Breaking bad habits is usually a challenge, but so is learning new, more positive behaviours; here are four errors that can hold you back—and four strategies for success
By Wendy Haaf
Shawn Adamsson had tried to incorporate meditation into his daily routine, but his first several attempts didn’t stick. “I was on and off for a while,” the 51-year-old from London, Ont., says. But in early 2020, soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he did some reading about the psychology behind making sustainable changes in behaviour and decided to try again. He’s meditated every day since.
New Year resolutions?
Who hasn’t made a New Year’s resolution to either kick an unwanted habit or adopt a new one that promises to be helpful, only to run out of steam by the end of January? What makes the difference between false starts and success? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as signing up for a gym membership or downloading an app that promises to help you lose weight. It’s complex enough that there’s a branch of psychology devoted specifically to behavioural change.
Many attempts at change are stalled by mistaken beliefs and faulty thinking. Here are a few of the missteps people commonly make, as well as some strategies to help you nudge yourself onto the path to your goal.
Error #1: Not getting to the bottom of a behaviour
As you go through your day, you probably do quite a few things on automatic pilot. One of the reasons we develop habits is that they save us mental effort; for instance, you probably don’t decide to brush your teeth in the morning—you just do it.
“Learned behaviours matter,” says Colleen Cannon, a Vancouver psychologist with Craving Change, which offers a cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) program to help clients overcome eating disorders. “We respond strongly to reinforcement. We continue to do things that either bring us pleasure and positive feelings or decrease negative feelings. If, for example, I’m feeling stressed and anxious and I’ve learned having a cigarette helps me feel more calm, chances are that I’m going to continue to do that, because it helps me immediately.”
Aversions and cravings
“Most people are constantly responding to aversions and cravings,” says Michelle Sorensen, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Nepean, Ont., Resiliency Clinic, which offers psychology and psychotherapy services to address issues such as mood disorders, burnout, interpersonal difficulties, and body-image concerns. She says it’s important to step back and figure out what’s feeding the habit you’d like to break. For example, you might want to eat healthier meals but instead keep craving fast food and starchy snacks. When you examine your underlying motivations, you might find that those foods satisfy a need for comfort and pleasure.
Mindfulness, which essentially is tuning in to your thoughts and feelings in the present moment, “can help us better identify what we’re reacting to,” Sorensen says. “If someone can identify the issue and then choose other sources of comfort and pleasure, perhaps he or she can manage the cravings better.”
Error #2: Setting the bar too high
“Many people set goals that are too big,” Sorensen observes. “For instance, they may plan to go to the gym daily or conform to a drastic dietary change, setting themselves up for avoidance or for perceived failure if things don’t work out perfectly.” Sorensen adds that this miscalculation is an outgrowth of another common mistake people make when setting out to change: all-or-nothing thinking. For example, either you’re fit or you’re a couch potato; or if you stumble in your effort to eat a healthy lunch one day, you’ve failed, so you might as well overdo it and eat an entire chocolate cake. This kind of thinking can increase your chances of getting discouraged and giving up.
Instead, when trying to adopt a new habit, start with baby steps. Andrea Holwegner, a registered dietitian and the CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting in Calgary, offers the following example: If your ultimate goal is to pack a healthy lunch every day, she suggests breaking that down into smaller steps. “The key is making the new thing as tiny as possible,” she says. The first step might simply be remembering to put your lunch bag on the counter every evening after dinner. “Once that’s become automatic, then you’re going to start to think, Okay, what am I putting in my lunch?” Holwegner says.
Each step should be “a tiny little habit that you can check off within 30 seconds to two minutes,” she adds. Tracking your progress has been shown to improve the odds of staying the course. While there are countless apps, journals, and gadgets for doing so, Holwegner’s preference is a simple sheet of paper on which you can list new steps and then tick off each of these every day.
Sorensen, too, emphasizes the importance of setting yourself up for small wins. “When people give themselves credit and feel proud of themselves for one small change in lifestyle, that change can lead to consistency and encourage more changes,” she says.
Error #3: Skipping directly to action
When it comes to breaking or adopting habits, “preparation is usually grossly underemphasized,” Cannon says. Instead, people often decide that something has to change and “jump right into action with quick solutions— throwing away the cigarettes or getting a gym membership, for example.”
It’s important to think about where you might go astray and then plan how you might handle those bumps in the road. For instance, you might choose to fall back on an easy go-to recipe or even a made-ahead frozen entree on those days when you find it hard to muster the energy to plan a healthy dinner. Or perhaps you might decide that, instead of fighting the urge to buy candy at the checkout every time you go shopping, you’ll instead splurge on one gourmet chocolate bar each week and then savour a single square each day.
Flexibility and experimentation
Flexibility and experimentation should be part of this process, Cannon stresses. For instance, if quitting smoking is your ultimate goal, you might try delaying your first cigarette of the day by an hour, cutting the number of cigarettes you smoke daily by half, or going cold turkey for 24 hours.
“When you experiment, you’re learning more about your relationship with that thing,” Cannon says. That way, if something doesn’t work, you haven’t failed, but you’ve learned something that will likely improve the chance you’ll succeed next time or the time after that.
Error #4: Being too hard on yourself
“As a psychologist with a background in CBT approaches, I believe that selftalk is really important,” Cannon says. However, many of us judge ourselves far more harshly than we would a friend or loved one. “I used to say to clients, ‘Imagine you have a loudspeaker grafted to your head and everyone can hear how you’re talking to yourself. Would you continue talking to yourself that way?’” Cannon says. “Most people said, ‘Oh, no, I’d be mortified.’”
She suggests people change their interior scripts to those more in line with what they would say to a child learning a new skill. Nobody deserves that type of unkind treatment; moreover, Cannon emphasizes, “it’s not helpful.” Shaming, no matter who the target is, “has never been demonstrated to be an effective, sustainable health-behaviour tool,” she says.
Success strategy #1: Exploiting existing habits
Andrea Holwegner calls this technique “habit stacking,” explaining: “It’s taking something you already do as a cue and layering it with another habit so that the new behaviour becomes automatic.” She suggests using the following mental script: “After I [blank], I will [blank].” For instance, if you’re working on drinking more water every day, tell yourself that after you start your morning coffee brewing, you’ll have a big glass of water.
Make your goals small and don’t try to binge-change, Holwegner adds.
Success strategy #2: Building in rewards
One way of doing this is by bundling: pairing a habit you want to establish with something you enjoy or find rewarding. For instance, if you’re trying to keep active, you might limit listening to podcasts to the hours when you work out or take walks. Or you could make a mental contract with yourself to splurge on a paid music or audiobook subscription after you’ve stuck to taking a daily walk for a specified period, such as 10 days or two weeks.
Cannon once rewarded herself with a fancy fitness-tracker watch— not because she likes gadgets, she says, but because, as a former runner, “I love data.”
Similarly, using a fitness tracker provides positive reinforcement for Shawn Adamsson. “My Apple Watch reminds me every day that I have to exercise a certain amount and get up from my desk once an hour,” he says. “As it turns out, I’m pretty competitive, even with myself, so I can’t let that go.”
Success strategy #3: Using self-knowledge
Similar to the previous tactic, this strategy—pinpointing what you find motivating—is also related to rewards. For example, if luxuriating in the tub makes you happy, you might promise yourself that you’ll splurge on fancy bath bombs once you’ve stuck to your goal of eating one additional serving of vegetables every day for two weeks.
Not all such strategies are carrots—some are sticks. For instance, if you know you’ll feel you’re letting a friend down if you don’t keep to the regular walking dates you agreed to, you’ll be less likely to start looking for excuses to ditch those plans.
Success strategy #4: Seeking support
If your goal is to add 15 minutes of exercise to your day but no one in your immediate circle is physically active, your environment is working against you. In that case, it might be a good idea to join a class in which you can cultivate a new friendship or two.
Or, if you’ve had difficulty making lifestyle changes in the past, perhaps expert input is the missing ingredient. In some cases, that guidance might come from a registered dietitian or a health coach; in others, a therapist who specializes in CBT or other programs focused on behavioural change might be the answer. “Someone can get wonderful medical advice but be too stressed or overwhelmed to know where to start,” Michelle Sorenson says. “Psychology is sometimes the missing piece.”
➻ How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, by Katy Milkman (Portfolio/Penguin, 2021)
➻ Health Stand Nutrition Consulting (healthstandnutrition.com)