The strategies for breaking a habit
No one would seriously try giving up sugar while working in a lolly shop. We need to make it easier for ourselves by reducing the friction between us and the new behaviour and increasing it between us and the behaviour we want to avoid. For example, to help me eat less sugar, I no longer buy chocolate or biscuits at the supermarket (and avoid shopping when feeling tired or emotionally needy – my sugar/treat trigger).
"Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success," says associate professor Halvorson of Columbia University's Motivation Science Centre.
Most of us struggle to ditch those unwanted habits because 'eat no junk food', or 'stop procrastinating' are too vague as goals. What behaviour will you replace the unwanted behaviour with?
Even dramatic transformations begin with small steps. How often do we put off doing something because we don't have time? So start that new habit with the micro-version – the one-minute meditation, the seven-minute workout, the $5 a week automatic savings deposit.
Set a visible reminder to prompt the behaviour and pair it to something you already do habitually. For years I never flossed regularly except for the week before seeing the dentist. Then I started putting my dental floss on top of the toothpaste tube so I had to move it to brush my teeth.
The way our brains work means that even though we may know this new behaviour is good for us, we are more likely to keep doing it if we feel how good it is. Experiencing positive emotion either before, during or after doing the new behaviour helps wire it in to be more automatic, and can be as simple as celebrating our success by saying, "Yeah, go me!".
We're more successful at habits when we believe they are who we are (and if they are meaningful to us – we're not doing them for someone else's approval). So when I resolutely ignore the plate of brownies offered to me, I tell myself "I'm not a sweets person" and to help with my exercise habits I tell myself "I'm an active person". We want good habits to become part of our self-identity.
We will all fail at some point. Self-compassion and a plan will get us back on track faster than beating ourselves up. Try making the behaviour even smaller or pairing it with something else, and remember to celebrate the new achievement no matter how small. When I've missed my scheduled exercise because I got busy ('no time' is so often the new habits handbrake), I know I do have time for just one push-up.
● Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg (Random House, $38).
● 9 Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Halvorson (Harvard Business Review Press, $30).
● Heidi Halvorson's 'How Successful People Reach Their Goals' on proven tactics to get to where you want to be.
● Founder of Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab BJ Fogg's TEDx talk on forgetting big changes, and starting with tiny steps instead.