It’s the new year. You’ve probably got lots of ambitious plans for change. This time, you want to make them stick. The first thing you need to know is, it’s not easy to change. The second thing is, you probably have no idea how to do it.
Here are some principles of change from the pros.
- Break down the behavior into its component parts. Say you want to get more exercise, and you want to do it by running two miles every day before work. So you need to get up an hour earlier than usual (more if you’re slow to start), throw on your running clothes, drink a couple of glasses of water, take your portable music player, do some warm-up exercises, go out and run, do a few minutes of cool-down exercises, shower, dress, prepare breakfast, eat, leave for work.
- Examine the consequences of both changing your behavior and maintaining the status quo. Change is frightening, and fears of the unknown make us cling to old behaviors despite our best intentions.
- Build in as much positive reinforcement as you can. For example, plot the most attractive running route you can, one that takes you by some scenic spots. And when you’re done, be sure to take time to enjoy the exhilarating feeling you get after a run.
- Take small steps of change, simplify the process and prepare for problems. Don’t, for example, start out expecting to run two miles. Give yourself time to work up to that distance. Also, remember that it’s easiest to get out the door if you put your running clothes out the night before. Or line up a friend to run with you so you’ll have a reason to go running even on the days you’d rather sleep longer.
- Learn more about the process to keep surprises from derailing you. Monitor how long it takes you to run half a mile, then a mile, then two miles.
- Provide structure so that you are not sabotaged by spontaneous impulses. Classify all your activities as to whether they are helpful or not in achieving your goal. Hold on to the helpful ones and add to them, turn neutrals into positives or eliminate them along with what’s unhelpful. You may, for example, find that starting warm-up exercises indoors gives you an extra push out the door. Or that eating late makes it hard for your body to get going.
- Practice makes perfect. Use every opportunity you can to engage in your new behavior. If you’re going out of town for a day or two, take your running gear and find a route to run at your destination.
- Protect your new behavior. New routines are fragile and disappear if unprotected. One way to help yourself is to control the environments you place yourself in. If you have found that staying up late makes it hard for you to go out running in the morning, then do your best to be in bed at an hour that helps you get up and out the door.
- Aim for small successes. Experts find that plans for big successes often result only in big failures. Get comfortable running one distance before you add additional mileage. And add distance to your routine only in small increments. Eventually you’ll find yourself running real distances—and loving it.