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Habits that Stick
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Habits that Stick

Key to making changing old habits and making new ones.

“Plan on creating your daily walk or running habit with a friend, or coach, or group who will be a role model for self-control.” —Joanne Bagshaw, Ph.D., Montgomery College

Standing outside the glass doors of the studio, lit harshly by fluorescent bulbs, Annabelle VanLandingham admits that she is intimidated by a group of women standing in front of her — all model-thin and wearing cropped tank tops that reveal finely toned abs.

“I always feel like I don’t fit it and everybody is staring at me, but this time, I’m really going to stick with it,” she said, acknowledging her failed attempts to make regular exercise part of her daily life.

Vows to change habits are easy to make, but keeping them can seem nearly impossible. Commitments to cooking healthy weeknight dinners give way to the reality of packed schedules, while a morning meditation practice is overtaken by an inability to resist checking email right after getting out of bed. Local human behaviorists say that when it comes to creating habits, understanding how they develop is a first step.

“If you want develop a meditation practice to relieve stress at work, set an alert on your phone for a time that know you’ll definitely be free.” —Lauren Puglisi, LCSW

“Essentially, a habit is turning a new behavior into something that is done automatically,” said Lauren Puglisi, LCSW. “For example, grabbing a cigarette after dinner or putting on your seatbelt when you get in the car are automatic. You don’t have to talk yourself into doing those things, you do them without even thinking.”

For those who want to make activities like exercising or meditating life-long habits, the key is to begin with realistic and attainable steps. “New habits are best formed in small, manageable increments,” said Jessica McLaughlin, Ph.D. assistant professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “For instance, if you want to develop the habit of exercising, start by taking 10-minute walks instead of promising to exercise for an hour every day. It is easier to form habits if the changes are similar to what you are already doing, as opposed to something that drastically alters your current day-to-day schedule.”

Develop a list specific actions to take, advises Puglisi. “For example, swapping out potato chips and a soda for hummus and whole wheat pita bread for an afternoon snack or taking a 30-minute walk three days each week can be attainable ways to get started,” she said. “Otherwise, you might get overwhelmed and give up.”

“Research supports that it can take approximately two months of daily repetition to develop a habit, but keep in mind that some habits aren't as easy to make automatic, and may require more time,” added Joanne Bagshaw, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “For instance, developing a habit of walking 15 minutes every day may take eight to 10 weeks to become an automatic behavior, but running five miles every day could take much longer.”

Find ways to increase accountability. “Write down your goals and keep [the list] in a visible place where you have a constant reminder and can check off your accomplishments each day,” said McLaughlin. “Tell someone else what you are doing or, better yet, make the change with someone else, such as practicing mindfulness together or eliminating sugary drinks as a team.”

Setting up reminders can help one avoid backsliding, especially when habit formation is in its early stages,” said Puglisi. “If you want develop a meditation practice to relieve stress at work, set an alert on your phone for a time that know you’ll definitely be free,” she said. “Set a realistic amount of time to spend meditating, and select a specific mediation. This will make it easy to do quickly and easily, so you’ll have fewer excuses not to do it.

The company one keeps also plays a role in habit formation. “You're likely to boost your willpower if you choose to spend time with someone who has strong willpower,” said Bagshaw. “Plan on creating your daily walk or running habit with a friend, or coach, or group who will be a role model for self-control.”

Assess your progress regularly. “Self-monitoring adds to success,” said psychologist Stacie Isenberg, Psy.D. “Writing down what you've eaten each day can help you stay honest with yourself. That said, be realistic with your time frames and don't cause yourself extra stress. If thinking about how you ate during the week on a Friday is less stressful than writing it every day, do that. But do choose a regular time to consider progress and impediments or you'll be at 2020 without your new habit.”

“It helps to set up the environment to remind you to do the behavior and make it easy to follow through,” said Jerome Short, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University. “For example, put vegetables and fruits on the first shelf you see when you open the refrigerator. You are more likely to eat what you see than what you do not see.”

Don't forget rewards, says McLaughlin. “Change won't happen unless you are motivated to make the change,” she said. “This means you have to find what is rewarding for you. You might find that what you are doing is intrinsically rewarding, such as increasing your energy levels or seeing your scale number go down. Other times, you might need to create your own reward, such as getting a manicure when you've gone a week without biting your nails.”