Changing your behavior does not happen overnight, but it’s doable. Here’s how to start.
It’s spring. By now, you’ve either broken your New Year’s resolutions or successfully integrated them into your routines.
If you’re in the former group, you’re in luck. This is actually a terrific time to create new habits or to shed old ones. That’s because the important elements of habit change aren’t tied to a season. Moreover, the experience of failing to change can actually give you crucial information that will ensure victory the next time around.
For one, it’s important to begin the change process with what social scientists call “pre-contemplation,” or really thinking through the pros and cons of your current situation, what is keeping you in the bad habit, and what would be the benefit of changing. Such thinking helps make you aware of factors that might hold you back.
“People tend to fail because they start directly in the contemplating phase—they rethink their personal beliefs, capabilities, they start thinking, ‘I can do this, I can change jobs, I can update my resume.’ But what they haven’t done is become fully aware of the current situation and the consequences of continuing with what you’re doing,” says Sebastian Bailey, New York-area author of Mind-Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently.
Indeed, if you resolve to change your behavior at a time of year when you have time to plan—as opposed to when the Jan. 1 deadline encourages you to impulsively make resolutions—you’ll be better prepared to handle bumps in the road. When you know what made you falter in your resolve to stay off Facebook at work, for instance, you can craft a plan to sidestep that problem in the future. This is part of the third stage of habit change, which is preparation, according to Bailey.
In The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg explains habits as a combination of a trigger or cue that prompts us to act in a certain way, followed by a routine that culminates in a reward we receive from engaging in that habit. For example, if we have a habit of eating an afternoon snack, the cue may be seeing a colleague headed for the cafeteria, followed by the routine of joining him for biscotti and coffee, which give us the reward of a caffeine and sugar rush.
Once a habit has been established, the neural pathways in our brain associated with that habit cannot be eliminated; we can only form new ones by replacing the habit with a new routine. It’s important to examine your habits to understand what your motivation is; for instance, do you actually like that sugar and caffeine jolt? Or are you seeking social connection during the afternoon lull? That insight will give you the tools to change your habits.
If you have a habit of checking Twitter when you’re bored at work, try instead to do a quick set of pushups, go for a walk, chat with a neighbor, read a stack of piled-up journal articles, or do a crossword puzzle. Whichever of these activities helps distract you from Twitter is most closely addressing the need you’re trying to meet with a social media fix. The winning activity is the best candidate for a new routine that can be sandwiched between the cue and the reward, according to Duhigg.
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