The Power of Habit

How small changes in your everyday routine can alter the direction of your life

Debbie Ezrin had organized a 5K race for years as part of her duties for a Rockville, Maryland nonprofit organization. In 2010, an email from one of the race sponsors offered a training program for runners. She'd never run a race before and she thought it might help her in her job. So, she signed up.

What started out as a lark turned into a serious running habit that changed her life. She ran the race and signed up for 20 others over the past three years, including three half-marathons. She lost 30 lbs., had more energy than ever, and made a new group of friends with whom she runs and socializes.

Tackling a life reimagination can be daunting. However, adopting a series of minor changes and making them habits can have a remarkable impact in many ways, says Los Angeles-based life coach Nancy B. Irwin, author of Make a You Turn: Changing Direction in Midlife. In recounting 40 stories of people over 40 who changed their lives, creating new habits was a critical part of that transition, she says. However, whether you're trying to start a new business or make a big lifestyle change, making new habits stick requires approaching your transition the right way.

Find the driver

Heather Boerner's father had been morbidly obese for as long as she could remember and suffered his first heart attack when she was five years old. When she was 29, he was admitted to the hospital with heart failure and weighed more than 500 lbs. She was terrified and knew she had to make a change.

Getting in touch with the real reason you want to make the change in your life is important for long-term success, says Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. The most deeply rooted habits – both good and bad – are tied to a particular stimulus, she says.

Boerner found a food-related support group and gave up sugar entirely. It's been a decade since she's eaten the sweet stuff. She started finding ways to soothe her anxious nature, such as walking, meditating or taking a bath instead of eating.

The small changes she made led to bigger changes. In addition to dropping roughly 90 lbs., she was calmer and happier. Because she could no longer use food to subdue her feelings, she says she became better about dealing with the stress in her life. She ditched a high-pressure job and started her own business. And all of the big changes have been the result of incremental changes over time.

"My dad is really proud of me and wants me to be healthy. He's given me the greatest gift. He's shown me what it's like if I don't do these things," she says.

Set yourself up for success

Irwin says it's a good idea to start small when you're adopting new habits. Devote 10 minutes each day to meditating or start saving a small amount of money each month. As these actions become routine and no longer feel uncomfortable, make new changes.

Removing the barriers to your success is also important, Clark says. If you're trying to get in the habit of exercising, lay out your workout clothes the evening before. Schedule the time you need to write, plan or otherwise work on your reinvention just as you would any other important appointment. Boerner starts each day by waking, meditating, and writing. She says she treats the routine like her job.

This also includes recognizing and removing triggers, Irwin says. If you always eat at 3 p.m. and you're trying to lose weight, go for a walk and change your environment. Change your poor sleep habits by adopting nightly rituals that signal it's time for sleep – and consider ditching the television habit that keeps you up too late.

Rallying support is also an important way to help your habits stick. Ezrin connected with a group of runners who keep her motivated. Clark suggests making your habits public.

"When you tell other people about what you plan to do, it makes you accountable. You feel bad if you don't follow through," she says.

Keep it Going

As far as that myth that habits take 30 days to stick? That's bunk, Clark says. A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it could take more than 250 days of repetition for a behavior like exercising or eating healthfully to take root.

To keep motivated, create incentives to keep going, Irwin says. Treat yourself when you hit a milestone or exercise your habit consistently for a week. In Ezrin's case, she bought an expensive pair of running shoes and didn't want to feel she had wasted the money. She also liked her new running friends and it was fun to spend time with them. On days when it was tough to get out the door, she reminded herself of the hard work she had already put into building her running endurance.

"I figured if I quit running, whatever else I would try, I would have to start over and invest another 10 weeks of dying in the process," she says.

Also, don't let a "slip" derail your efforts, Irwin warns. If you've been eating healthfully, and then have a weekend peppered with junk food, it's not an excuse to go back to your old habits. Just dust yourself off and keep going. Life is full of setbacks. What you choose to do after they happen makes all the difference, she says.

"You have the choice to do anything you want in this life. So if you want chocolate or cigarettes or what have you, you have to realize that whether you have them or not, it's your choice. When you realize you have control, you can build new habits," she says.

Tags: well being

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