The secret to changing bad habits – for good

Struggling to lose weight or quit smoking? Don’t focus on your weaknesses, says behavioural change specialist Shahroo Izadi – learning to treat yourself with kindness is the key to turning your life around.

Zara Picken

How many times have you embarked on a plan of change, only to run out of steam within weeks? How often do you notice habits emerging that you’re not particularly proud of? Maybe you’d like to drink less or exercise more. Maybe you want to stick to a diet or stop putting off a big career change plan.

We all know the formula for losing weight or for getting fitter. We know how to stop our credit card debt from packing up or how to give up smoking. We just stop spending or smoking. So when we can’t manage that, we think we’re weak and incapable, despite the fact that most of us are achieving lots of things in daily life that invalidate these assumptions about ourselves.

Knowing we shouldn’t do something or being aware that it’s having a negative impact on our lives is not enough to create sustainable change. Miracle cures can provide a quick fix that gets us where we want to be but they don’t necessarily keep us there. We need to look deeper and address negative self-talk, which often leads us to sabotage our own plans. I know from my work in helping people recover from addictions that focusing on strengths and achievements, not ‘failings’, is far more effective and long-lasting than an authoritarian, confrontational approach.

FOCUS ON YOUR POSITIVE QUALITIES

Not only does liking and accepting yourself help you to consider yourself worthy of living the life you want, it also makes you feel as able as anyone else to achieve that goal. Changing habits can be hard. When you’ve done something one way for a long time you get comfortable with it. There will be moments when you don’t believe in yourself or doubt that you possess the qualities required to change.

Focus every day on one or two positive qualities or compliments that someone has paid you and write them down. It could be reasons why you are a good partner/parent or things you like about your appearance. It could be strengths you’ve shown at work or at home. Within a month or two, when you have those talks with yourself that can make you feel unworthy of achieving your goals, you’ll have dozens of positive affirmations to challenge them with.

PINPOINT WHAT HASN’T WORKED IN THE PAST

Zara Picken

Sometimes it’s believing you’re still in holiday mode six weeks after coming home. Sometimes it’s making subtle exceptions to plans or just being tired. For me, it was liquid diets. Before a wedding or a holiday I would use them to lose weight fast. The reality was I couldn’t stick to it, yet I convinced myself that next time it would be different. I’d tell myself, ‘Last time you didn’t want to change enough, or pick the right flavours.’ I seemed to have forgotten why this approach wasn’t right for me. In order to keep it up I would isolate myself from family, friends and social events because I was hungry all the time. I assumed that there was something wrong with me: if others could stick to diets, why not me? I was setting myself up to fail, which meant I ate more, gained weight and did more liquid diets…

I also noticed that if I drank even a little alcohol on a night out, my resolve to stay on track went out of the window. I’d end up getting a takeaway on the way home, and the next morning, because I’d ‘ruined’ the plan, a greasy breakfast would turn into a day-long binge.

Take time to reflect on what hasn’t worked in the past. Ask yourself, ‘What plan(s) did I subscribe to? What led me off track? Why didn’t I get back on track? Did I stop believing in my ability to change? If so, why?’

DON’T SELF-SABOTAGE

This comes down to low self-esteem, lack of belief in your ability to change and/or underestimating how much discomfort you can take. It’s important not to see any attempt at changing habits as punitive, because that’s when you start beating yourself up.

Write down what you tend to say to yourself when you haven’t done something you said you would; the messages you give yourself when you’re feeling disappointed or weak, when you’ve behaved in ways you’ve regretted or you’re finding things harder than you imagined. We all make negative assumptions about ourselves such as:

♥ ‘I’m the kind of person who can’t…’
♥ ‘Even if I managed it I’d never match up to…’
♥ ‘Some people are naturally motivated but I’m…’

Then imagine these negative things being shouted at you by somebody else. Would this list fill you with confidence that you could get back on track? Of course not. For instance, maybe as a child you never stuck to hobbies. Why have you decided that this makes you ‘flaky’ as opposed to someone who tries out new things and knows when something isn’t right? It’s important to examine where these assumptions have come from and consider whether they are true. And even if they are, are they so bad? We won’t ever be made up of entirely positive qualities, but if we start to notice how many negative thoughts we have about ourselves we can learn to be kinder to ourselves.

‘We all make negative assumptions about ourselves’

A colleague once shared this tip: she asked her clients to start the day with 30 paperclips in their pocket. Each time they said something cruel to themselves, they had to move a paperclip to another pocket. At the end of the day they had to empty out their pockets to see how frequently they were beating themselves up. The shock at seeing how many paperclips were in that second pocket, and the knowledge of how counterproductive this is, was often enough to decrease the number of paperclips they had moved by the end of the next day.

KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS

This is anything that sparks the desire to engage in habits you want to change. Anticipation helps, so make a list of the things that could throw you off track. Some are obvious, such as people offering you cigarettes when you’re trying to give up. Others are associations, such as smoking after dinner or with a drink. If you anticipate these triggers tripping you up, think of ways to avoid them, at least for the first few weeks until you have established new habits and got some resolve-boosting time under your belt. Other triggers can be more subtle:

Fatigue We often underestimate the impact that tiredness can have on our mental health and resilience.

Hunger This is particularly important if you want to change habits around food. Don’t go food shopping when you’re hungry.

Stress Financial concerns, deadlines and relationship pressures won’t go away simply because we want them to. But we can remember that there will never be a perfect time to go through change. The kind of stress that lowers resolve differs hugely from person to person so it’s important to identify what your triggers might be and develop coping strategies that you’re happy to carry into the future.

Worry Rumination and catastrophising can be exhausting and make us less able to deal with discomfort head on. Make a list of the worries you’ve had that turned out to be unfounded and use that list to challenge new ones as they creep up.

BRING THE FUTURE INTO THE PRESENT

Practising kindness to oneself isn’t just about isolating and changing specific habits. It’s about working towards creating a life on purpose (and of purpose) that excites you. It’s looking at the bigger picture and believing in your ability to push through temporary discomfort in order to live a more enjoyable life.

My experience from working in addiction treatment taught me that where sustained changes were made after a number of unsuccessful attempts, regardless of the individual or the drug involved, the main tools were compassion, forgiveness and kindness towards oneself.

Some clients have found it useful to write a list of affirmations, combining qualities they already feel they have with how they aspire to be. While trying to lose weight I did this and read them to myself each morning in front of a mirror as a kind of mantra. At first it felt really silly but soon real shifts started to take place, in that I started to behave like someone who had already achieved the things I aspired to.

PLAN KINDLY

When I’m helping clients change habits around smoking, drinking and food, I ask them to put something additional in place rather than immediately taking something away. If you’re used to taking breaks at work with a cigarette, for example, make that initially half a cigarette plus herbal tea or a glass of water, creating new associations for that time. It’s then easier to withdraw the cigarette completely.

Assume that the possibility of relapse will always be there. That’s why you will need to anticipate ways in which you could be thrown off your new path and prepare for them. As time passes and you start to surprise yourself with how much you have changed your ‘norm’, you will need less contingency planning to stay on track because:

♥ You’ll have time under your belt that you will want to protect.

♥ You’ll feel more accomplished and capable and want more of that feeling.

♥ Parts of your life that you may never have considered before will have improved.

♥ You’ll have slipped into a new routine and a new set of automatic behaviours.

♥ You’ll have higher self-esteem and believe in your worthiness to achieve your long-term goals.

♥ You’ll be more aware of self-sabotaging thoughts and less likely to indulge them.

Of course all of this is much easier said than done. It will always be hard to change ingrained habits, tempting you to revert to how you used to be because that’s easier. But the good news is that you will be less tempted to press that ‘f*** it’ button as time passes. You will be more comfortable sitting in discomfort and you’ll have proved to yourself that no amount of annoying colleagues or bad weather or mind-numbing boredom can make you act unkindly to yourself again.

This is an edited extract from The Kindness Method: Changing Habits for Good by Shahroo Izadi, published by Bluebird on 14 June, priced £12.99