We all have at least one bad habit we wish we could drop, and good ones we wish could adopt. But if changing a habit will have a big positive impact on your health, you’ve got to end the idle wishing and make a plan. Our mission at Mango Health is to help people get healthier, and make it easy and even fun, so we thought we’d share the best advice we’ve learned on how to break bad habits and pick up good ones. If you want to start exercising before work, stop eating sugar, go vegan, go Paleo, stop smoking, start mediating or make any healthy behavior change, pay attention to these 6 principles:
Write it down. Putting your habit change goal down on paper holds you accountable, at least to yourself. Even better: State your goal to friends and family and ask them to hold you accountable too. Once you’ve declared your goal, make it so you can’t forget about it—via Post-its around your house or reminders programmed into your phone.
Link goals with values. One reason we resist healthier habits is that some part of us is defensive–we resent and resist the message that we need to change, even if we know that it’s true. In a recent interview, University of Michigan professor and health expert Victor Strecher explains that we can break through that defensiveness by affirming our core values, an idea called self-affirmation theory. Says Strecher: “If you write down or are rating your core values, such as your faith or your commitment to family, and then are exposed to a health message that you may normally process defensively, you’re more likely to accept it. When you start to put things in writing, you realize, ‘Hey, my values differ from my behaviors, don’t they?’.”
So when you write down a goal (Start exercising/Stop smoking/Eat more vegetables) connect it with one of your core values (eg “It’s important to model healthy behavior for my kids” or “I need energy so I can give back to my community”). Tying habit change to something bigger than yourself dramatically increases your chance of success.
To form a healthy habit: Strategize around pain points. Writing down goals and values is just the first step—the secret to success lies in anticipating moments when you’ll be most tempted to quit a healthy habit or succumb to an unhealthy one. In last year’s fascinating book The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg writes that patients prescribed painful post-operative exercise routines were far more likely to adhere to them if they wrote down exactly how and when they were going to exercise, and how they would handle discomfort along the way. Writes Duhigg: “The patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their pain—and thus the temptation to quit—would be strongest. The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.” So if your goal is to start running in the morning, anticipate that it’s sometimes freezing in your bedroom at 6:30 AM, and place your running clothes and a cozy fleece right next to your bed at night, so you’re that much less likely to hit the snooze button and hunker under the covers.
To break a bad habit: Know your triggers. A trigger is a sight, sound, setting, emotion or other cue that sets a habit in motion, and is very hard to resist. So beating a bad habit requires IDing its triggers and avoiding them or crafting a plan for handling them. If there’s a certain restaurant where you usually eat or drink too much, switching to a different go-to restaurant could help you stick to a diet, even if the food is no healthier at the new place. (And switching to a more expensive restaurant will definitely help—think about how New York’s smoking rates have dropped by more than twice as much as national ones since it adopted the country’s highest cigarette tax.)
Of course, some triggers can’t be avoided so easily. Let’s say feeling stressed at work has been your cue to go to the office vending machine and buy potato chips. You can’t avoid work stress entirely, but you can replace the bad habit it triggers with a healthier one—maybe going for a ten-minute walk or calling a friend or relative for a quick check-in.
Going big might be better. If you have multiple habits that need changing, you should tackle one at a time, right? Actually, there’s evidence that positive habit changes are better in pairs: A recent Stanford study found that people who adopted healthier eating habits and began new exercise routines simultaneously were more successful at achieving healthy eating and fitness goals than were people who focused on changing only food or fitness habits, not both.
Remember: You don’t have to be how you’ve been any longer. This is probably the first rule of habit change (but we’re putting it last because we think it’s the most important to remember): Accept that your future doesn’t need to resemble your past, that just because you’ve “always” done something doesn’t mean you can’t stop, just because you’ve never done something doesn’t mean you can’t start, and you’re given a new chance to get healthy every day. Changing habits isn’t easy, but it is possible. And the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel—so what habit are you going to change?