Strategies for making good habit permanent

Posted Feb. 21, 2011, at 8:29 p.m.

Most of us are interested in making lifestyle changes that have a long-term impact. Whether it is improving our overall health and wellness, or coping better with a problem such as excessive anxiety or overuse of substances such as alcohol or nicotine, we want to make the change last more than a few weeks.

If you are having trouble developing a new, positive habit, you are not alone. Surveys suggest that about 60 percent of people who set a personal goal to make a positive change in their life have given up six months later.

These five strategies can help make a new habit or routine a permanent part of your life:

1. Change one behavior at a time. Unhealthful behaviors develop over the course of time, so replacing them with healthful ones also requires time. Many people run into problems when they try to change too much too fast. To improve your success, focus on one goal or change at a time. As each new, healthful behavior becomes a habit, try to add another goal that works toward the overall change you’re striving for.

2. Start small. After you’ve identified realistic short-term and long-term goals, break down your goals into small, manageable steps. It may sound overly simple, but change leads to more change. If you would like to eat a more healthful diet, consider as a goal for the week replacing dessert with a more healthful option, such as fruit or yogurt. At the end of the week, you’ll feel successful knowing you met your goal.

3. Make a plan you can stick with. Your plan is a map that will guide you on this journey of change. When making your plan, be specific. Want to exercise more? Detail the time of day when you can take walks and how long you’ll walk. Write everything down, and ask yourself if you’re confident that these activities and goals are realistic for you. If not, start with smaller steps. Post your plan where you’ll most often see it as a reminder.

4. Involve a buddy. Whether it be a friend, co-worker or family member, having someone else along on your journey will keep you motivated and accountable. Perhaps it can be someone who will go to the gym with you or someone who is also trying to stop smoking. Talk about what you are doing. Consider joining a support group. Having someone with whom to share your struggles and successes makes the work easier and the mission less intimidating.

5. Ask for support. Accepting help from those who care about you and will listen strengthens your resilience and commitment. If you feel overwhelmed or unable to meet your goals on your own, consider seeking help from a psychologist. Psychologists are uniquely trained to understand the connection between the mind and body as well as the factors that promote behavior change. This doesn’t mean a lifetime of therapy; even just a few sessions can help you examine and set attainable goals or address the emotional issues that may be getting in your way.

Psychologist David Prescott is the director of psychology services and clinical research at The Acadia Hospital.

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