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You have bad behaviors. We all do. Some behaviors, you’re aware of but you have no desire to change. Others may keep you up at night. Then there are the behaviors you’ve overcome. They are a part of your past, and you know you’ll never go back to being “that person”. You’ve changed.
The perspective you have on your behaviors all fall somewhere on what scientists call the 5 stages of behavior change. Once again, psychology has us all figured out, but with the perspective they provide, we can bring ourselves out of habits that hold us back and move us toward the best possible version of ourselves.
How to change bad behaviors – step by step
Stage 1 – Precontemplation
Imagine you have an insatiable 2pm junk food craving You’re tired and the lunch you had at 11:30 am is long gone. You need a ‘pick me up’ and nothing satiates this more than a Snickers bar from the vending machine. It’s a habit you’ve had for about 2 years now, and you know it’s bad. But off you go with your $1.25 in quarters for your next fix.
At this stage, you know it’s a habit that’s not serving you, but you have no desire to quit. This is your treat. You work hard and you deserve it. Move along, there’s nothing to change here.
Coach yourself – at this point I’d suggest that even though you’re not ready to address the issue, you may want to at least consider how your Snickers fix is at odds with your personal goals. Having an awareness of how your habits are holding you back, is the first step in making change.
Stage 2 – Contemplation
You put your pants on for work this morning, the ones you haven’t worn in 3 months and you notice that they are usually tight. You’ve suspected you’ve gained weight and the pants from last season are a painful confirmation that it’s true. You immediately think of your 2pm Snickers habit and you know in your heart it has to change, but not yet. Work is so stressful right now that you need that pick-me-up to get through the day. After the quarter end, you’ll address it.
Coach yourself – While the issue is on your mind and your motivation to make a change is high, make a list of pro’s and con’s around your current behavior. You’re not pushing yourself to do anything you don’t want to do (yet), you’re just deepening your understanding about how the behavior is impacting your life in a negative way. Then brainstorm a list of things you could do to change. Don’t critique the list, just let every potential idea materialize on the page.
Stage 3 – Preparation
You made it through the stressful quarter at work. Things are starting to get back to normal and you know you should probably address the bad habit now. You start thinking about the brainstorm you did last month and all the alternative behaviors you wrote down (while you enjoy that 2pm snack, of course).
Coach yourself – resurface that pros cons list and the ideas you had for changing your habit. You’ve written down everything from “have an apple instead” to “quit your job so you don’t have to see that vending machine again” but now you want to narrow down that list to the absolute lowest hanging fruit. Chose the behavior that you know with certainty that you cannot fail at. Perhaps that’s a cold turkey approach, or just eating half the candy bar and tossing the remainder in the trash. Pick a sustainable strategy that works for you, and commit to sticking with it.
Stage 4 – Action
At this point, you’ve changed. You’ve made it through those first two weeks of living without your 2pm Snickers fix and you have your alternate behaviors all lined up. If you get stressed out – you’ll head outside for a walk. If you get hungry, you’ll have a protein shake instead of a candy bar.
Coach yourself – be clear about your motivation to change. Write down your reasons why you’ve committed to change, keep them close by and read them often. At this point, success is about mindset and a strong conviction to change is your most powerful tool.
Stage 5 – Maintenance
This is typically defined as having lived 6 months with your new behavior. At this point, it’s most likely a habit. It takes far less emotional energy to manage your new behaviors and they may even feel like second nature.
Coach yourself – keep an awareness about possible trigger situations that could force you to relapse. Always have your new 2pm stress coping behaviors at the ready so you don’t fall back on your old habit. It doesn’t take much to wipe out all the good work you’ve done, so be mindful of your actions and stay grateful to yourself for making the effort to get where you are now.
Targeting the right behavior to change.
You may be thinking that your undesirable behaviors are more monumental than a 2pm Snickers bar habit, but I used this example for a reason. If you have big habits to change, the key is breaking them down to their smallest divisible parts, then apply this methodology. Attacking huge goals like working out 6 times a week when you’re currently a couch potato is a recipe for failure. Start with small, manageable goals and look at long term change over short term quick fixes.
For example, if you think you’re drinking too much, consider when you drink, for how long and what else you’re doing at the same time. Look for opportunities to lessen the opportunity to drink (push it out later and later in the day and go to bed earlier) or simply change what you’re doing when you’re drinking. Enjoy a beer without any other distractions rather than mindlessly consuming while watching a movie. (This of course, doesn’t replace getting professional help in the case of addiction).
Taking a methodical, scientific approach to behavior change can take much of the emotional sting out of making large shifts in your life, which can often feel so daunting that we may never get out of the pre contemplation stage.
Accept failure as part of the process.
This is not a linear path and very often we can stay stagnant in one stage or revert back to earlier stages depending on circumstances. Plan for set backs to the degree that you can, but know that old habits die hard and you may slip back in your progress from time to time. Self acceptance is a big factor in creating life-long change.
Behavior Works, Australia: Stage Theories and Behavior Change
NASM Essentials Of Personal Fitness Training: Fourth Edition Revised. National Academy of Sports Nutrition, 2014