If you’re like the vast majority of people, you have a behavior that you’d like to change, maybe nail biting, smoking, or getting more exercise. Most people think making a change is linked to willpower and the strength of one’s character. The reality is, sometimes all it takes is changing the way we THINK about our behaviors to actually change them.
I’ll be using my own example of quitting smoking, which happened about 10 years ago. My reasons for quitting smoking were multifold, but mainly I wanted to have better health. I tried white-knuckling it (using pure willpower) several times and it didn’t work. I’d heard that it takes on average 8-14 attempts to quit smoking, and that most smokers don’t stop until their 40s or 50s, so I wanted to take a different approach. Below are tips and tricks that are associated with long term success. These tools helped me immensely in my own behavior change.
Tip 1: Tracking your behavior.
Tracking your behavior gives you increased awareness and greater responsibility for making new choices. Keeping a record will also help you to find out what events trigger the action. Start with writing down (on your cell phone, notebook, a piece of paper – whatever works!) every time you do the behavior for one week. This will give you a baseline of how often you indulge in the habit you want to change. As time passes, you will be able to see your progress. By keeping track, I noticed particular patterns, such as smoking when I first woke up, when I was driving, when I first got home and after meals. I ended up with an average of a certain number of cigarettes per day. I made a plan for the next week to reduce the number of cigarettes I smoked by half.
Tip 2: Find and focus on your motivation
What is your goal and why do you want to do this? Take time to reflect and ask yourself at least 5 “why” questions, to fully explore why you want to change your behavior
- Why do you want to stop smoking: to get healthy
- Why do you want to get healthy: so I can live longer and in less pain
- Why do you want to live longer: so I can help more people and watch my kids grow up
- Why is it important that you watch your kids grow up and help people: because I want to leave a positive legacy behind
- Why is it important that you leave a positive legacy: because I want to live a meaningful life and feel like I have a purpose on this planet
You can use the results of your journaling exercise to create a mantra. For me, it was “Get Healthy! Breathe!” Every day I would re-read those words and this helped me to maintain my motivation and focus.
Tip 3: Environmental Control
When we have temptations in our immediate environment, we are more likely to slip into old ways. If I didn’t have cigarettes with me, then I was less likely to smoke. Of course I could always run by a store and get some, but not having them immediately accessible allowed me to be more mindful, give me time to interrupt my urge and decision to buy more cigarettes, and/or use my distraction techniques.
Take inventory of your home environment and set yourself up for success by getting rid of things that will trigger the behavior you’re removing. If you’re working to increase or add a behavior, such as going for a run in the morning, get your running shoes and outfit ready before you go to bed at night.
Tip 4: It is easier to add a behavior, than to take it away
If you want to reduce a behavior, find something that you can replace it with. If you are adding or increasing a behavior, pair it with something you already do. For example, if you want to practice mindfulness each day, try pairing it with brushing your teeth. Each day after you brush your teeth, do your mindfulness practice.
I made plans to cope during the times I would normally want to smoke. Instead of immediately smoking when I got home, I would distract myself with putting my things away (instead of just dumping it on a chair), playing with my pets, etc. While driving, I would chew gum or mints. I brushed my teeth right after dinner so I would be less tempted to smoke.
Tip 5: Accountability
It can be hard to make changes – so having someone to help you stay accountable, while building you up and helping you problem solve, can be invaluable for a behavior change. I bet you have a friend who also has a behavior they’d like to change. Even if the behavior is different from yours, you can still help each other! I had accountability with a classmate who was working on procrastination. We helped each other by checking in each week and sharing what we noticed about our experience.
Tip 6: Reward yourself
Come up with a plan to reward yourself for accomplishing your behavior! You’ve earned it! Make sure that it’s something special and that it is aligned with your goals. For example, rewarding yourself for sticking to your workout goals for the week could be taking a new class that you’ve wanted to try or buying some new workout gear. When I was able to stick to or below my goal, I rewarded myself with a piece of dark chocolate before bed (from a sleep hygiene perspective I do not recommend this as chocolate has caffeine, but you get the point). If I didn’t meet my goal, I would do ten pushups or situps.
I hope you find these tools helpful in working towards your behavior change goals. It’s been 10 years since I kicked the habit of smoking, and while it was difficult, using these strategies I was able to effect a lasting change in my life.
If you’re working hard and still struggling or feeling stuck, we have therapists on staff who are ready to support you. You may also want to check out our SMART Recovery meeting, which meets every Tuesday at 6:00pm. SMART Recovery is open to anyone working on quitting or decreasing any addictive behavior, whether it’s phone addiction, gambling, or substance related. We offer SMART Recovery by donation and all are welcome!
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