By Erika Fehrenbach Prell
The longer you do a new behavior, the more likely it will stick and become a new habit. A habit is really the long-term goal of changing a behavior. Why? We don’t have to THINK about habits...they are just part of what we do. Once your desired behavior has become a habit, it becomes easier to keep it going. But, beware of letting your guard down, you can relapse, or akude back to old behaviors, at any stage.
Let’s explore what a habit is for a quick sec. Habits may seem like a complicated concept but they are pretty simple. Habits consist of 3 parts; a cue, a routine, and a reward. Basically, something in the outside world happens, you have a behavior associated with that something that you do, and you are rewarded.
A great example in my life is my desire to want popcorn with movies, even if I am not hungry at all. I go to the movies, I order popcorn (and eat way more than I should), and I feel content and happy (at least until I get a stomach ache from eating way too much). There are 2 ways I could help myself here. One, I could plan ahead of time, knowing I will want the popcorn and eat too much. So, I could eat a lighter meal prior to going to the movies. Another solution would be to resist buying the “deal” and get a smaller portion of popcorn. Finally, I could retrain my brain and create a new habit by replacing the action of buying popcorn with a different behavior. Remember, your brain does not like to get rid of behaviors or actions. You will be much more successful if you substitute behaviors for each other instead of just attempting to stop it. If you just stop it without substituting, you will need to rely on willpower, which fades over time.
Studies have shown that it takes on average 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit. Did you read that right? 66 days or just over 2 months! The time can vary, however, either shorter or longer time; this time differs with each person. In the Stages of Change model that we have been discussing, you have made it to the maintenance stage once you have consistently done a new behavior for 6 months or more. I like to think of the maintenance stage as the “this is what I do” or "sticking" stage.
The key to successfully maintaining a new behavior is to actively look to incorporate the new behavior into your lifestyle as well as recognizing and avoiding triggers that could put you back into relapse. This is why some behaviors are easier and faster to hit the “sticking” stage. Some behaviors require more than one change to your lifestyle than others or have been in your life longer so are harder to reprogram. For example, starting to floss your teeth regularly may only take a few days to weeks of remembering. Although, for me, the ultimate in becoming “sticky” for flossing daily was when my dental hygienist noticed a difference at my regular check up. Positive reinforcement at it’s finest! On the other hand, working out at the gym regularly may require you to incorporate it into your schedule, have childcare available or arranged, and budget the cost of the gym membership in order to hit the sticking point.
The longer a new behavior is integrated into your lifestyle, and becomes “just what you do”, the less likely you will relapse. Unfortunately, relapse can happen at any stage. And, logically, it is more likely to happen the newer the behavior is. While motivation is important to get you going on the change process, you CAN NOT rely on motivation and willpower to carry you and this new behavior to the sticking point. That is why developing strategies to overcome obstacles, recognize and remove triggers, and find a supportive environment to promote the desired change is necessary for your success.
Do not beat yourself up if you find yourself relapsing! It is so easy to do this-to get down on yourself for not being strong enough to make the change. Remember, relapsing is part of the process! I call relapse the "oops...how'd I get back here" or “sliding” phase. And, there is a definite up-side to relapse.
When you relapse, instead of beating yourself up, use this as a point to re-evaluate. There was a part of your plan that needs work. Look for unexpected obstacles, triggers, or situations that lead to you getting off track. Some common life situations that might be the cause include stress, decreased time, or a life change. Relapses are lessons to be learned from so that you can come back stronger and more prepared on your next attempt. As time passes, you will notice your new behaviors sliding into the old behaviors sooner so that you can course-correct sooner as well. So, don’t be afraid of relapse; there are no failures in life, only opportunities to learn!
An example in my life is my commitment to eating unprocessed foods. During baseball season, this can be a challenge. Often, games and practices fall during meal time. Not only that, but, there is either a game or practice nearly every night of the week. I am all about supporting the local team by purchasing concessions, however, hot dogs and walking tacos should be on the occasional list and not multiple times weekly. Through trial and error, I have found several strategies that help including preparing meals ahead of time that are fast to reheat, finding creative ideas for on-the-go dinners, and, most importantly, planning ahead.
The goal with changing a behavior is to create new habits that are integrated into your everyday life. Understanding where you are in the change process (contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance), strategies to move forward, how to maintain, and what to do when you start to slide into relapse are the keys to making lasting behavior change and developing new habits. Taking the time to do the work required and working with your mind, instead of against it, will increase your chance of success. You got this!
Erika Fehrenbach Prell is passionate about inspiring and educating, others on their path to complete wellness-mind,body, and soul. This desire led Erika to the helping profession of nursing, and she obtained her Master's Degree as a Nurse Practitioner in 2007. Erika specialized in cardiac surgery, largely influenced by her personal experience with heart disease. While she loved working with this population, her heart's desire has always been to impact lives on a larger scale and from a proactive, not reactive, place. The universe answered when her path crossed with Jackie and SoulShine was born. Erika finally feels she is walking in her purpose and is excited for this journey to unfold.