Habit Formation: How Small Changes Can Yield Big Results

By Sandra Steingard, M.D.

January is a time when many of us think about making changes in our lives. Enrollments at gyms and in diet programs increase as we try to implement our New Year’s resolutions. For many of us, by February or March we have slipped back into our old patterns and our resolve for change has dissipated. This often leads to negative self-talk that often reinforces our sense that we are powerless to change.

As a psychiatrist, I frequently recommend that individuals change their behaviors. Many determinants of poor health are related to what we eat and how much we move. Yet I know personally how hard it is to change these things. I was an overweight person who hated to exercise for much of my adult life. I have learned through painful and humbling experience that having the “correct” information often does not lead to “correct” behavior.

In recent years, I have become interested in the growing science of habit formation. From this I have learned that there is good and bad news: there is a wealth of straightforward and easily implemented suggestions for habit change and at the same time, change is hard, it requires persistence, and many of us will frequently “fall off” our plan.  Psychologists actually talk about the “WTH” effect, i.e., that sense that if we are, let’s say dieting, and have one cookie, we think we might as well eat the whole box since we already went a bit rogue. With some basic tools, we can be gentler on ourselves and develop, well, the habit of persistence.

We often talk about habits in the context of our “bad” ones. However, habits are a necessary and helpful part of our lives. They help us to get through the day in an efficient manner. Our brains are complex and require enormous energy. We have evolved to operate in the most efficient means possible and habits are a form of efficiency. Compare a habit you might like to develop, let’s say daily exercise, with a habit that is already solid, such as brushing your teeth. With the new habit, it takes much focus, it feels hard to do, and it seems easy to come up with reasons to avoid it. It just seems to take work – and this is mental work in addition to the actual physical work of the exercise itself. For most of us, we brush our teeth daily without giving it much thought. But if you have ever helped children create the habit of teeth brushing, you may recognize some of the same behaviors you experience when you are starting a new habit – they can feel so put upon by the expectation – they complain, procrastinate, and try to avoid it. Over time, it becomes a routine and we find ourselves no longer needing to prompt the behavior. As habits become routine, they require less mental energy and they will become easier to complete. The key to forming new habits is to understand that this will feel like climbing a mountain as we start but if we find a way to persevere until the habit has become routine, it will eventually feel more like walking downhill.

Two very simple suggestions:

  • Break up the habit into small changes, adding to the activity as each step becomes routine.
  • Be kind to yourself – this is difficult because you are “wired” to stick with already embedded routines. To fail is to be human but we can all change with some effort.

There are a number of straightforward books and websites that offer further information. James Clear has written Atomic Habits and his website is full of useful information, https://jamesclear.com/habits. B.J. Fogg has written Tiny Habits and his website is also informative, https://www.foggmethod.com/ We are all capable of change!

Dr. Sandra Steingard is Howard Center’s Chief Medical Officer and lives in Charlotte. The organization’s mission statement: We help people and communities thrive by providing supports and services to address mental health, substance use, and developmental needs. www.howardcenter.org; 802-488-6000. Help is here.