing Eye of the Tiger or something else suitably motivating

Once you’ve done your task successfully – give yourself a reward like a bath with posh bath oil or an episode of your favourite TV show.

Finally, write the formula down

Gym + Rocky = TV time

This cements it further in your brain. The more time you repeat this process the more likely you are to stick to the habit says Duhigg.

If you need some ideas for rewards that don’t involve edible snacks or treats, check out our guide to non-food rewards. We’ve written it for those trying to lose weight, but they will work for any habit and there’s 41 of them you might want to try.

2. Make This Word Swap

This tip comes from UK life coach Pete Cohen and he suggests that instead of using willpower, you use WHYpower and really look at why you want to break a habit or create a new one.

The more compelling your reasons the more likely you are to keep things going when barriers appear he says.

So, there’s your mission. It’s time to think about your whys.

3. Try Changing Some Letters

I saw this in a tweet from UK based fitness trainer, Richard Callender many years ago and I absolutely love it.

It was aiming at helping people break their takeaway habit and he was suggesting that people replace the word ‘Fast’ in fast food with the word ‘fat’ as the image might start helping you make better choices.

Admittedly, the odd burger and fries won’t do anyone any harm, but if you’ve developed more of a takeout habit than is good for you, perhaps if you start referring to it as ‘fat food’ it might not seem quite so appealing!

I’ve now been sitting here pondering other name changes…
French Thighs; Hips-burger; Big-riito, Cornish Fatstry – and if you think about in a different way, The Whopper and the Big Mac don’t really need any alteration!

But it also works for other changes too – why would you want to smoke a Cigardeath or not do your Bestercise?

Got any more for me? Add them in the comments below.

4. Make This Your Mantra

‘A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.’

I loved this tip when I saw it on the blog of health coach Elly McGuiness. So, ask yourself not just want do you want to achieve – but how are you going to do it and when by.

Then start making that happen…if you need more tips on how then check out Elly’s post on how to stick to a fitness plan here.

5. Grab Your Free E-Book

My free mini-e book ‘You Can Do This’ which explains all the steps to making a successful change – from setting a goal, to deciding on your rewards.

It then gives you a simple worksheet to fill in as you go through the steps to make your own change – follow it and you’ll dramatically improve your chance of success. Promise!

All you need to do to get a copy is fill in the form below.

6. Let ‘Future You’ Make The Decisions

There are two people involved in making a change – the current you who has a habit that they want to break or commit to – and future you who has cracked it and behaves in a different way.

From now on ask yourself ‘what would future me do?’ whenever it comes to resisting temptation or taking a positive step to reach your goal..

For example, future you wouldn’t eat the third biscuit, future you would get up at 7.30 tomorrow to go to the gym rather than lie in and future you wouldn’t pinch a cigarette off your friend because it’s not cheating if you don’t buy any!!!

Future you is your new guru in life. Trust them and do what they tell you. Soon, they’ll be actual you!

7. Use Your Imagination

People using a technique called Functional Imagery Training – which sees you visualising a goal before you achieve it – lost five times more weight than those slimming without it found a study at the UK’s University of Plymouth.

And while the trial was on weight loss, it actually works on any kind of change you want to make. Here’s how you do it…
– Think about the change you want to make and why it’s so important to you to succeed.
– What do you need to do today to keep yourself on goal or get yourself started.
– Sit somewhere quiet for 5-10 minutes and imaging yourself going through your day, carrying out those steps – and succeeding at them.
– Also think about what obstacles you might come across – and visualise yourself overcoming them. Think about a clear plan to do that. See yourself achieving that.
– Spend the last minute thinking how blooming brilliant you’ll feel when you succeed. Now – go do it!

8. Make a Health Loyalty Card

You know if you go to the same coffee shop over and over again you collect little stamps and claim your prize? Why not do the same thing with your health goal. Here’s the idea….

1) Decide on your reward.
2) Decide what change you want to celebrate – it might be every time you order a water instead of a drink in the pub, every time you go for a walk or a run or, log a successful day on My Fitness Pal.
3) Then decide how many times you need to do the thing for (I’d suggest at least 28 as the more times you repeat a behaviour the more habitual it becomes).
4) Make a card and tick a box off every time you succeed.
5) When it’s full, claim your prize.

Remember, reward is one of the things that help you stick to a habit so this creates a double brain whammy.

9. Get Determined

Willpower is a feeling you call on pretty regularly when you’re trying to make any change, but we tend to think of it as something we have little or no power over. So, change the word.

You’re not relying on your willpower to resist that drink/chocolate bar or cigarette, you’re using your determination.

I came up with this tip when I was trying out giving up drinking for a month for a book (Quit Alcohol for a Month) – it was like an epiphany!

My friends were pretty certain I couldn’t do it (thanks guys!) and so I told myself I was determined not to cheat. Personally, I don’t think I have much willpower so I couldn’t rely on that to keep me off the sauce – but I know I have determination. I used to run for 26.2 miles without anyone chasing me – plus all the training miles it takes you to get to the point – and I am not a natural athlete. That’s determination.

That proved to me that I can do things if I put my mind to them. And it changed the whole way I thought about the drinking challenge – and heaps of other changes I’ve made too.

You might not have run a marathon, but think of something else you were determined to do (even learning to walk when you were a toddler took determination and you did that) and call on that when you’re feeling your resolve slide.

This tip came from a chat I once had with psychologist Rob Yeung, author of You Can Change Your Life.

He said that if a goal meets your values in life you’re more likely to stick to it.

So, find what your values are, then look at ways you can link your goal to them – for example, if family is most important to you, then think about how losing weight is going to improve what you can do with your kids, or, looking really seriously, how long you’ll be around for them.

Really focus on these reasons if you ever start to falter. They’ll keep you stronger than any other reason for making the change.

11. Think ‘Not Yet’

I absolutely love this tip which comes from a Ted Talk by researcher Carol Dweck.

She says that instead of judging yourself as a failure when you don’t meet your goals, just tell yourself you haven’t quite done it yet – and think about what you need to change to make that happen.

Her work found that when pupils who failed a test were given a mark of ‘not yet’ rather than an F, they were more likely to ace the next exam. You will too.

So, there you have it, a selection of top tips to help increase your chance of successful change – I’d love to hear any more of these you’ve found too.

Some More Post That Will Help…

If you are trying to create a new habit, we’ve written a heap of other posts that might help you stick with it and so, you might want to check out some of our specific posts that can help you. Like these…

If You’re Cutting Back on Alcohol

If you’re hoping to cut back on drinking have a look at our guide to tips on sticking to a month off alcohol – it also works when you’re trying to cut back, or stay off for longer too.

We’ve also got a post on non-alcoholic drinks that offer lots of alternatives you can swap to.

If You’re Trying to Lose Weight

If you find that your healthy eating plans tend to go fine all day, but go wrong when you get home, our post on how to stick to your diet at night will give you some helpful advice.

If food cravings are more your problem, we’ve got a list of questions that can help you identify what might causing your craving, so you can try and beat it.

If also might be a good idea to think about taking up yoga – it’s not always the first exercise you think of when you’re trying to lose weight, but there a lots of reasons why yoga can help your weight loss, and you’ll find them in our post.

If You’re Hoping to Exercise More

Joining a gym can help you get into the exercise habit, but, if you really want to stick to things it helps if you join the right gym for your needs and personality. So, how do you find it? We’ve got 13 questions to ask the gym – and yourself – to create the perfect match.

Poor weather can see even the best exercisers having to put their plans on ice (sorry, couldn’t resist), but there’s lots of different ways to handle this. You can work on your fitness in other ways – like firing up your playlist (and you’ll find some suggestions for these here).

If you’re a fan of cycling, there’s a lot of different ways to make cycling more winter-friendly.

Or lastly, you could try and do a home workout – which saves you having to deal with the cold and rain at all.

Who is The Wellness Nerd?

My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.

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