ME Magazine

Stick to the Plan

Turn your unhealthy behaviors into healthy habits in five easy steps

Hitting the buffet for seconds. Smoking your way through a coffee break. Watching a six-hour reality show marathon. We know these behaviors are bad for us, so why do we indulge? Because change is hard, especially when it comes to ditching harmful habits for healthy ones. It's about more than just putting your fork down, snuffing out a cigarette or getting off the couch. It's about changing your mind.

As hard as the shift to healthier habits may be, you can do it-but you need a plan. In his book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Changing Old Habits for Good, (Alpha, 2008), G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., offers insights into creating healthy behaviors and ways to make sure you stick with them. Whether you're looking to quit smoking, lose weight or simply improve your health, here are five essentials to consider when devising your plan of attack.

1. Put it in writing. Before you can reach your goal, you must first define it. In his book, Marlatt addresses the importance of setting a reasonable goal, and then separating it into smaller, more achievable steps. "You know yourself; you know what makes you tick," he says. "So choose quit methods you know give you a fighting chance." Marlatt also recommends creating a "Quit Commitment Contract" to hold yourself accountable. It should include details such as what habit you're giving up and why, how and when you plan to do it, and the friends, family and co-workers you've told about your goal.

2. Recognize and neutralize triggers. Just when you're making progress toward quitting a bad habit, a craving can hit out of nowhere. It can be as simple as the smell of cookies baking or seeing an old smoking buddy. While you can't always avoid these triggers, with some planning you can learn to counter them. Marlatt suggests removing temptation if possible. Clean out your candy stash or toss your "secret" cigarettes. You can also replace old "bad" habits with "good" new ones. For example, if you used to eat your meals on the couch in front of the TV, investing in a dining table-and using it-can help you change that behavior.

3. Find ways to persevere. The road to reaching your goal won't always be smooth. To help get through the tough times and the day-to-day grind, Marlatt suggests making to-do lists and measuring your progress. Online prompts have also proved effective. A recent study found that receiving e-mail suggestions that include diet and fitness tips can actually promote better habits.

4. Bounce back. Nobody's perfect and slip-ups are bound to happen. In fact, relapse should not be seen as a failure, according to Marlatt. "It's human, it's predictable and it's not the end of the world-it's part of the process of change," he says. It's important to not beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon. Consider it a lesson learned-one that will steel you when temptation comes around again.

5. Give yourself a bonus. Rewards are a great way to stay motivated and focused. But how often should you reward yourself? "Do it every hour if it helps you stay focused," Marlatt says. "You can't spoil yourself." He recommends choosing healthy rewards that promote your efforts to improve your habits. Treat yourself to a manicure or perhaps a relaxing reflexology massage. You'll feel mentally and physically rejuvenated and ready to tackle your goals head-on.

-By Allison Thomas

ME Magazine Spring 2010

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Time for a Change?

Some experts say it takes 21 days to change a bad habit to a good one. Others say give it a month or even a year.

In his book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Changing Old Habits for Good, psychologist and author G. Alan Marlatt says that while it would be easier if there were a definitive answer, there's no set time frame. The cravings we get-and what triggers them-are as different from person to person as how we respond to these cues.

According to Marlatt, "There is no clear calendar of progress when it comes to unlearning one set of behaviors and learning another. It takes as long as it takes."

Get Your Health in Check

Before you create an action plan, why not take a look at your overall health?

The American Cancer Society's Great American Health Check (cancer.org/healthcheck) is a good place to start. Answer a few questions about yourself- including your eating, exercise and smoking habits- and receive a personalized action plan to start you on your path to better health.

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