7 Tips to Change and Maintain Healthier Habits

We all have habits—some good, some bad and some that we (quite honestly) don’t even think or care too much about. When we think about our bad habits and how we want to change our ways (e.g., to save money, read more, eat healthier, exercise more, stop smoking, etc.), we start out feeling very motivated and enthusiastic, but unfortunately, our feelings of resolve may turn into resignation as we fall back into our old ways.

Many people fail to achieve their goals not because they lack the motivation or willpower but because they lack the knowledge to create an effective change strategy and the behavioral skills necessary to follow that strategy. Below are some specific tips that can help you both achieve your goals and break your bad habits for good!

Define your goals. The more general the goal, the more difficult it is to develop and stick to a plan to reach that goal. For example, if you have a fitness goal, what does “getting in shape” really mean to you? Does it mean losing inches? Gaining muscle? Increasing flexibility and strength? Increasing cardiovascular fitness? Lowering your cholesterol or blood pressure? Being able to run a 10K or walk up a flight of stairs? The first step is to clearly understand what “it” is that you want to modify.

Track progress. Regardless of your specific goals, you must begin by accurately measuring and then tracking your progress. These measures, combined with your fitness goals, are critical to developing the safest and most effective fitness program. They will also help you to identify plateaus or “sticking points” in your progress so you can adjust your efforts. Being able to reflect on where you started and where you are can also act as a source of motivation.

Have patience. You must set realistic goals and, while you should expect progress over time, recognize that progress is never linear. For example, everyone’s body responds differently to changes in exercise and diet. Some will see rapid gains only to plateau just as quickly. Others may not see results for several weeks and then the changes may come only gradually. You must set realistic goals and understand that gains may not come in regular, predictable increments. Making lasting changes is serious business and takes time. Be patience and set realistic goals.

Create incentives for yourself and/or set consequences.  I know, you don’t think you need to reward or punish yourself—you’re really motivated to make a change! Plus, that heavy-duty guilt will keep you on the straight and narrow. Sure. Herein lies one of the major reasons that making positive changes can fail—there are no real consequences. Beyond the physical and psychological rewards of remaining faithful to creating positive habits, what additional consequences will help to support your efforts? You should think creatively about what incentives you can use to reward yourself and what consequences you can use to keep yourself accountable. (Note of caution: Avoid those long-term rewards such as a trip to Hawaii or even a new outfit. You can have these but don’t rely on them to keep you motivated on a day-to-day basis. Also, don’t make your “reward” antithetical to what you are trying to accomplish.)

Publicize your goals to friends and family. When people publicly announce their intentions, they are much more likely to follow through. Once you have identified your goals, tell everyone you know, including friends, family and even co-workers. Ask them to check in with you and support you. This puts you on the spot to remain accountable to your goals. While it takes some personal courage and vulnerability to share something that you might fail at, social support is a huge variable in successfully pursuing your goals, and you can dramatically increase your odds of success if you have support from those around you.

Stop “all or nothing” thinking; it’s better to do something than nothing. The difference between doing something rather than nothing is huge. For example, if you are trying to find time to work out, and you only have 20 minutes, decide that you’re going to have the best 20-minute workout you can—it is amazing how much you can get done in 20 minutes when that’s all you have. Studies show the likelihood of continuing a behavior once engaged in that behavior is extremely high—this is especially true of physical exercise. We all have “low energy” days; days that it’s really hard to get ourselves kick-started. So, for example, if you have a low energy day and you are trying to exercise, just tell yourself, “I’m just going to go to the gym—I don’t need to do anything once I get there—I am still going to work on my goals.”

Be resilient. As the great Vince Lombardi said, “It isn’t whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.” Here’s some news: We all slip; we all fall down. Successful people are resilient people. Studies show that successful people are those who learn from their mistakes and put them quickly out of their mind. People who are successful on diets and quit smoking are those who don’t let “relapses” become meltdowns and excuse for giving up. Whatever you do, stop thinking in terms of “willpower”—it is not about willpower; it is about developing the right skills and strategies to achieve success.


Dr. Paul Marciano is the best-selling author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.™ He is a keynote speaker at the 7th annual Maryland Workplace Health & Wellness Symposium. To find out more about this symposium and to register for this free event, visit www.MarylandWellnessSymposium.com.

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Dr. Paul Marciano is the best-selling author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.™ He is a keynote speaker at the 7th annual Maryland Workplace Health & Wellness Symposium. To find out more about this symposium and to register for this free event, visit www.MarylandWellnessSymposium.com.