I used to be a smoker, a heavy smoker since my teens. It was never something I was proud of, but eventually it became part of who I was. It become one of my traits. One of those things that used to describe me – a smoker. Did I know deep down that it was a bad habit? I mean, sure…not exactly the healthier behavior, but I truly enjoyed it (addiction aside). Something I have always told myself was that I would eventually quit smoking and my only reason for it was becoming pregnant. It seemed a reasonable excuse. When that day arrived, I struggled but I went through with it.
A bad habit is like a shadow that never quite leaves your side. It moves silently in the dark waiting for your first relapse, just to crawl back into your life. Once a smoker, always a smoker. Or should I say, always an ex-smoker. Do I mean that it is impossible to break a bad habit for good? Surely not! You have to be brave though and stick to it with all fibers of your being.
One thing is to leave a bad habit behind, another is to implement healthy habits. Often a healthy habit can replace a bad one. But even more powerful than replace it is to establish a set of habits that are effective and productive. Something turns into a habit when is embedded in your life until it becomes part of who you are. Creating new and good habits takes patience, discipline and persistence. Above all, it requires action. Small steps to implement certain routines consistently into your daily life.
Below you can find 5 strategies to help you effectively develop healthy and productive habits:
1. Decide what to keep: Take a closer look at your life and identify your current habits. Sit down, draw two columns and list all the habits – good and bad – that are part of your routine. Maybe you are a smoker, or your daily intake of caffeine is a bit high. Perhaps it is the amount or frequency of junk food, or too much sugar. Or how much time you spend watching TV falling asleep on the couch every evening. On the other hand, it may be that you are already doing exercise on a frequent basis, maybe meditation or any other activity feeding your body and mind. Taking time for yourself could also be already on your priority list, a hobby or something else that relaxes you. After you have finalized the two lists, go head and point out which of these activities you would like to keep and which ones you would like to quit or leave behind. Also, you can add to your final list other good habits you would like to start. Maybe it is something you have always wanted to implement and have been procrastinating, or a good habit you once had but have left behind.
2. Be consistent: A habit does not turn into one overnight. Our brains tend to fight against change, trying to keep efforts to a minimum. Scientists call it our reptilian brain, one of our oldest and primal brains, responsible for preserving our bodily functions and keeping us safe. Consistency is key to activate new brain patterns, in order to establish new behaviors until they become automatic. Let us say you decide to start doing more exercise. First few weeks, even the first two months, will not be easy. You will probably want to give up, telling yourself that it is not working, that it is too much effort. Do not listen to your reptilian brain. Instead, keep at it! What can help, especially in the beginning, is to follow a routine when it comes to exercise. For instance, doing it always at the same time of the day or same days of the week. This allows your brain to prepare beforehand, knowing when the time to exercise has arrived. As time goes on, you can become more flexible, though scheduling it in your calendar does not hurt. Actually, it helps you to have a better overview of your day and week, as well as to organize yourself for other activities.
3. Target for improvement: When you have reached consistent habits, meaning that they are now part of your routine and require less effort than when you started, it is time to target for improvement. It does not have to be huge; it can be incremental steps. You have been exercising 3 times a week for 45 minutes, now you can add 15 more minutes to each training session. Or maybe you have been eating junk food once a week (instead of the usual 2 or 3 times a week), you can try to do it every two weeks from now onwards. When you focus on these smaller improvements, you are communicating an important message to your brain. You are telling your brain that you are able not only to establish new behaviors, but also to deal with challenges as they come leading to change. Improvement does not necessarily mean increasing exponentially – or reducing more – certain activities or behaviors. It can also be adding new habits to that list of yours. Imagine your initial list has 3 good habits that you have committed to, you can add one more to the list every 3 weeks or every month. Take the uncomfortable action, while following your own rhythm. You do not have to prove anything to anyone.
4. Track your progress: Have it in your head is not enough. You must track how you are progressing after implementing your new habits. Memory is a funny thing and you should not rely on it to account for your progress. Keep a journal where you log your improvements. You can do it daily, weekly or monthly – preferably one of the first two options. When it does not go exactly as you planned or wished for, take a deep breath before going into “blame mode”. It is easy to beat yourself up when you feel like you have failed or could have done better. Though ruminating on these thoughts will not help you moving forward. Instead of blaming yourself, recognize the progress you have done. Overtime, you will be able to identify certain patterns and know what hinders you the most and what are the success factors. In the beginning, if you think having someone who accounts for your efforts and behaviors, such as coach, a mentor, a friend, your partner helps – go ahead and find that accountable partner. At the end, you must be accountable for your actions. It is within you where the true power of change lies.
5. Find the joy: Regardless of how big or small, an action is always a step forward. Often we aim for greater outcomes without even realizing when are already there, let alone celebrate it. Whatever new and good habits you decide to implement, make sure you find the joy. It is not only about making a plan and follow it strictly. The habits you create for yourself must reflect who you are. Otherwise, if you feel you have much more to give and have been cutting corners or acting lazy, your habits should be a reflection of who you want to become. Your habits must make sense to you. If meditation is not your cup of tea even after trying it, do not feel the need to pursue it. If you are not an indoors person and you prefer to be out in the nature, maybe replace a treadmill for a run outdoors. Find what works best for you within the realm of healthy and productive habits and remember to celebrate the small wins. It is your effort, your sweat and tears. Make sure you acknowledge your progress and successes.
Do not forget to be compassionate to yourself. Bad habits are not eliminated in one go, the same way good habits do not become as such over a week. Give it your time, your dedication, your focus. Let your new healthy habits be part of your life, until they become who you are.