Cruise Control: How to Change a Habit
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
I often joke that my car knows the way to the gym whether I am in it or not. In the near future, cars may be that smart, but for now, I’m still in the driver’s seat each morning with the exception of Sunday when I rest. This habit is so deeply ingrained that I no longer need to write it down or make a conscious decision; like brushing my teeth before bed, it’s pre-programmed. The same might be said for my bottle of wine that automatically pops its cork around 7 p.m.
In reality, these are long-term habits—behaviors that have become so automatic that I don’t have to think about them, like driving down the highway on cruise control. Once in a while, I have a fleeting thought about skipping my workout, but the temptation is almost always overridden by a higher power called habit. Same goes for my evening spot of wine.
When you think of habits, you likely zoom in on the bad ones such as overindulging in food and/or alcohol, nail biting, overspending, or leaving dirty socks on the floor. (For the record, I have at least one such habit.) Perhaps you would rather focus on creating a new habit such as eating more vegetables or keeping your desk organized. Trying to eliminate all bad habits or establish several good ones at once is a recipe for failure. So pick one for now.
Should, could or would?
Successfully changing a habit begins with making up your mind. Think of a habit you are trying to change and give it the should, could, would test. For example: Should you stop doing X or start doing Y? Could you, with an appropriate plan and support system? Would you be willing to? If the answer to any of the above questions is no, then you have consciously decided that the comfort of sameness outweighs any negative consequences of your current behavior or potential positive outcomes of making a change.
If the answers are all yes, then dig deep and define the reason or reasons that will drive you to do what is necessary to succeed. Rather than focus on negative motivators (e.g. if I keep smoking, I might get cancer), try coming up with a list of positive results or rewards you expect when you make the desired change. Examples might include financial gain, time for other activities, increased energy, greater confidence, less pain, improved relationships, etc. The more specific you can be about your “why,” the more successful you will be.
Ask yourself, “What will be different or better about my life if I make this change?” If you are stuck, or if your why is too small or too vague, play the “so that” game: “I want to _______ so that _______ so that _______.” Keep repeating the phrase until you get to the most compelling reason, and set your sights on the prize you’re after.
The nitty gritty
If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in making a change. But interest is not enough. You must also be committed to and invested in the process—enough so that you will take action. For example, you can be interested in losing weight by making smarter food choices and/or starting an exercise program or interested in delighting your partner by aiming for the hamper with your dirty socks. But unless you are committed to and invested in doing the work, that goal is likely to fall between the cracks. You will be too busy, too tired, too something….
In his book, Do One Thing Different, professional counselor Bill O’Hanlon suggests eliminating a bad habit by changing the way you “do your problem.” If the family-size bag of nachos calls loudest to you when slouching on the sofa in front of the TV, decide to do one thing different before sticking your hand in the bag: sit in a different chair; brush your teeth; apply some lip balm; change your shoes…. Interrupting the usual pattern may be just the signal your brain needs to break out of it and make a different choice.
The same applies to that good habit you intend to establish. A lofty goal and lengthy to-do list is unlikely to yield lasting change. Start small instead. For example, if your goal is to save money for a cruise, you might begin by depositing all your pocket change in a jar at the end of each day. In the same way, if you’ve decided you need to drink more water and you’ve barely been getting in eight ounces a day, suddenly committing to eight times that much might be a stretch. Try adding one more glass than normal today and increase in small increments.
By taking baby steps toward change, old behaviors will eventually give way to new habits that are as automatic as driving down the highway…on cruise control.