Washing faces, brushing teeth, making beds, taking showers. These are all daily habits we commonly do. But if you stop and think about it, these habits didn’t appear out of thin air. We learned them. New habits are added through learned behavior and can be taken away. This is how change is possible.

Truth be told, it takes 90 days of hard concentrated practice to institute a new behavior or habit. As you know, I work in the behavioral health care field and as a professor had the privilege of teaching for many years a graduate seminar on substance abuse. Eager students passed through my course anxious to help others and gain knowledgeable about how change takes place and how new behaviors are instituted and become habit-forming. According to Prochaska and Diclementes, thought leaders in social science, there are certain stages of change a person goes through when they want something to be different. The desire for change can vary, but in this example we’ll use a change from using substances. Below is the model Prochaska and Diclementes developed to show the stages one goes through.

In the class I previously taught, students were given an assignment to give up or add something to their repertoire on a daily basis. Their choices ran the gamut from stopping smoking to giving up chocolate chip cookies, no texting and checking email every five minutes and losing themselves on the wide web to adding exercise, sticking to three healthy meals a day, etc. In doing so, they were required to keep a journal which recorded their thoughts feelings and actions related to relinquishing or instituting an activity. Each classmate buddied up with a colleague to help them on their wayward path and some attended self help groups.

The goal of the exercise was to teach empathy. In the addiction and recovery world, it is not easy to give up or add an activity such as a drug of choice or that drink at the end of the long work day. Students stepped into the shoes of this kind of commitment and glimpsed the real struggles a person faces when trying to lose bad habits and form new positive ones. Walking in the shoes of forming new habits is not instantaneous nor is it easy.

The assignment was wildly successful albeit with some grumblings and ahas as students meandered through recording their reactions. Many of them relapsed i.e. did not do what they said they were going to do and had to get back on the wheel and start again.

This assignment is so successful that as we fast forward to today I have the opportunity of working with families whose loved ones experience behavioral health care problems. As a family social worker/clinician, I invite my clients to take care of themselves physically, emotionally and spirituality in ways that are consistent with their values and to form new habits and break old ones.

Families I work with are often times weary from worry and overly focused on other matters. They look a bit miffed and ask how can we form new habits. I tell them we start the process by developing a three week calendar and allow them to put in the things they will do each week to take care of themselves from doing a morning grateful list and meditation to taking a walk in the park, dipping into a bubble bath, going out, etc. The idea is to integrate wellness activities into one’s daily living. Feedback is given constantly from peers and teachers and folks are asked to show up and do even when they do not want to do. The results are astonishing as folks begin to celebrate new skills, new habits.

Don’t believe me about the struggles of giving up old habits and starting anew? Years ago, I gave up smoking. This was like saying bye to an old friend – I loved it so. I loved how it employed my hands, gave them something to do and distracted from my fears.

It wasn’t easy, I was so unsuccessful in the beginning. I would hide cigarettes in the trunk of my car, in my sweater drawer, places that I thought were hard to find. And I would sneak around thinking no one could smell my breath or my rancorous clothing. My daughters would pull on me and tell me to quit.

After many failed attempts, I signed up to go on a self-exploration week called EST, which was big in the eighties. At the retreat, I was going to discover myself, find a whole new me. I puffed and I puffed as I boarded the bus of no return. There was no smoking. For a week. I brought big packs of chewing gum to distract myself, to chew past my cravings for a cigarette. As I chewed so much gum my jaws hurt and yet I went a whole week.

When I returned, I used my Al-Anon practice coupled with my juicy fruit gum addiction and kept going. I spoke to people, went to counseling and started exercising. At times when my world became ruffled, I imagined large puffs of white smoke engulfing me and I kept reading the warning labels. One day I bought a pack and kept it on the mantel as a symbol of my strength. As my smoking stopped, my lungs improved and I even enjoyed dreaming. I had a lot of support to keep going. After time, my gum use decreased only to reappear during high stress times. I was successful – no smoking had become a habit that is still with me some 30 years later.

Recall that it takes 90 days to develop a habit. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick something you want to give up
  2. Make sure you get health/medical clearance from your doctor
  3. Pick a start and stop date
  4. Write in your journal – record your thoughts, feelings and actions
  5. Breathe through your cravings
  6. Surround yourself with positive affirmations and friends
  7. Go to meetings – engage in new activities
  8. Write a grateful list every day and on the top of the list express gratitude for changing
  9. Embrace the negative thoughts and feelings as a normal part of the process
  10. Suit up and show up as what you are doing is totally different
  11. Understand relapse can be part of the Change
  12. Get back out there and keep doing what you are doing and give yourself big hugs for staying the course, reaching for help, being gentle with your soul and navigating change
This article was originally published with Huffington Post
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