Though they may have you subconsciously biting your nails, lighting up after lunch or grabbing one more fistful of fries, your bad habits didn't start out bad. There was motivation behind them.
"All habits -- even bad habits -- start out as true friends. They help, or helped, us deal with something," said Meg Selig, a counselor and author of "Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success."
Many habits help us regulate our moods, she says, so changing could leave us without a way to feel good.
When you "want" chocolate to "feel better," for example, you don't really want chocolate.
"You want a dopamine release," said Marie-Josee Shaar, founder of Smarts and Stamina in Pennsylvania.
Dopamine is a chemical that makes you feel good, and chocolate helps your body release it. That good feeling is the motivation behind your craving. But if you can find another way to get the dopamine -- through sleep, exercise or interaction -- you can satisfy the craving without the calories, Shaar says. (See the sidebar "Get What You Really Want" for more on this.)
Motivation is the driving force behind our bad habits, so tap into yours and use it to form new, good habits. By identifying what you want and how you'll get it, you can shape new behaviors that, with a little practice, will become as routine as your bad habits ever were.
Tell yourself that mistakes are just a part of change. Begin talking to yourself like your own best friend rather than your worst enemy.
- Meg Selig, counselor and author of "Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success"
Find Your "Why" to Get Motivated
When performing interviews with weight-loss research subjects, Joanna Buscemi is not only interested in what people want to change, but also in what they don't want to change.
"If they're fine with how many vegetables they're eating, then I'm not going to harp on them about that," said the psychology researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Memphis.
Instead, Buscemi says, she focuses on things that her subjects want to change and helps them find motivators. And these motivators can stem from any number of influences, not only from the positive things we see.
"People can also be motivated by wanting to avoid pain," said Selig. "I quit smoking because I had a beloved aunt who couldn't quit and died from lung cancer."
Selig kicked her habit to avoid the pain of cancer and to prolong her life. The motivators you find should be specific to you, she says, and make you want something positive for yourself. Instead of "I don't want to die," choose a statement like "If I quit smoking, I'll have a good, long life."
Once you've found a motivator, staying amped up can be challenging. People who want to make a change "are very motivated, but that motivation is teetering on the brink of collapse," said Jared Meacham, owner and personal training director at Precision Body Designs in Covington, Louisiana.
You can strengthen faltering motivations, though, with quickly noticeable results. Set an easy, short-term starter goal to give yourself an early boost, Meacham suggests. Choose a one- or two-week mark, and pick something very attainable: Reduce your fast-food consumption by one meal per week or increase your workouts by one session per week. Use your success with the smaller step to get pumped for the next, bigger step.
Be Specific and Realistic About What You Want
Think back to the chocolate mentioned earlier. When you're craving chocolate, you know specifically what you want. You don't want candy. You don't want sugar or even just a treat. You want chocolate.
But when we resolve to make changes, we're rarely this specific. We want to "lose weight" or "eat less junk food" or "exercise more." And such vague goals are problem No. 1, says Selig.
"You have to know how you'll know when you've succeeded," she said, adding that a good goal is a "S.M.A.R.T." goal. S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for "specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely," and the first two in the list are the most crucial. Creating a measurable outcome -- losing 20 lbs, drinking two fewer sodas a week or going to the gym three times per week -- makes your goal as specific as your craving.
How do you choose an attainable measurement for success? Start by analyzing and recording where you are now, says Buscemi.
If you'd like to drink fewer soft drinks or visit the gym more, she suggests spending some time recording how much or how little you're performing these behaviors now to set more realistic targets. If you're drinking four sodas per day, for example, cutting back to three per week is probably too ambitious at the start.
"If you're not exercising at all, don't go straight to seven days per week," she advised.
Turning your larger goal into smaller, bite-sized steps will help you reach the bigger outcome.
"I work with the client to focus on very short-term outcomes, to inch them forward," Meacham said. The smaller goals build to larger goals and can have a domino effect.
Figure Out How You'll Do It
"Studies show that when people start engaging in healthy behaviors, they're likely to engage in other healthy behaviors," Selig said.
But be aware: You are going to fail and falter along the path to your big goal. Everyone does; it's inevitable. But dealing with these small failures properly is the key to lasting change, Selig says.
"Change your self-talk from discouraging to encouraging," she said. If you fall off the diet wagon and double up on dessert, don't beat yourself up and consider the day a waste. Instead, Selig suggests telling yourself "that mistakes are just a part of change. I'm not going to make matters worse by overdoing it for the rest of the day. Begin talking to yourself like your own best friend rather than your worst enemy."
Even friends can make us trip up, offering temptations to slip. Be ready with a plan of how you want to react, advises Shaar, and rehearse it.
"Be ready with what you'll say: 'No thanks, I'm good' or 'I don't want to feel bloated,'" she said. Rehearsing the exact words you'll use will help keep you from fumbling or clamming up when faced with an enticing offer.
"The other benefit is that it tells other people that you're someone that doesn't overeat," said Shaar. "They won't be prompting you as much in the future."
Sharing your goal with certain friends can help you stay on track, too, Selig says.
"Telling other people will help hold you accountable. They'll give you support, and it gets your pride into it in a good way -- you don't want to have to tell them you didn't exercise this week," she said. "But be selective. Tell the people who can really help you, rather than those who can undermine you."
Practice Any Way You Can
Turning a behavior into a subconscious habit can take a while -- about 66 days on average, Selig says, but up to 250 days for a more complex habit.
You get there with practice -- and not always in a direct way. If you're trying to avoid junk food, for example, you can make the behavior stick better by finding other ways to practice the habit, says Shaar.
"Speak your resolution, write your goals and visualize yourself doing it," she said.
Find creative ways to reinforce your goal. Make a text version of the goal, for example, and use it as the screensaver on your computer.
Or change your password. "Instead of the name of your spouse, use 'sexy2011,'" said Shaar, "because you want to be sexier in 2011. You're reinforcing it: 'I'm a healthy person. I'm an active person.'"