How to Use Habit Change Science to Uplevel Your Life

I think about habits a lot.

Habits anchor our days, and help define our lives.

Cultivating the practice of meditation and yoga asana is habit creation. Positive changes from physical therapy almost always boil down to new habit formation: lifestyle shifts, modifications of or new approaches to exercise, postural adjustments that become…habitual. As a yoga teacher and physical therapist, my biggest role is to support positive habit development. (It’s not enough to simply prescribe exercise).

When you think about it, the backbone of any big life goal is actually habit change.

Big shifts are comprised of tiny shifts; big habits of tiny habits. But before I get ahead of myself, know that habits are malleable for your entire life. Its never too late to let go of a negative or non-serving habit, nor too late to add a good one.

For change to be occur, you must first believe it is possible. This post is about why you should believe change is possible and how to make it happen. 

Anecdotally, clients often tell me that they will never ever be able to sleep on their backs (therefore reducing, for example, their neck pain), but when they give it a good try with some well-thought-out guidance, they almost ALWAYS learn to sleep on their backs. 

Two years ago, a physical therapist colleague picked up running. Before he left work, he would go through a series of warm-ups (visible to all in our clinic gym). One late, documentation-filled evening, a second physical therapist colleague — who happens to be an extraordinary scholar in the field — remarked to me “That running thing that so+so is doing won’t last.” What happened next was possibly the only time I have ever felt more knowledgable than said scholarly PT. I replied, “Actually, if our colleague can keep it up for a little over a month, maybe forty days, the research shows it very well may last.” This person’s running habit did indeed stick, and it has been very cool to see someone up-level their life. 

Which leads me to the first how-to of habit change:

Give it 1 month (more or less)

Give it a good college try for about a month. Somewhere between 21 and 40 days seems to be key. Defining a time boundary like 4 weeks also makes giving something up or trying something challenging more palatable. The 40-day theme has echos in fasting traditions from around the world (Lent, Ramadan and more), so it may very well be rooted in our human subconscious (epigenetics, anyone?).  After 30-40 days without soda, a soda is likely to feel like it is burning your tongue. If you sit in meditation for 10 minutes every morning for 30 days, you will miss your cushion time if you skip. 

Replace, Don’t Eliminate

Another major key to creating a new habit or dismantling an old one is to have something positive to replace it with. Want to stop eating out so much? Try keeping super-convenient foods (that actually excite you) at home. Try a grocery delivery service. Invite friends over for meals. Brainstorm strategic replacement options.

As a side note, I’ve been reading recent major research that shows that weight loss does not come from exercise. It only comes from changes in dietary habits. “I’m skeptical,” I thought. “I know plenty of people who have shed pounds from starting exercise routines (though I also know exercisers who can’t seem to lose weight).”  I was hungry while teaching yoga the other evening, and it occurred to me that I cannot eat while I’m working out. Clearly, this was an attempt of my mind to simply, make sense and fully comprehend what I had been reading. But, perhaps there is a nugget of truth there. Instead of raiding your fridge upon returning home, you go out for a run or turn on your streaming yoga service and you can’t do those activities while snacking. Boom, your habit got replaced. 

Micro-Changes, Small daily tasks

My mom attended a memorial service for a friend a few years ago, and she remarked to me that she would love to be remembered for such kindness and generosity at the end of her life. My mom has 30 years of wisdom on me, and I recognized instantly the luxury of relative youth — not having to think about legacy.

But we all know that it’s the small consistencies that make up our personality. When you inquire, “How are you?” to others once, that’s a nice gesture. If you ask at every encounter, it clarifies a deeper commitment to connection. It defines how people remember you. It defines your persona, your legacy. I made a conscious decision to be very, very kind to telephone customer service representatives many years ago. I could see how easy it was in my mind to strip away the individual’s humanity in a time of my own personal frustration. (This has been a part of my bigger lifestyle shift / habit change around yoga — yoking all parts of myself and recognizing the unity of humanity). As a result, I get less stressed, and often better outcomes from my requests.

Habits are the same. Maybe picking up running / yoga / vegetarianism is just too much, too fast. You could start with a simple task: buying the proper gear. Once you have your snack bars and running shoes, progress to walks around the block after dinner, notice if you like the bounce of your sneakers on the sidewalk, switch to one minute jogs / one minute walks. Want to go gluten-free but love your bread? Try as many gluten free bread options as you can. Make a game of it, write reviews, crowdsource brands on social media. It’s just one step, but it’s one step in the direction that you want to go. Don’t forget to commit to small changes in 21, 30 or 40 day cycles.

You get the idea. You don’t have to go all out all at once. In fact, habit change will be more sustainable for most people if we chunk it into bite-sized pieces.

Automate & Celebrate

Automation doesn’t always have to include technology (though there are a ton of cool technology tools to help us! I used Leechblock to stop myself from getting lost in Internet browsing while in grad school). Automation is mostly a collection of “If this…then that…” scenarios. Don’t want to drink on weekdays? Suggest meeting friends at coffee shops instead of bars.  Boom, decision made – before you are within ordering distance. 

Celebration involves self-forgiveness for our imperfections. Even if you break down and bum a cigarette, you are still in the process of quitting cigarettes. Don’t let your frustration override your goals. Don’t forget the bigger picture. It also involves noticing, even luxuriating in our small successes. Measure the days, the weeks, the months and the years. Reflect on where you were and how far you have come. 

There is so much more to say about habit change, but if you want to go deeper, I’d suggest reading Better Than Before – What I learned about Making and Breaking Habits by Gretchen Rubin. She writes humorously about how different personality types create habit change differently.

Have you created positive habit changes? What worked and what didn’t? Do you have any technology or “if this-then that” recommendations? I’d love to know in the comments below.

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  • sushilkbirla

    My wife and I tried reducing salt intake, although we had no salt-related issues and sodium levels in the blood were well within limits. We wanted to test our ability to overcome the taste-dependency. We were not adding salt, except in cooking. On the first day, we reduced the amount of salt by a “grain” – as small a reduction as possible. We could not feel the difference in the taste. On the second day, we reduced salt by the same amount. Again, we could not feel the difference. We continued until no salt was added in the cooked food. We did not feel deprived. The food did not taste not unpleasant. Eventually, we returned to using salt. I tried reducing added sugar in the same way. I don’t miss added sugar anymore.