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Lifestyle & Travel

5 Tips for Starting—and Keeping—a New Habit

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I believe Mick Jagger was right when he sang the song, “Old Habits Die Hard.”

And just as old habits are difficult to break, new ones can be challenging to begin. There’s a reason for that, says psychologist Pauline Wallin, PhD. “A habit is a shortcut. It’s something that you don’t’ have to think about,” she says. “It’s also convenient, it gets results, and it’s just a learned pattern of behavior.”

Wallin, who is the author of the book, Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior, says that with the right approach, anyone can start a new habit at any age. “You just keep practicing, and it works itself out,” says Wallin.

She shared these tips on how to make a new habit stick:

Have a game plan. It helps to have some kind of structure when you approach a new habit, suggests Wallin. Say, for example, you’ve decided to cut back on sugar. Rather than simply saying “I’m cutting back on sugar,” Wallin suggests coming up with an “if/then” statement that offers an alternative path. For example, “If I’m tempted to eat sugar, then I’ll take the dog for a walk,” or “If I’m tempted to eat sugar, then I’ll write down four reasons why I’ve decided to avoid it.” “The biggest challenge in habit change is paying attention to what you’re doing and to the habit you want to change,” says Wallin.

Expect discomfort — but maybe not right away. Often, there’s something that prompted you to start a habit. Maybe you ate a lot of rich food and treats over the holidays, so you decided to focus on healthier eating. Perhaps you’ve been too stationary and decided to commit to a new exercise routine. Those reasons may make it easy, initially, to focus on the new habit, because cleaner eating and/or exercise may feel good. But then the weekend comes, and that habit becomes more challenging. “You start talking to yourself about how this is so hard and it’s too much work and I’ll start next week, and then you start talking yourself out of this new habit you’re trying to build,” says Wallin. Be prepared for those mental gymnastics to set in, and, when they do, commit to sticking with the habit.

Talk to yourself about the habit in a positive way. You decide how to frame your attitude around the new habit. If it feels like a punishment, that might be a problem. Wallin suggests finding a way to feel like you’re in control of the habit. If you’ve decided to exercise more – you may not plan on exercising every day, so consider offering yourself two or three “skip” days. That way, you have a sense of ownership, because you get to choose days to have off and days to have on. Or, says Wallin, you could offer yourself a healthy reward after exercising, like setting up a date with a friend to have a cup of coffee. “You’re not making it such a burden,” she says. “How you talk to yourself about it is so important.”

Forgive yourself. Odds are, you’ll slip up. You may be too busy to hit the gym, or that brownie sundae may just look too good to pass up. Don’t let that stop you from getting back into the habit. “Don’t punish yourself for a slip up, just do it better tomorrow,” says Wallin.

Know that it’s never too late to start a healthy habit. Don’t let age or abilities stop you from choosing to be healthier. Wallin points out that there are workarounds for most physical limitations (always talk to your doctor about adding a new exercise routine or diet into your life if you have concerns). Plus, we all form new habits all the time—including Wallin. “I remember when I didn’t have a cell phone,” she says. “And a few weeks ago, I was just going to the grocery store and I forgot my phone. I went into this little panic. That’s a habit that developed later in my life.” Accept that you’re adaptable, and know that adding new, healthy habits into your life can be a good thing.

While there are many healthy behaviors to have as habits, Wallin encourages people to commit to doing something social on a regular basis. “If somebody is going to make just one resolution, I would like to see them stay in touch with friends or family or get involved with the community,” she says. Spending more time around people can be positive at any age, and especially as we age. 

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