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Change Habits and Behaviours

Change Habits and Behaviours
Change Habits and Behaviours

Tiny Shifts for Big Changes

When we’ve been inspired to change habits and behaviours in our lives, it can be tempting to try to make big changes straight away so that we can get to our end goal as fast as possible. However, if the unwanted behaviour has been habitual for a long time, trying to change it too quickly may be unsustainable. We may actually end up increasing the chances of the old habits creeping back.

We can apply the same thing to behaviours that we’ve gotten out of the habit of doing. In my experience, breaks in my usual structure and routine can end up throwing my helpful habits and routines into chaos! My sleep routine is upended, my diet changes (Easter treats, anyone?), and I even exercise differently (less!), and all of this makes returning to my former helpful routines a real challenge.

Changing habits and behaviours creates big shifts and changes in your routine. All of these shifts at once can feel like a lot to manage. However, it can be helpful to focus on one small shift you can make today. You can then repeat that small shift each day, to add up to meaningful behaviour change over time. Big changes happen through many tiny shifts in our behaviour.

Starting To Change Behaviours Can Feel Overwhelming

We’ve decided we want to increase a particular behaviour – like eating more vegetables, going to the gym 5 times per week or practicing mindfulness every day. Or maybe we want to stop or reduce a behaviour – like having fewer drinks, spending less on takeout or stop chewing our nails. But it can feel completely overwhelming when we look at how far away our ideal outcome is from the current state of affairs.

Let’s use the gym example. If I’m currently going to the gym 0 times per week, it’s difficult to imagine how I’ll manage to get there 5 times per week!

Sometimes the prospect of change is so overwhelming that we give up before trying. It is really hard to change habits and behaviours, so here are some useful tips I’d like to share. These help us zoom in on the small, achievable shifts we can make that eventually add up to meaningful behaviour change.

Set Yourself Up For Successful Habit Changes

First, research shows us that when setting goals, it helps to be specific. Rather than ‘I’d like to exercise more’, get really specific about what that means to you. How is that different than how you exercise now?

Using implementation intentions can help with this. This is about writing out a sentence that clearly describes the behaviour, and how you intend to implement it. For example, if I decide my goal is to exercise 5 times per week, my implementation intention might be:

I will wake up at 6:00am to attend the 6:30am gym class on Monday this week.”

I want to have repeated this intention and behaviour before building and stacking on this behaviour. After a few weeks of consistency, I might add a second time:

I will wake up at 6:00am to attend the 6:30am gym class on Monday and Wednesday this week.”

By keeping consistent with small, achievable changes to my routine, eventually I will be exercising 5 times a week!

Changes To Habits and Behaviours Must Be Achievable

Remember, we want to start small and make changes that are achievable. We want to have as few barriers to your desired behaviour as possible.

Are you an early riser or do you struggle to get up in the morning? If you aren’t a morning person, it might make more sense to try exercising at the end of the day rather than waking up early. Is a whole hour at the gym too much? Try just walking to the gym and back if it’s close or arriving and just doing a 5 or 10-minute treadmill walk.

It might sound silly, but what you’re building is the habit of simply going to the gym. Once that feels easy enough, you can start building the habit of staying longer each time.

Over time and with increased consistency, keep adding little tweaks until you’ve built up the stamina to be able to achieve your goal of 5 times per week. This takes time, especially if you started at 0 times per week. There are lots of variations you can play with if your habit building is not working.

Why Aren’t My Changes Sticking?

Expect that change isn’t a straight line from A to Z and try to mentally reset – every hour that passes is a new hour, and tomorrow is a new day. I like to think of slip-ups or off days/weeks as lapses rather than relapses.

Consider the function of the behaviour you are trying to change. You may need to re-examine what purpose it was serving before you changed it. For instance, if I was trying to stop spending money on coffees at work, I might need to think about what it is that keeps me doing this. What do I like about it?

Say my initial theory is that I like buying a second coffee at work because I like the taste. So, I stop going and make a coffee in the office instead. However, I notice that my implementation intentions aren’t really working and I’m finding it difficult to stop going to buy a coffee.

Upon further reflection, I realise that going for a second coffee is actually about getting some fresh air and having a chat with a colleague on the walk to the coffee shop. So, in order to meet this need, my behaviour swap needs to be different. Instead, I make a coffee and bring it with me for a walk with my colleague instead.

If you’re looking for some extra guidance in habit and routine changes, the book Atomic Habits by James Clear is a really great resource that I would recommend.

Building Habits Takes Time – Don’t Rush It

Momentum builds motivation. Often, we can delay starting because we are waiting for the ‘right time’, or for motivation to strike us.

When I work with people, I teach them that action builds motivation. If you’re working on your goal to stop chewing your nails, each day that you add to your streak of avoiding chewing your nails feels like a massive win! Each win adds evidence to you forming your belief that you can cope without chewing your nails.

Every day you are proving to yourself that you can do hard things, stick to your goals and keep your promises to yourself.

Treat yourself kindly during this process. My colleague Dr Victoria Allen has written an excellent piece on why self-compassion is better than self-criticism for growth and change.

Remember, Small Steps For Big Changes

In summary, consider these points when setting a goal to increase a behaviour or decrease a behaviour:

  • Focus on one small shift in behaviour at a time.
  • Be specific when setting your intentions. “I want to stop buying a coffee when I have my break at work.”
  • Break your goal into achievable chunks.
  • Know yourself – remove barriers where possible.
  • Don’t be afraid of lapses – you’re still making progress.
  • Be patient – change is more sustainable when we allow time.

BPsych (Hons), PhD (Clinical Psychology)

Dr Sophie Schumacher is a senior clinical psychologist at Choice Psychology. She is particularly interested in burnout, stress, anxiety, and improving effective communication strategies and skills. She treats adults with a wide range of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, mood disorders, trauma, stress, personality disorders and vulnerabilities, psychosis, and other complex emotional difficulties.