How to change a habit successfully

January 08th 2021

Most New Years resolutions have been discarded by Jan 19th. Here are 5 steps to help you be successful in changing your habit.


How many habits have you tried to change and failed?

As I write this it is early January. (and if you would like to watch a video rather than read on, you can do so here).  Many people may still be going with their New Year’s resolutions but already some will have reverted back to old patterns.  The majority will have revered by 19th Jan as this is statistically the day where most people throw in the towel!

And there are 2 reasons why 95% of habits don’t get changed:

1.  There is not enough motivation to change them

2. The change in behaviour is too big

Think about the two most common habits people choose to change on Jan 1st: their eating behaviours (to lose weight) and smoking.

Both of these habits are ones that have been embedded and practised for years.  Just imagine deciding you were not going to be a couch potato anymore and going to climb Everest instead.  It would surprise few people if you and your slippers were found heading back to the airport after a few days on the trail!

5 tips to achieve success

So here are 5 things that you can do that will help you ‘scale Everest’ (perhaps you may need to buy walking boots first though…!!)

1.  Find 20 reasons why you want to change.

Literally sit down with a piece of paper and come up with 20 reasons why you are going to change the old habit.  Start with all the positive reasons and also focus on all the costs of NOT changing.

The reality is if you cannot come up with many reasons, you are not motivated enough to make the change! Consider smoking.  If people say they will because their partner’s nagging has just got a bit too much…..they’ll be smoking again soon.  However if their list has reasons along the lines of reducing the risk of lung cancer, being able to play football with the kids, being able to taste food better, not coughing their way through the night…..I guess you can see the difference…?

2. Tell others that you are going to make this change

It is relatively easy to let yourself down and much harder to let others down so the more people who know, the more accountable you are making yourself.  However trust that these people are not there to encourage you to fail.  You are going to tell your family, friends, colleagues – all people who care for you and are there to support you.  Allow yourself to trust in their support.

Steps 1 & 2 help with the commitment challenge, now on to that challenge being too big.....

3. Take small steps.

Climbing Everest from a couch based start is a quantum leap.  However when you break it down it becomes more achievable.  For example, the first step may be to buy boots.  Step 2, work towards achieving your 10,000 steps a day.  Step 3, climb Snowdon….you get the gist..?

One of the best habit changing apps I have come across is the Couch to 5K.  It does exactly this – break things down into smaller steps that are just that – achieveable steps and not quantum leaps.

….which leads us on to step 4 nicely…

4.  Consistency

You would not go from couch to 5k if you only ran once a month.  It is about doing something regularly.

There is a commonly held belief that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.  This is not true in my experience – it takes longer!  And this comes back to taking small steps.  You can take a small step each day without it totally disrupting your routine.  But then it becomes part of your routine anyway and makes way for the next new step.

Consider those dramatic diets where you go from eating everything that doesnt run away, to eating tofu and lettuce leaves.  Quantum leap!  But consider the first step being changing your lunchtime crisp packet for an apple and leave everything else the same.  Then take out the fizzy drink with supper and replace with water.  Next step, take out the ice cream pudding and replace with a yoghurt.  You will be surprised at how the weight will start to come off!

Which leads us to the final step..

5.  Celebrate success

Children will all respond better to the praising of positive behaviour than the reprimanding of bad.  We may be older but our minds work just the same.  So celebrate your success – ideally publicly too!

By taking small steps,  you have more to celebrate and the more you celebrate the more motivated you are to take the next step and the consistency becomes easier and easier.

Rinse and repeat

Old habits have been developed over years.  New habits will take a bit of effort before they run without you thinking about them.  So keep cycling through these 5 steps.

As you celebrate your success, reflect back on the 20 reasons and notice how you are making progress on them.  Maybe some reasons are now less important and other new ones have popped up.  So adjust accordingly.

Keep your accountability going.  Let people know how you are getting on, allow them to celebrate your success with you or help you over any sticky patches.

Keep the stepping stones small – it can be tempting to try and make a big leap because things are going well but this may lead to you falling into a chasm!  Keep the steps small but perhaps walk a bit more quickly across them…

And just keep going: consistency, consistency, consistency ….and the new habit will be formed!

Can I help you be accountable?

Which of these steps do you think would help you to make any changes that you decide to do.  Please pop the relevant number (and any comments you want to add..) in the box below, I would love to know!

And if you would like me to help you be accountable (perhaps we can help each other…) then please feel free to get in touch.

PS and remember you can watch a video that talks more about these 5 steps here

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and public speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work

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