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When we’re doing something consistently that we know isn’t good for us, even a small effort can result in big and lasting changes. Eating more healthily, exercising regularly, saying ‘no’ to things we don’t have the space to do, stopping smoking, or getting more organised at home are all within our reach. When the new action is repeated often enough, it can become a habit that will improve your quality of life.

Here are some tips to get you started:

One habit in 21 days

Research suggests that focusing on one change for 21 days may be enough to ensure that you’re well on your way to changing a negative behaviour permanently. After 21 days, most new behaviours have been sufficiently conditioned in your mind to be considered a habit. However, do remember that no one person is the same and some people find that it takes them more time to see lasting changes. In fact, it depends on the type of behaviour you want to change. One UK study suggests that some habits can take as long as an average of 66 days to change permanently. For example, learning to say ‘no’ to things we’d rather delegate also requires other people to change their own behaviours and expectations so lasting changes may not be evident within a few weeks. But persevere and you’ll get there!.

Remember that you also need to be 100% sure that you can commit to a change before you begin to try and change any behaviour. What’s going on in your life at this moment in time? Are you dealing with other, external and unrelated changes at work or home? If so, be sure to choose the one habit that you’ll find easier to break than the others and ask yourself if you are really and truly prepared to practice your new behaviour every single day. And don’t be hard on yourself; sometimes external factors get in the way and you can always wait until things calm down before changing things in your life.

You might also find it helpful to keep a daily note of how many times you’ve consciously stopped yourself from slipping into an old pattern. For example, eating a few biscuits at work every day is a habit which you might like to change for whatever reason, so note when you’ve reached for the biscuit tin without thinking about it and ask yourself why you weren’t consciously challenging that habit…were you tired, stressed or angry at the time? Stopping to ask yourself why you weren’t conscious of the behaviour at the time will help you to become more aware of why the automatic response occurred. After keeping note of any of your personal blockers for a week or so, you’ll be able to see when you’ve gone ahead without thinking and can then make a new commitment to be more vigilant.

Use a trigger

A trigger can make breaking habits much less stressful. For example, if you wanted to cut down on snacking during the day, your trigger might be keeping a picture of a healthy food on your desk at the office or on your fridge at home. Or if you want to stop smoking, you could keep a (loose) elastic band on your wrist and snap it every time you feel a craving coming on. Triggers help to condition new patterns more consistently and some people find them really helpful.

One habit at a time

Trying to shift more than one habit at a time can be unnecessarily stressful. With just one habit change you can focus on making it stick over the long-term. Taking on more than one at a time can mean that none of them become sustainable habits.

Be realistic

If the change creates more pain in your life than pride, it’ll be hard to stick to. Don’t go to the gym if you hate it – find an exercise plan that you’ll enjoy, not frustrate you. And don’t try to run before you can walk. You really don’t need to work out at the gym six days a week! Start off with what’s workable for your lifestyle and schedule. Going for a short walk on your lunch break a few times week while going to the gym once a week will allow you to build the habit in a more balanced and painless way.

Write it down

Don’t leave your goal to float around in your mind. Write it down on paper and keep it somewhere accessible. This does two things; firstly, it creates more clarity by defining in specific terms what your change means to you such as the benefits of changing, how you’ll feel when the habit has become rooted in your everyday practice; or how you feel when you’re not committing yourself to the change. Secondly, writing the goal down keeps you accountable and committed. It’s easy to dismiss a thought but it’s harder to dismiss a promise printed out in front of you.

Treat yourself when you’ve reached your goal

Reward yourself when you’ve completed your first month…it can be anything to give yourself that extra push. Remember that it’s not about doing something because you feel you have to, but because the habit is something that you want to develop for your own wellbeing. Coming through the first few weeks means that you are well on your way to creating a sustainable habit. Well done!

Consistency is key

The point of a habit is that it doesn’t require any thought. Variety may be the spice of life but it doesn’t create good habits. Make sure your habit is as consistent as possible and is repeated regularly for 21 days (or more as you need to). This will ensure a new habit is embedded, instead of multiple habits being loosely conditioned.

Experiment

You won’t know whether a new habit will work until you try it so consider a habit you really want to address. Don’t try to follow habits because ‘you should’, but because you’ve tested them out for a few days and they work with your lifestyle.