Remember that New Year’s resolution? You know — the one where you were going to do more of something or eat less of something? Now it’s March and summer’s almost here, and you’ve forgotten about it. Or maybe you didn’t make one in the first place, knowing that things probably wouldn’t change. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Change is hard. If it were easy, we would already be doing whatever our New Year’s resolution was.
We could say it’s a lack of willpower or self-control, but that’s not very helpful. After all, we’ve probably beaten ourselves up enough about not doing whatever. So where do we start to create lasting change in our lives?
Why not start with what we already do every day? That is, let’s look at our existing habits to create new ones. Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit does just that, using the latest research on habit formation. According to Duhigg, habits include three elements:
1. Cue – What triggers the habit.
2. Routine – The habit or action itself.
3. Reward – What we gain from doing the habit.
For example, one habit is putting on our seatbelt:
1. Cue – The annoying alarm our car makes when we start the ignition.
2. Routine – Putting on the seatbelt.
3. Reward – The annoying alarm shuts off.
We experience triggers every day that can help us start new habits. To begin, make a list of what you do every day (get out of bed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, watch TV, go to bed) and what happens to you every day (the alarm goes off, receive a text message, your partner says “hello”). These small events can trigger new behavior.
Let’s say you wanted to start a new exercise routine. Like many people, you may have purchased a gym membership in December with the intent of working out every day, starting Jan. 1 (well, Jan. 2 because that hangover from New Year’s Eve was a killer). You start with the best intentions, but last only two weeks. Consider this alternative: If you watch TV in the evening, every time there’s a commercial, do five pushups. At the next commercial, do five more, and so on. Here’s how it looks using the three-step process:
1. Cue – The commercial starts.
2. Routine – Do five pushups.
3. Reward – Say to yourself, “I did it!”
Over time, the pushups become part of watching television. It becomes a habit.
The key is to start small and make it so easy that you can’t say no. It’s not sexy and it’s not fast, but it’s lasting. Even better is that it builds on itself and it becomes easier. As you do your pushups during commercial breaks, you’ll find that your strength improves. You can add more pushups and different exercises. You may even find yourself wanting to use that gym membership.
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up if there’s a misstep. It’s going to happen. Instead, remind yourself of how many times you completed your new habit. Then start again.
Kyle Danner is an organizer for the LGBT-Affirmative Therapists Guild of Greater Kansas City. He is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling and guidance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.