Whether you want to eat healthier, commit to regular exercise, get more sleep, or destress, effective lifestyle change often requires replacing old less productive habits with newer and healthier ones. This can be a challenge, particularly if the habits you are trying to change or replace are deeply ingrained.
By definition, a habit is a behavior that has been practiced or engaged in so frequently that it's almost involuntary. The benefit of a habit, particularly a healthy one, is that it becomes automatic and doesn't require executive function or significant mental energy.
We used to believe it took approximately twenty-one days to change a behavior; however, newer research suggests that the time frame is significantly longer and extremely variable. A more updated estimation for successful habit formation is closer to sixty-six days on average. Unfortunately, it could also take up to a year. How easily an old habit is ditched or a new habit is acquired depends on many factors including motivation, internal and external resources, as well as the nature and complexity of the habit you are trying to change.
When attempting to form new healthier habits, sometimes the best way to facilitate a big change is via small more gradual changes. Since big change is often met with big resistance, it’s helpful to think big but act small. In addition, drastic change that happens too quickly is often unsustainable and short-lived. When it comes to making lifestyle changes, you want to be the turtle and not the hare, since slow and steady wins this race every time.
For example, maybe you want to consistently make healthier food choices. On the surface, ditching cake for a healthier snack such as fruit might seem like a piece of cake. And if that is the only food choice you are trying to change, it might just be that easy. But a complete overhaul of your diet is likely to be a whole lot harder. Fortunately, swapping out blueberries for a blueberry muffin could be the first of many small steps that propel you forward on the path toward a more nutritious diet. So, rather than up-end your entire meal plan all at once, a more manageable and practical approach might be to first focus on breakfast, or if need be, one aspect of breakfast.
Likewise, if you would like to go from couch potato to 5K enthusiast, your best bet is to come up with a plan that includes a manageable daily or weekly commitment. You might decide to complete a few two-mile walks at a moderate pace the first week. If all goes well, you can up the ante the following week by either increasing the number of days you walk, distance and/or time you walk, or your walking intensity. The main point is that you consistently meet your commitments and methodically build upon them. It may take a little while before you reach your goal, but chances are when you finally cross the finish-line the behavior will be more permanent.
Whatever the change you’ve settled on, it’s helpful to have a plan for those days where life is sure to get in the way. For these worse case scenarios, you want to think of a behavior you can commit to regardless. So, for example, if you are trying to exercise regularly, think of an activity that you could do under any circumstances. This might be one push-up. It might be ten jumping jacks or ten air squats. These behaviors are simply placeholders. The idea is that maybe you can’t make it to the gym, but you still do your one push-up because, seriously, who can’t find the time or energy to do at least one push-up. The hope is that you won’t stop at one, but even if you do, you’ve successfully held that space for exercise, and that is how habits are ultimately formed.
What won’t help to form a habit is skipping the pre-planned commitment all together. In this case, something will always be better than nothing.
In conclusion, when forming or breaking habits, it’s okay to think big, providing you realize you might have to act small. In the end, the most important aspect of change isn’t necessarily the size of the steps you take but the consistency of the steps you take. Patience (and a little self-forgiveness) is a virtue as you are sure to encounter hiccups along the way. How you manage these hiccups through planning and action determines your success.