Top 10 Tips for Changing Your Habits

The science of habit change can help you establish new routines that work for you.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to change our routines? We are creatures of habit, and habits can be very hard to break. Understanding the science of habit change can make you more successful the next time you decide you’re ready to shake up your routine. Below are some of the important steps to take when establishing a new habit.

I recently worked with a client, who I’ll call Nancy (not her real name). Nancy wanted to start a regular exercise routine for several years but couldn’t seem to make it happen, so we worked together on helping her establish this new habit. We talked through each of the steps below, and eventually she was able to establish a new health routine that worked for her.

1. Take stock

Before you make any changes, take some time to reflect on the big picture. Which of your current habits are working well for you and which are not?

Nancy explained that in the terms of her health, she felt she was doing pretty well with healthy eating, sleep, and stress management, but a regular exercise routine had eluded her for years.

2. Identify your targets for change

Once you are clear on what’s working and what’s not, you can decide what changes you’d like to make. If you have several changes you’d like to make, identify one habit to focus on first. Be specific on what habit you’d like to change or establish. Consider using SMART goals (see my blog post on SMART goals here).

In speaking with Nancy, she was clear that she wanted a “regular” exercise routine that she could maintain. More specifically, her goal was to do cardiovascular exercise at least three times each week, for 30 minutes at a time.

3. Know your “why”

Take some time to really examine why this habit is important for you to change. What short-term and long-term impacts will this change have on your life? Do you want to make this change to benefit yourself or someone else? In what ways will you or others benefit? In the big picture, why does this matter to you?

Nancy expressed that she was very concerned about her health as she entered her 50’s. She knew it was important for her to get more regular exercise to improve her overall health, to prevent diabetes (which ran in her family), and to help her maintain a healthy and comfortable weight. In the immediate future, she knew she would feel healthier and have more energy if she was exercising regularly. In the long-term, she knew the benefits would be countless. She also expressed concern that her lack of regular exercise made her a poor role model for her children, who were establishing their own health habits. She wanted to make this change for herself and also to inspire her children.

4.  Set your sights

Write down a step-by-step list of what you will need to do to make this change happen. Will this change require one big change or multiple small changes? What is the very first step that can set you up for success?

In Nancy’s case, she knew her goal would require a few changes. She needed to set aside time for the exercise, get herself down to her basement exercise equipment or outside to walk, and complete the 30 minutes of exercise. The first step, the most crucial one, was setting aside the time to do it. She decided to write down three “appointments” on her calendar each week for her exercise time (every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8am).  

5. Visualize

Put down your pen and paper, close your eyes, and visualize yourself taking the steps you just outlined. Take your time to “see” yourself doing each step individually. At the end, visualize yourself successfully making the change you desire, and enjoying the benefits you imagine.

In one of our coaching sessions, we did a visualization exercise where Nancy was able to “watch” herself making the exercise appointments in her calendar each week, going downstairs to her basement at the time of the appointments, completing the exercise, and feeling good after completing them. She also visualized herself 6 months in the future, feeling fitter and healthier than she had in years.

6. Enlist support

People are more likely to accomplish their goals if they are not striving alone. Talk to your life coach, friends, or family about your desire to make changes. Ask them to provide support and accountability to help you be successful.

As her coach, I collaborated with Nancy on what supports she would find helpful. She believed she would need regular motivators to establish this habit, so she committed to texting me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (for the first two weeks) to let me know when she had completed her exercise routine. We agreed that if I hadn’t heard from her by noon on one of those days, I would send her a text to ask her for an update. She felt that having this accountability plan in place would help motivate her to get it done on her own those mornings, to prevent me from having to send her a reminder text. Nancy also asked her friends to meet up for occasional walks in the neighborhood, instead of always exercising alone in her basement. She knew she would look forward to socializing during the walks, and she wouldn’t want to cancel if she had committed to meeting a friend.   

7. Prepare for setbacks

Even the best plans can encounter setbacks. Before you get started on making changes, brainstorm some possible pitfalls. What could go wrong along the way? Make contingency plans so you feel prepared for anything.

Together, Nancy and I brainstormed possible roadblocks and obstacles to sticking to her plans. What if she overslept, how would she reschedule the “appointment” for her exercise? What if she wasn’t feeling well? What if she really just didn’t want to do it? She set a rule for herself that if she missed her exercise appointment, she would need to reschedule it for 40 minutes (instead of 30) on the following day.  

8. Fail forward

If a setback does derail your plans, don’t beat yourself up about it. Look at this as an opportunity for growth. Learn from it. What got in your way this time? How can you prepare better for this issue next time around? What similar challenges could arise, and how can you prepare for them?

Nancy did really well sticking to her plan for the first week. In the second week, however, she had a dentist appointment scheduled early on Wednesday morning. She told herself that she would just exercise after the dentist appointment, but she ended up running errands afterwards and the day got away from her. As requested, I texted her at noon to ask for an update, and she said she planned to do the exercise that evening after dinner, but she never did it that day. When we had our weekly coaching session the next day, we discussed what had happened and how she could learn from this. She decided in the future to try not to schedule morning appointments on her exercise days, but if that was unavoidable, she would reschedule her exercise appointment in her calendar for later that same day or the next morning. She felt good about this new plan. She knew that her mistake the previous day was not a reason to give up, but an opportunity to learn how to prepare better for next time.

9. Remember your “why”

If you find yourself losing steam, go back to item #3. Review what you wrote to keep you motivated. Remember… Why does this matter to you in the big picture?

A few weeks in, Nancy experienced a week of feeling unmotivated about her new exercise routine. She reviewed her “why” reasons, and the most compelling one for her was her desire to be a good role model for her kids. She decided to put a picture of her kids up on her bathroom mirror, to remind her every morning of why she’d made this commitment. She also added an automatic reminder to pop up on her phone each day with the simple message “Show my kids how it’s done.” She began talking to her kids about the changes she was making and started planning active outings with her kids on weekends. She was surprised at how much they all enjoyed these activities together, and she beamed with pride at how she was improving her children’s health along with her own.

10. Celebrate ALL your wins, even the little ones

Don’t wait until the big win to celebrate…pat yourself on the back with every little change you make. Record your successes in a journal each evening and savor what you’ve accomplished. Share your successes with someone who you know is cheering for you. Treat yourself to little rewards along the way that truly motivate you. And when you accomplish your final goal, celebrate BIG!

Nancy had a favorite smoothie drink that she really enjoyed from a local juice shop. She decided that each time she completed the 30 minutes of exercise she had scheduled as an appointment, she could treat herself to one of those smoothies afterwards. She also promised herself that after completing ten of her exercise sessions, she could buy a new workout outfit. Lastly, she decided she and her kids would plan a day trip to the beach together, after she had completed twenty exercise sessions. I’m happy to report that Nancy and her children enjoyed celebrating her successes during their beach day!

As a life coach who specializes in personal growth, I help my clients (like Nancy) make the necessary changes to create a life they love. While habit change can be challenging and complex, following these “Top 10 Tips” can help you get started on establishing new routines that work for you and your life.

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About Julie Gates

I am a certified life coach who specializes in personal growth. My unique background in positive psychology, public health and clinical medicine supports me in helping my clients thrive and flourish through life’s changes.