4 Tricks to Make a Healthy Habit Stick for Good
Here, steps you can take to arm yourself against less-than-healthy impulses, and minimize the angst you feel on a daily basis.
Wake up 30 minutes earlier to walk before work. Swap candy for fruit when a sugar craving hits. Do 60 fly-ups during Dancing With The Stars. Healthy goals always seem so straightforward—until temptation strikes and you end up hitting snooze, raiding a vending machine, or vegging out on the couch.
“The fact is, we’re surrounded by temptation,” writes Gretchen Rubin in her new bestseller Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives ($16, amazon.com). She cites a 2011 study which estimated that we spend about a quarter of our waking time resisting some aspect of desire.
But here’s the good news: There are steps you can take to arm yourself against less-than-healthy impulses, and minimize the angst you feel on a daily basis. In her book, Rubin calls them safeguards because they're designed to protect a new good habit—whatever it may be.
In the excerpt below, she describes four of these simple tricks:
Make “if-then” plans
These strategies (“If ____ happens, then I will do ____”) help you plan for habit challenges that might arise, so you’re not forced to make a decision in the heat of the moment. Making a plan in advance, when you’re in a cool and detached frame of mind, means you can act quickly—without much internal debate—in the face of temptation. Over time, I’ve come up with a list of my own if-thens:
If I’m writing, I shut down my email.
If I’m invited to dinner, I eat a snack before I go so I won’t be too hungry.
If I’m offered wine, I decline. (Almost always.)
Catch yourself early when you stumble
Because of the colorfully named “what the hell” phenomenon, a minor stumble often becomes a major fall. Once a habit is broken, we act as though it doesn’t matter whether it’s broken by a little or a lot. People on a healthy eating plan seem especially susceptible to this pattern. A friend once described what happens after she breaks her diet: “It’s like a rush to gobble down as much forbidden food as I can that day because I know the next day I’ll have to start to eat right again.”
“How about this,” I suggested. “Instead of feeling that you’ve blown the day and thinking ‘I’ll get back on track tomorrow,’ try thinking of each day as a set of four quarters: morning, midday, afternoon, evening. If you blow one quarter, you get back on track for the next quarter. Fail small. Not big."
And don’t judge too harshly
Although some people assume that strong feelings of shame help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true. People who feel less guilt and show compassion toward themselves after a slip-up are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty struggle more.
Instead of viewing your stumbles as evidence that you’re weak, see them as part of the habit-formation process. Tell yourself, “It happens,” or, “What I do most days matters more than what I do once in a while.” That kind of self-encouragement is a greater safeguard than self-blame.
Break your habit deliberately
Sometimes we want to break a habit, to take advantage of a rare opportunity, say, or to celebrate. A very effective safeguard in that situation is the planned exception, chosen very consciously, ahead of time. These exceptions work best when they’re limited. (For example, go ahead and skip the gym so you have extra time to prepare for the annual retreat—not the weekly staff meeting.) A good test is to ask yourself how you’ll feel about the exception later: Will you think, Looking back on it, I wish I’d made a different choice? Or: I’m so happy I took advantage of that opportunity.
Adapted from Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives Copyright © 2015 by Gretchen Rubin. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.