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These are the habits to avoid if you want to make a behavior change

Don’t eliminate a habit—try adopting a new routine instead.

These are the habits to avoid if you want to make a behavior change
[Photo: DedMityay/iStock]

It’s difficult to change an ingrained behavior. Even for the most productive and disciplined among us, undoing something that has become an automatic part of who we are takes more than an overnight effort. Once we’ve successfully made that change, we then have to make other adjustments to our lives to ensure that we continue to maintain it, which is often a whole other challenge in itself.

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At its core, success in changing (and maintaining) a behavior rarely occurs without the introduction of some sort of system. When there isn’t the right framework in place, we face a greater likelihood of derailing our hard-earned progress. Here are some habits that we should stay away from:

1. Relying on willpower

Think about the last time you vowed to resist a temptation. Perhaps you didn’t want to check your phone every 15 minutes, or you were adamant about not reaching for a chocolate bar at 3 p.m. Think about how difficult it must have been not to glance at your phone when it’s within reach, or not to walk to the vending machine when your afternoon slump hits.

The research on whether we have finite or infinite willpower is inconclusive, but experts do generally agree that you can’t change (and sustain) a habit if you rely on your willpower alone. As Vivian Giang previously reported for Fast Company, the military saying “You never rise to the occasion, you only sink to the level of training” also applies to behavior change. The idea is simple—you repeat something so many times that it becomes automatic.

Think about what else you can change about your surrounding that makes it easier for you to perform this change on a daily basis. Charles Duhigg, journalist and author of The Power Of Habitcalls this your “cue.” Basically, it’s a trigger to perform that particular habit. If you don’t want to reach to a sugary treat at 3 p.m., have a box of herbal tea ready at your desk. When 3 p.m. comes around, that’s your cue to pour yourself a cup of hot water and drink that tea, instead of walking to the vending machine.

2. Focusing on negative goals

Sometimes, it’s not your process that lets you down, but the habit that you want to change in the first place. For starters, not eating chocolate to beat your afternoon slump is a harder goal than swapping chocolate for herbal tea when you reach the designated time.

Psychology professor and longtime contributor Art Markman previously wrote for Fast Company, “Your brain wants to find routines that have succeeded in the past and allow you to repeat those actions again in the future without having to think about them explicitly.” Markman explains, however, that this habit-learning system isn’t so effective when it comes to learning not to do something. That’s why Markman suggested that rather than giving up something, think about introducing something in its place. He wrote, “focus on actions you are going to take that will ultimately conflict with the behaviors you want to stop.” When your attention is on doing something new, “you give your habit system a chance to operate.”

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3. Using the same strategy in different circumstances

Because we are creatures of habit, it’s natural to assume that when we do manage to adopt (and sustain) a desirable behavior, that same strategy will work when we want to make another behavior change. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the system that got you to change one behavior might not work for another.

Take Rod Favaron, CEO of social media technology company Spreadfast. As Stephanie Vozza previously wrote for Fast Company, Favaron became accustomed to relying on his gut when it comes to decision-making. This served him well at the early stages of his company, yet hindered his company’s growth in the later stages. He needed to consider metrics and data, rather than letting his instinct override everything.

For example, if you want to stop checking your email first thing in the morning, you might decide to substitute another activity in its place. But if you want to stop your after-work Netflix binge, simply deciding you will go for a run might not be as effective. You might need to introduce another reinforcement, such as meeting a friend and booking an exercise class together.

4. Not forgiving yourself for slipping up

Of course, even the best-laid plans fail sometimes. You might have stuck to your screen-free nighttime routine for five days, and then a big project lands on your desk and you found yourself in bed with your laptop before you go to sleep. Or you meal-prepped on Sundays and stuck to eating healthy dinners at home, but by Friday you found yourself so exhausted and opted to order greasy takeout.

Life happens. As contributor Suzan Bond previously wrote for Fast Company, even if your behavior change is small, “every single day” can prove pretty inflexible, and at some point your streak probably will founder, even if just for a day.” The perfectionist in you might be screaming to abandon your goals altogether, but try to see it in the bigger picture. Just because you might have temporarily veered off course doesn’t mean you can’t start fresh the next day.

5. Discounting small progress

Speaking of slipups, here’s another habit that many perfectionists tend to fall into when they try to establish a behavior change. They focus too much on the big goal and don’t take the time to celebrate the small progress they made in the process.

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Your brain responds to rewards. As Jane Porter previously wrote, “the basal ganglia, the brain region linked to our performance of habits, is most active at the beginning of a behavior, when the habit is cued, and at the end, when it’s rewarded.” Say your goal is to run five miles three times a week, and this week you ran one mile on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Rather than focusing on how far you’ve gone toward your goal, think about how you can reward yourself for the progress you’ve made. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive; it can be something as simple as making your favorite smoothie after your run. As Porter wrote, “Whatever your reward, it has to be more than just the activity itself to get you going.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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