Today is the perfect day to break away from a bad habit and replace it with a good one
Our lives run on habits and routines. Most of them serve us quite well. But some habits—you know the one’s I’m talking about—are counterproductive and need to be replaced by better ones.
Today is a great day to start because you can take advantage of what is known as a “fresh-start” event. Research shows that people are more successful at adopting healthy habits if they begin during a time of perceived change.
As I write this, we are transitioning out of a long period of COVID-19 restrictions. We have gone through a stretch of time in which many of our normal routines were disrupted or significantly modified. Now we can begin a return to normal. Or, better yet, we can create a new normal for ourselves.
A fresh start event is a time of transition, when we feel that we can leave the past behind and step boldly into a new future. We feel liberated by these transition periods. It’s like getting a do-over, a mulligan. We may have messed up in the past, but today is a new day. We start with a clean slate. We get to reinvent ourselves and create our new normal.
The post-pandemic transition isn’t the only fresh start that is available to you. Lots of other dates can serve as “fresh start” opportunities if you so desire. The beginning of the new year is a classic fresh start event. But you can decide that the start of a new week gives you a fresh start opportunity. Or a new day! “Hey! This is the first day of the rest of my life. And I’m a new me.”
So, seize the moment! Make a fresh start today by establishing a new, healthy habit.
Here’s a distillation of expert advice to help you in this endeavor:
Focus on a Good Replacement Habit: Avoid the mistake of trying to get rid of your bad habits. Any attention given to the bad routine just reinforces the neural networks that trigger and support the maladaptive behavior. Instead, focus your mental energy on establishing a new and improved habit to replace the old one.
Repeat and Rehearse: You strengthen new neural networks by repeatedly activating them. The more you purposely activated the new routine, the more automatic it becomes. Gradually, the new and improved routine will become more automatic than the bad one.
Be Creative with Immediate Gratification: We hold on to bad habits because they provide us with immediate rewards. A new replacement habit must equal that reward. The problem with many good habits is that the tangible benefits occur sometime in the distant future. The trick, therefore, is to find a way to make the good new habit fun and rewarding right now! Like Mary Poppins said, “a spoonful of sugar . . .” If sweating in spandex at the gym sounds dreadful, put on your dancing shoes and boogie the night away.
Develop Commitment Devices: Coerce yourself into doing the right thing. Make a public statement that you are going to adopt a new, healthy routine. Or up the ante a bit. Give your best friend $500 and tell them they can keep it if you fail to reach a specific goal, like losing five pounds in two months, or dancing like a lunatic at least once per week.
Make Cue-Based Plans: Having a plan with specific strategies (wild dancing), tactics (dance club) and timelines (Thursdays at 8 p.m.) is hugely important. Make your plans even stronger by attaching a cue that kicks the plan into action. When this happens, I’ll do that. When I finish washing the dinner dishes, I’ll dance a joyous jig for five minutes.
Chunking: How do you eat a Woolly Mammoth? One bite at a time. Break large goals into smaller, bite-sized chunks. If your goal is to lose 24 pound this year, set goals of two pounds per month, or a half a pound per week.
Celebrate Small Wins: Each time you finish one bite, cross it off your “To Do” list and celebrate your achievement. Reward yourself. “Whoo hoo. Lost a half pound this week. I’m going dancing!”
Find the Flow: A flow state occurs when you have the resources you need to meet an engaging and exciting challenge. An easy challenge is boring. An impossible challenge is disheartening.
Wiggle-Room: Research shows that we do a better job of sticking to a plan when we give ourselves a bit of wiggle room. If your goal is to exercise every day of the week at 10 a.m., give yourself some wiggle room. It’s okay if you exercise at 3 p.m. and skip a day. Research shows that wiggle-roomers actually get more exercise than strict by-the-bookers.
Free Passes: Similar idea. Give yourself a break. Go easy. Be self-compassionate. If you are trying to establish healthy eating habits, it isn’t the end of the world if you eat one jelly donut. Give yourself one or two “free passes” per week.
Positive Peer Pressure: Hang out with people who behave the way you want to behave. Avoid people who indulge in the bad habits you want to escape. Be careful, however, not to hang out with peer groups that perform at a seemingly impossible level. Dance with crazy people, not pros.
Make Laziness Work for You: The upside of laziness is that it encourages us to be efficient and find shortcuts. Habits and routines—if they promote positive behaviors—are great! They become automatic and our default settings. Embrace your positive habits and routines.
Embarrassingly Easy First Steps: Often the first step is the hardest, so make the first step embarrassingly easy; so simple, so doable, that you will blush if you fail to take it. Shame yourself into action.
Ramp It Up: Start easy. When the new habit can be performed with elegant style and grace, ramp it up a notch. Strive for constant, incremental improvement, a smidgen at a time.
Michael C. Patterson, founder and CEO of MINDRAMP Consulting, writes extensively on the art and science of brain health and mental flourishing. He is an educator and consultant who previously managed AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program and helped develop the field of creative aging.