How to Change Your Bad Habits into Good Ones

The title of this article could just as easily have been "How to Change Your Good Habits into Bad Ones" because habits, whether they are good or bad, are difficult to change. That's why we want to teach our children good habits while they are still young so that they will do them automatically when they grow up. If, like most of us, you were taught to brush your teeth before you go to sleep, you will not forget even if you arrive home very late at night.

I wore contact lenses and eyeglasses for twenty-three years before I had a laser operation to correct my vision. It took me several months to get rid of the habit of reaching out for my eyeglasses as soon as I woke up or trying to remove my lenses before I went to sleep. In fact, one night, I jumped out of bed in the middle of my sleep because I had "forgotten" to remove my contact lenses. It was only after several sleepy attempts of poking my eye searching for the non-existent contact lens that I realized what I was doing.

Yes, it is difficult to change a habit but it is not impossible. Robert Epstein, psychology professor and author of "Pure Fitness: Body Meets Mind" says in an article he wrote for Treatment Today magazine that "skillpower" not willpower is what is needed to change a bad habit into a good one.

He and his psychology class at the University of California in San Diego surveyed more than 2000 years of habit-changing techniques and found that they all boiled down to three simple rules which he called the "Three M's". The "M's" stand for modify your environment, monitor your behavior and make commitments. These rules can help you change your eating and exercise habits as well as your study, work and personal habits.

Modify your environment.
Epstein says that this simple technique can have enormous effects. He reports that a student of his became a regular bicyclist by placing her bicycle across her doorway so it was the first thing she saw when she came home.

Years before I became a fitness professional, I used to prepare my workout clothes and shoes at night to psyche myself into exercising first thing in the morning. Since I was not a "morning person", I needed to see my exercise clothes for that extra motivational push. I still drag myself out of bed but I have "permanently" manipulated my environment to make sure I exercise early in the day. I did this by teaching the "undesirable" (time-wise) 7:00 a.m. aerobics or group exercise class. I have no choice but to get out of bed because I cannot let my students down by being late for my class.

I once read about a person who kept three loud alarm clocks all around her room because she had the bad habit of not getting up in time for work. To shut off each one she had to get out of her bed, walk past her closet and into the bathroom. I call that an ingenious example of changing one's environment to change one's behavior.

If you want to quit smoking, keeping all lighters, matches, ashtrays and cigarettes out of sight is a good idea. In the beginning, you will also have to stay away from friends who smoke. This is that old saying "out of sight, out of mind" at work. It is also effective for changing your eating habits. If your problem is eating junk food, a big step toward success would be to keep your house clean of all traces of the offending food items.

Leaving notes or reminders to yourself is a good habit-changing technique, according to Epstein. I know people who put notes on their refrigerator door to remind them to stop and think before mindlessly plunging into the food within. My daughter has a note on her door that says "Workout!" in big bold letters to remind her to exercise at least three times a week. She says it works for her.

Monitor your behavior.
The reason habits are so hard to change is because we do them automatically or unconsciously. We are not aware of what we are doing so we cannot stop ourselves from doing it. Epstein says that monitoring our behavior helps us change our habits because it makes us realize what we are doing.

If you bite your nails, record exactly how many times a day you bite them. If you pull your hair, place the pulled hairs in an envelope and count them at the end of the day. If you say "you know" all the time, Epstein suggests counting how many times you say it by making a tear in a piece of paper in your pocket.

Write down what you eat. Keep a meticulous record of everything you eat or just keep track of how many times a week you eat rich desserts, have a second helping or eat junk food.

Keep a record of how often you exercise. This will tell you how many times you are really exercising. I say "really" because it is very easy to fool ourselves into thinking we workout regularly when we don't. Since I teach my early morning group exercise class five times a week, there is no need for me to write it down but I do keep a record of the workouts I do for myself. After tallying last year's workouts, I realized that I was very consistent with my weights but not that consistent with my Pilates matwork exercises. I would not have known this if I didn't keep a record. Obviously, one of my New Year's resolutions is to be more regular with my Pilates workouts.

Epstein says that if you think these techniques are silly, remember that self-monitoring has been proven by four decades of scientific research to be highly effective.

Make a commitment.
Last year, I had a conversation with Karmina Constantino, news anchor for ABS-CBN News Channel, about going to the gym regularly. As I was writing this article a few days ago, she told me that she finally was able to stick to a regular gym schedule by making a commitment with her boyfriend to exercise together. This arrangement gave her the jumpstart she needed because she was accountable to someone. Now, even if her boyfriend cannot meet her at the gym, she still goes because exercising regularly is fast becoming a habit she cannot live without.

Epstein explains that the reason making a commitment with another person works is that you have automatically arranged for a reward if you comply and a punishment if you don't. He says that this puts some pressure on you and that's often exactly what you need.

The three "its" to successfully maintain your good habits.
The process of changing a bad habit into a good one is one that goes up and down. To help you successfully maintain your good habits, the Structure House for Weight Control and Lifestyle Change developed three strategies.

The Association of Fitness Professionals of the Philippines (AFPP) will be holding the Basic Fitness Instructor Course for Gym Instructors, Personal Trainers and Group Exercise (aerobics) Instructors on January 22, 2000. Contact Shirley Quejada by email (shirleyq@pacific.net.ph) or telephone (426-5108) for more details.

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