Written by Marie-Eve Ward
When it comes to habit change, how do we rid ourselves of those bad habits we’ve been struggling with for so long? Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Functional MRI research has shown us the brain in action and discovered that our strongest habits actually have formed neural pathways in the brain.
Imagine a vast, overgrown jungle and how hard it would be to hike through if there were no path already set out before you. But once you’ve done the hard work to carve out a path the first time, what happens if you go on that same path the next day and again the day after that? The path would become a bit wider, a bit more clear, and easier to navigate through each and every time.
What happens the next time when you’re standing at the entrance, the starting point of this jungle, trying to decide which way to go? You ultimately choose the path that is already carved out because that is the easiest choice.
The same is true for habits. All of the paths you’ve already carved out are what’s easiest for you to do but not necessarily what’s in alignment with your wants and goals. What we want to achieve in habit change is carving new neural pathways to result in new outcomes.
What exactly are habits?
Simply put, our habits are automated behaviours. According to Duke University’s research and mentioned in Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”, a massive 40-45% of our daily actions are habits and not conscious decisions.
The reason habits are essential to our well-being is because they allow us to live without constantly having to think about our next move. They allow us to multi-task. They save us both time and energy.
Think about your morning routine and how natural it is to brush your teeth each morning without hesitation. You don’t have to make a plan to do it; you simply just do. It is part of your routine. Such habits are important because your brain stops working around them. It frees up mental activity allowing you to focus on other things. Knowing that our habits are almost half of our daily actions, it only makes sense that the better our habits, the better our quality of life.
Although I can’t offer a quick fix, I can share 6 steps to habit change that will facilitate the process of turning health-destroying habits into health-promoting ones that last.
Step 1: Have a specific want or outcome
Our specific want or outcome can be described as our WHAT. What do I want? What is the goal you want to achieve? What is the outcome you want to see?
To be effective, a goal should be stated in the positive and achieved only by yourself so you’re never relying on someone else to make it happen. It should feel achievable within the specific timeframe you’re giving yourself and should be easy to measure so we know when we have met it. Finally, your goal needs to be appropriate in size - big enough to be worthwhile but small enough to feel attainable. It’s helpful to focus on one goal at a time, but keep in mind that achieving a certain goal can positively impact more than just one area of your life.
It’s also essential to create a clear image of what we want. And even more than the WHAT, the WHY is extremely important. WHY do I want this? Why is this important to me? Discovering your why is what will motivate you to stick with change day after day. I call this your “big MOFA” - your Big Motivating Factor. If I were to ask you on a scale of 1-10 how important it is for you to reach your goal, your answer should be close to a 10. If it doesn’t matter enough, it isn't enough of a driving force to create change.
What is most important to you in this moment? What would create the most significant change if you could achieve it?
Step 2: Make a conscious decision
We are making decisions every day to either live in alignment with our goals, bringing us closer to who we want to be; or we are making decisions that go against it, pushing us further from becoming that person. This is the stage where self-sabotage often takes place. When we are making choices that go against our goals, it’s important to notice why. Without judgement, without pointing the finger at ourselves, saying we’ve been “bad” or putting ourselves down but simply approaching it with curiosity and asking yourself “Why am I making this decision in this moment, knowing that it is not in my best interest?” The faster we can recognize self sabotaging behaviours, the faster we can correct them. You have to live in alignment with who you want to be for change to take place. You can’t be a healthy person with the habits of an unhealthy person.
You are the results of your choices, decisions, and actions.
Step 3: Set yourself up for success
When we set ourselves up for success, success becomes inevitable. Ask yourself what needs to be in place to get you even just one step closer to your goal.
Let’s say your goal is to become a runner. You made the decision to start running 5km every morning before work. First, you always want to start where you are. Are you already a runner? Do you own running gear? If not, running gear would probably be your first step, right? Now, where will you be running, for how long, with who, and how often?
Setting ourselves up for success should be very specific. Our body loves structure, so when we have structure, it makes us feel really good, and feeling really good leads to results.
Results are what empower us to continue creating change.
The body loves a good routine; it is the mind that likes to wander. Creating a game plan to set yourself up for success will be different for everyone, so this might be a trial and error scenario. No one can tell you what works best for you; only you can figure that out. We are all different beings with different bodies, minds, likes, and dislikes. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. People can give suggestions on what has worked for them, you can try it out, but it doesn’t mean you have to stick with it if it’s not something you enjoy. We always choose to do what’s most pleasurable.
If you are forcing yourself to do something that worked for someone else and not for you, chances are you’ll be left disappointed when you don’t experience the same results as them. Try new things, have fun while doing it, and remember that we are our own best experiment so take advantage of that.
Step 4: Identify your obstacles
It’s essential to identify what could slow you down or stop you from getting your desired outcome. In other words, what obstacles might you encounter?
Let’s keep running as our example - if you run outside, what will you do if it’s raining? In other words, what is your plan B? It could be trying out a new indoor exercise or learning to enjoy the rain on your skin as you run.
We often stand in our own way. What will you do when you simply do not feel like doing it? Would it be possible for you to do the bare minimum? This could mean just a 15-minute walk outside in the fresh air instead of a full 5km run. You might surprise yourself with how much more you accomplish once you get going.
What if you’re limited on time because you lead a very busy life in this very busy world?
I’m a strong believer that we don’t have time for everything but we do have time for the most important things. That is why our goal needs to be close to a 10/10 on the importance scale because you are more likely to find the time if it means enough to you. It’s all about priorities here. Remind yourself of why it’s important and how you can avoid the obstacles that might stand in your way of achieving it.
Step 5: Create support and accountability
Why is support and accountability important? Because we are social beings at our core. We are more likely to follow through with a commitment when being observed by others or when others are taking part in the same experience and commitment as us. Whether you identify as an introvert or extrovert, we all need someone to tell us we’re doing a good job or to give us a kick in the butt when we’re falling off track.
Nothing in life can be carried out to the fullest without accountability! Accountability means living in integrity - where all your thoughts, words, and actions are consistent with one another and in alignment. When we struggle to keep ourselves accountable, this is when we need to reach for outside accountability and support.
Support is important because most people go through life under-acknowledged. In fact, many people become uncomfortable or confused when given a heartfelt, genuine compliment, which just goes to show that we need more appreciation and acknowledgment in our lives. When you have support from someone who holds you to the highest version of yourself, it gives you energy to keep going.
Step 6: Reward yourself!
What good is creating change if we can’t celebrate our wins? Big and small!
Something I love to do is create a mental list about all the things that went well in my day and celebrate them. Even when everything is falling apart, where we feel we’re letting ourselves down or are not following through the way we want to, there is always something to celebrate.
Instead of waiting for the big end result, acknowledge how far you’ve come every step of the way. Sometimes, we only recognize the big leaps as meaningful, but it’s those small things that ultimately add up to big results.We don’t have to wait until we have reached our desired outcome to be proud of ourselves.
As much as it’s important to reach your goal, it is as important to enjoy the process and to go through the motions of the positive feelings you may encounter one day and the struggles you may encounter the next.
Remember, if we enjoy the journey we are bound to arrive at our destination.
Certified Health and Life Coach
Marie-Eve is a Certified Health and Life Coach and founder of The Chit Chat Room. After a life-changing battle with breast cancer, she re-invented herself, which led her to follow her passion for helping others unleash their true potential and overcome challenges by specializing in Habit Change.
Her love of travel has led her to coaching clients from different countries and cultures. She plans to amass her network further around the globe to share her experience and lead others into healthier living, making an impact in all areas of their lives.
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