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Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.

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3 Ways to Change a Bad Habit

Posted: 12/20/11 09:00 AM ET

Each year, we see Jan. 1 as a time for fresh starts -- for tackling our bad habits head-on and replacing them with new, healthier ones. Maybe you want to start exercising regularly, quit smoking, lose a few pounds or remember to call your mother more often. No matter what it is you would like to do differently, these simple, scientifically-tested strategies will help you to finally make the real, lasting changes you're looking for.

1. Get Specific. Very Specific.

One of the most common mistakes we make when trying to reach a goal is not being specific enough about what we want, and what we we're going to do to make it happen. We say things like "I want to lose some weight" -- but how much exactly do you want to lose? Studies show that it is much easier to stay motivated when we have a very specific end point in mind, and can know at any moment exactly how far we still have to go.

Next, make sure you think about the specific actions you'll need to take to succeed. Don't just say "I'll eat less." Less of what? And how much less? Don't just say "I'll save more money each month." Decide exactly what will you spend less on to make that happen. The more detailed you make your plan, the more likely you are to actually stick to it.

2. Embrace This Fact: It's Going to Be Hard.

People will tell you that it is important to stay positive and be confident in order to reach any goal, and that's perfectly true. But there's an important difference between believing you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily. When you are tackling a difficult challenge, like losing weight or stopping smoking, you will be much better off if you accept the fact that it's not going to be smooth sailing.

Studies show that people who are realistic about what it will take to succeed naturally plan more, put in more effort and persist longer in pursuit of their goals. They expect to have to work hard, so that's exactly what they do.

For example, in one study, women in a weight loss program who believed that it would be hard to resist the temptation of snack foods lost 24 pounds more than women who believed they could easily ignore the allure of doughnuts and potato chips. Because they accepted that it would be hard, they avoided being anywhere near tempting foods, and were much more successful because of it.

3. Willpower Is Like a Muscle. Plan What You'll Do When it Gets Tired.

Research shows that your capacity for self-control is very much like the muscles in your body -- it can grow stronger with regular exercise. But just as well-developed biceps sometimes get tired after too much use, coping with the daily stresses of career and family can exhaust your supply of willpower. When you tax it too much at once, or for too long, the well of self-control strength runs dry. It is in these moments that the doughnut wins.

If you've spent all your self-control handling other challenges, you will not have much left at the end of the day for resisting bad habits. So it's important to think about when you are most likely to feel drained and vulnerable, and make a plan to keep yourself out of harm's way. Be prepared in advance with an alternate activity or a low-calorie snack, whichever applies.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals (including next year's resolutions!), check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

 
 
 

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