Making Changes Stick

Not only do habits die hard, but more especially, pleasant habits die hardest. Life, or the School of Hard Knocks For Slow Learners, has shown me a trick or two for making change happen -- and sticking to it.

In no particular order, this is what I recommend.

1. Piggyback new habits onto old ones.

We all do actions in groups that are related to one another: we all, for instance, do a number of things under the heading of 'getting ready for bed' or 'getting ready to go out'. It can be difficult to remember to clean the dog's teeth with brush and toothpaste (it pops in and out of one's mind), but I put the dog's toothbrush next to mine and leave her toothpaste tube next to mine as well. Getting ready for bed used to mean a bunch of actions that included cleaning my teeth. Now it means a bunch of actions that include cleaning hers

2. Discover what the leading action is and do it.

$40 at Marks & Spencer: what a bargain!

$40 at Marks & Spencer: what a bargain!

Within any group of related actions, some are more important -- more leading -- than others. If you want to initiate a behaviour, such as exercising, then make the leading action 'the first thing you do'. In the morning, I wake up and put my sports bra on. That is the first step in making sure that I go to my training session, even if I make a cup of tea and check my e-mail along the way. There's no point in wearing a sports bra unless you are about to work hard. When the bra is on I don't think twice about it: on I go to work!

3. Replace large temptations with smaller ones.

For some reason, certain temptations are easier for us to limit and control than others. If I give you a box of chocolates, the allure of the package and the variety of the chocs may encourage you to eat half the box -- fondants, caramels, and all. You know you shouldn't, but one chocolate always seems to lead to another, until you've packed hundreds of sugar calories on. But what if you buy a small bar of really delicious plain chocolate instead? What if you break that bar in half and wrap it and put it away as if it's a separate bar? The ritual of the chocolate box has been broken. You still like chocolate, but the urge to have it has now been slaked by a little amount rather than by a lot. Overnight, you have cut a mass of calories and broken the magic cycle of chocolate-box enchantment. It's not just that you've taken something less pure and substituted something better. My point really is that there is something about a bar that says 'this one is enough'. The bar comes, if you like, with its own built-in limitation. The same can be said for certain drinks. I find it much easier to have just one gin and tonic than just one glass of wine, since wine easily leads from one glass to another, but I find that one G&T -- when calorie-cutting -- is enough. (I drink one bottle of tonic: I don't feel tempted to open another.) And I don't feel deprived. I still get that late-afternoon moment of reward, and I'm not heedlessly quaffing calories all night. 

4. Embrace irrationality in the service of rational ends.

Let's return to the sports bra and its powerful motivating effect. I put the bra on unthinkingly -- I don't have to hunt for it; I don't consider which one to wear; I don't ask whether I really want to wear it. I'm on autopilot: I put it on. As stated, the bra is like my Wonder Woman lasso or magic bracelets: it turns me into an athlete with muscle to go and build. That's irrational, in the sense that it's just a piece of clothing, and much of what I do could be done almost as well with just a regular bra on. I could just as easily take the bra off and save myself the trouble of training hard. The bra only has that power because that's the power I've given to it. I've made it the top half of my own personal Wonder Woman outfit. It's kind of silly when I put it like that, but it's the sort of silly that works. Training to be stronger, leaner, and healthier is a rational end. I'm not bothered if a little mind magic helps that goal on its way.

That, not coincidentally, is what all of these ends or goals have in common: Not doing them is not an option. Letting my dog's teeth fall out: not an option. Developing metabolic syndrome: not an option. Having to change my dress size: not an option. Accepting a loss of physical power: not an option. And that brings us to number 5:

5. Allow yourself to be obsessed.

For many excellent reasons, obsession is viewed with suspicion by wise people. It can obviously be distorting, and fanaticism leads one to neglect that which also deserves our respect and attention. Obsessives, never mind the compulsives (isn't it really the same thing?), seem to place undue value on certain things (in the case of Imelda Marcos, shoes). And yet, it's singlemindedness that gets the job done. It's intentness that prevents distraction and the weak yielding to any obstacle that pops in our path. If something is important, don't let it struggle for eminence by making it sit in the back of the bus. Put it on the front burner. (I love metaphor.) Put it center-stage in your life. Magnet notes to the fridge about it. Write it up in your calendar. Track your progress day by day, week by week, in a journal. Put reminders in your handbag or wallet. Be relentless in saying NO to pitfalls, which is really saying YES to triumph!

6. Realize that grim determination often turns into enthusiasm.

This is another take on obsession -- that obsession, which starts out as grim determination -- about chosen goals can often become great enthusiasm. If you've set yourself a challenge, you can embrace the whole process as a sort of game rather than as a chore. You are in competition with yourself: 'can I do better today?' / 'How far can I go?' / 'What will be my best result?' / 'Can I surprise myself a little bit more?'. You're not on a course of self-punishment; you're on a trek of self-improvement or self-building. Things that once you saw as 'hard' you now see as 'rewarding', or as essential for gaining future rewards, at any rate. If your goal is really right for you, it will not only look like the right thing at the beginning, but it will also start to feel right, a bit later on.