How to make small changes that last

Why is it so tricky to change a habit? We all know deep down it’s hard. And it isn’t fast either: new research suggests that on average it takes about 66 days to turn even a small change into a routine habit. But it is possible, says Martha Roberts. And even tiny changes can have a ripple effect that eventually creates big results

by Psychologies

DAYS 1-14

Observe your habits Dr Ben Gardner, lecturer in health psychology at UCL, suggests spending two weeks preparing before implementing any changes. ‘Make a note of what you do but also the environment in which it happens,’ he says. ‘Much of what we do is shaped by the environment we do it in. Once you have observed what you do in relation to things you’d like to change, you’ll be in a far better position to set yourself a plan to rectify it.’ He suggests:

  • Record daily (or more often) each instance of unwanted behaviour. If you want to give up unhealthy snacks and eat healthier ones, for example, record the unhealthy ones you eat each day.
  • Note the circumstances in which you enacted that behaviour. For example, what time of day was it? What were you doing beforehand? What was your mood immediately beforehand? How did you feel after? Who were you with? ‘That should give the individual an insight into the situations in which they are tempted to enact the unwanted behaviour, so making them better able to anticipate and prepare for these situations once they’ve initiated a behaviour change attempt,’ he says.

Action: Carry a diary with you to chart whatever behaviour it is you want to change. Look out for the cue, routine and reward and note them down.

DAYS 15-21

Practise daily action Leo Babauta was an overweight, sedentary chain-smoker who wasn’t sure how to change his life. Ten years on and he has, among other things, quit smoking, lost 80lb, and tripled his income. In his popular blog, the zenhabits.net author talks about how each of these achievements had the same genesis. ‘Nothing will change unless you make a daily change,’ he says. ‘I’ve tried weekly action steps, things I do every other day, big, bold, monthly goals – lots of permutations. None of them work except daily changes. In fact, if you’re not willing to make it a daily change, you don’t really want to change your life in this way.’

Action: Whatever you’re hoping to change, do it daily, however imperfectly. Psychologist Beverley Stone, author of Stay Or Leave? (Watkins, £8.99), says: ‘Think of GK Chesterton – “if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”. If you can do something but do it badly, it takes the pressure off.’

DAYS 22-27

Replace bad with good Kicking a habit is easier if you replace a ‘bad’ reward with a good one, instead of going cold turkey. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit (Random House, £8.99), says more than 36 studies found that when smokers identified the cues and rewards they associated with cigarettes and found a new routine with a similar pay-off – a piece of Nicorette or taking a few minutes to relax, for example – they were more likely to quit. Is the reward really a love of nicotine or a break in your routine, or a chance to socialise with others, or something else?

Action: Think of how you could replace a bad habit with a good one.

DAYS 28-34

Enlist some support A study cited in the Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology found that people who recruited three friends or family members to assist them in their quest to lose weight had better results than those who didn’t. But broadcasting the news that you are trying to change something will not work for everyone. ‘The pressure of other people knowing may be too much for some, while others find it gives them the support and drive they need,’ says Dr Gardner.

Action: Consider going public, but only if you believe it will work for you.

DAYS 35-41

Do it differently ‘One of the best ways of changing an existing habit is to change the situation,’ says Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits (Oneworld, £8.99). New situations force us to think consciously about what we do, and that, in itself, can help us change our habits. For example, research shows that when food is stored in bigger containers, people tend to eat more. The same is true of drinks served in big containers and food served in larger packets or with bigger serving spoons. ‘This suggests that there are a whole series of environmental changes that can easily encourage healthy eating,’ Dean points out.

Action: Think about changes to your environment that will steer you towards a good reward not a bad one, e.g. have fruit or nuts to hand as a healthy option, if your reward tends to be a snack.

DAYS 42-66

Don’t stop believin' If you feel like you’re not making any headway, remember 66 days is an average, habit change can take up to a year or more. ‘Don’t think after three weeks if you haven’t succeeded there’s no point,’ says Dr Gardner. ‘If you’re doing it every day you’ll still be making progress. As habits form, associations are being made and you’ll gradually find you won’t have to put so much mental effort into it.’ Some habits are more difficult to change than others. ‘Everything we know about from all the available science is that different behaviours will take different amounts of time to change for different people,’ says Duhigg.

Action: Continue to keep a record of how you are doing. That way you can see at a glance how much progress you’ve made and you’ll be a lot more inclined to carry on – and to find making habit changes in future easier. 

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