Let him that would move the world first move himself. – Socrates

For one of our college lectures, my group received the visit of a guest lecturer who had been teaching for several years now at a university in The Netherlands. She had a fascinating speech and a way of working that made time fly, unlike it did for other courses. The theme of the lecture was emigration, and the teacher, herself an emigrant, told us about the Moroccan neighborhood where she had lived for a while. Very few could afford to go back home for the holidays, and their departure was a notable event for the ones staying behind for one more summer and one more year, in the country that had adopted them.

One in which the majority living on one continent, but who had left their heart on another, weaved together stories of their own temporary or permanent return home.

I had not visited The Netherlands up until that moment (and I also haven’t done it since), but the stories told by the teacher managed to engrave an inaccurate, yet living picture in my mind.

I started associating the country with the lowest altitude in the world with a modest neighborhood, with wide-open windows, people waving their goodbyes, wiping out a tear lost in the corner of their eyes, gathering before plates with steaming couscous and telling stories about their loved ones gone abroad, promising each other that they will soon go home. Only the summers are different, but the scenario is the same, because, as our guest was saying, most of them would die (back then, but maybe also now?) without ever getting the chance to see their homeland again.

Somehow, this image of helplessness and eternally postponed plans for a more favorable moment, looks much like what most of us do when we decide that we can no longer continue with our toxic habits or that it’s high time to form and strengthen a set of habits which contribute to our health and happiness.

We poke our heads out of the windows of social media while shouting our resolution for change. We fill handwritten or digital lists with our new objectives, we share the good news with our friends and family, we bite the bullet and dive into the deep waters of change, splashing with our hands and feet in a loud, yet chaotic way. Of course, the scenario is not the same in all cases, and a handful of lucky people actually manage to make the changes they dreamed of. They become a source of inspiration for the rest which, after a while, give it another go and, if they fail again and again, take their comfort in the thought that they were not gifted with the same strong willpower their fellowmen have.

When you place your bets on your will only, you set yourself up for failure

 It’s hard to not believe that it’s willpower which makes the difference between those who succeed in making the desired changes and those who keep wallowing in the inability to go from what they have to what they want to achieve. Experts believe we outbid the strength of our willpower and often wake up panoplied where there’s no fight to fight.

Our willpower is a limited resource, which wears out if we abuse it, believes psychologist Roy Baumeister.

Some compared willpower with a battery which is differently charged at different moments. Others see it as a muscle which must be scrupulously strengthened should one want to succeed in ones endeavors. It’s quite obvious we cannot handle the stress of change if we do not make an ally out of our willpower. However, if we bet on it alone, the chance that we end up where we started and even a bit more skeptical towards the possibility of change, is pretty big.

The conditions in which one exercises ones willpower are very important, says psychologist Roy Baumeister. He starts from the premise that this is a limited resource, which wears out if engaged at every moment in the choice’s fight of wear and tear .

We tend to believe that people who have self-control and succeed in placing a check in the box for every decision they make, from healthy eating to a better organization of their time, possess an iron willpower which they use to fight temptation. In reality, however, things are different.

“As we learned, people who score high on ‘self-control’ scales do not go through these exhausting fights for eating healthier, exercising more or working more efficiently. Instead, they form habits to automate their behavior. Habits make it easy to accomplish their goals, and therefore, they do so without constantly thinking about this aspect which is exactly why they succeed”, says Wendy Wood, psychology teacher at the University of Southern California.

Blowing up rusty habits

To make sure we do not sabotage our every attempt to build healthier habits, we need to take a closer look at the way in which a bad habit is formed, says psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson.

If you catch yourself snacking in the evening, in front of your TV, smoking a pack of cigarettes or eating an entire chocolate in one go, without knowing how that happened, than you know what the thorny point of getting rid of bad habits is: these have been built consciously, have been repeated due to the comfort they provide and have eventually turned into an automatism, says Halvorson. The good news behind this mechanism comes from the fact that we can try to reproduce the same model for the good habits we want to adopt. Another good news is that we can weaken a bad habit by placing obstacles, not necessarily insurmountable ones, in its way.

The good news behind this mechanism comes from the fact that we can try to reproduce the same model for the good habits we want to adopt. Another good news is that we can weaken a bad habit by placing obstacles, not necessarily insurmountable ones, in its way.

Researchers from the University of Southern California discovered that habits model our eating behavior even more than the taste or freshness of a particular food. They gave popcorn to volunteers invited to watch a 15 minutes movie at the cinema. The popcorn bags were free and contained either fresh or one week old popcorn. The persons who were not used to eating popcorn ate more, only if those were fresh, but, for the ones who usually ordered popcorn at the movies, the quantity stayed the same, irrespective of the fact that they received new or old popcorn.

To disrupt the force of a habit, researchers tested two methods that have proven efficient. One of them followed the disruption of the habit by introducing a new element which hampered the consumption – the popcorn lovers were asked to eat with their non-dominant hand, which tempered their appetite for the older popcorn. The second method introduced a change of environment: invited in a conference room, smaller than that of a movie theater, the subjects used to eating popcorn at the movies gave up eating the old popcorn, their automatic behavior being no longer activated in a different environment.

An older study showed that prolonging the time interval in which the doors of an elevator would close (from 11 up to 30 seconds) determined the employees to take the stairs. They preferred the physical effort to waiting longer than they were used to.

Increasing the difficulty of an undesirable behavior and introducing changes in the environment we are used to, are ways of weakening the power of bad habits. In the case of building good habits, we must act in reverse, making their consolidation as easy as possible.

Strategies for building desirable habits

“It’s frustrating to experience setbacks when you’re trying to make healthy changes and reach a goal. The good news is that decades of research show that change is possible”, says the chief of the Health Behaviors Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., Susan Czajkowski. Even if things don’t go as planned, what we should keep in mind is that change is a process, and its key element is to “keep moving forward”, explains Czajkowski.

The best way to form a new habit is to connect it with an old habit, experts say. B.J. Fogg from the Stanford University, started doing pushups by tying this habit to the routine of going to the bathroom. He started at two pushups and got to 80 per day.

Baby steps for big results

We all want immediate results, and the motivations we start off with can make us take on tasks which we cannot manage on the long run. Setting goals such as exercising 15 minutes a day or reading for half an hour daily may prove more realistic than aiming at one hour for each activity, especially if you have been at odds with sports or the written page so far. After new activities turn into habits, it’s easier to allocate more time to them. Thus, the whole process will become smoother, instead of being a tormenting effort which we are forced to drop when the first excuse comes along.

Daily practice speeds up the habit-building process

Even though everyone knows that a habit is formed in 21 days, this is just an observation made by a plastic surgeon form the 50s turned into a theory by the self-help philosophy. In reality, a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that we need around 66 days for a behavior to stick (with individual variations between 18 and 254 days).

Change requires support

Bad habits are easier abandoned if both life partners have the same goals. Good habits are formed according to the same pattern, research has shown. However, we don’t necessarily need our partner’s support and not even a person who has the same goals, but someone who has gone through this process of change and is able to help us, or just a friend to give us feedback and support.

Rewards, a big part of the change process

A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that we need around 66 days for a behavior to stick (with individual variations between 18 and 254 days).

While all positive change comes with rewards, in some cases these take longer to arrive than our patience can bear. Immediate rewards may help build healthy habits. We can watch our favorite show while sweating on the treadmill or we can plan to run with a friend, while enjoying his company in that time. It’s important to avoid rewards that weaken the habit we are trying to build or which prevent us from attaining the final goal of the change (for example, when we reward ourselves with a piece of cake after gym training).

Motivation is not always a winning card

Although a key element for the decision to build healthy habits, motivation fluctuates from one day to another and we need strategies to take this reality into account. We might need help from a friend, monitoring the positive results we already achieved, back-up plans – at least until the benefits of the new habit are visible enough to rekindle the initial motivation.

Joy, fuel for change

We cannot hope for long-lasting changes of our habits if we don’t learn to enjoy them. No one will become a passionate reader if they secretly long for more Netflix shows or a green salad and cereal eater when they dream of trays full of chocolate drowned cakes with whipped cream topping. Before adopting a healthy habit, we should first research its benefits but also the way in which we make the transition easier. A healthy life on all levels is a reward in itself, but we need to train our minds to enjoy the stages of change and to go for it at our own pace.

Falling is inevitable but it does not define our destination

Even our best efforts may fail when we are tired, stressed or heavily tempted. Not the fall itself, but what we do after we’ve gone off course is essential. Perfectionism does not usually go well with change.

“Even when you feel you’re about to relapse, hold on tight. Sometimes the moment you feel you failed may be the moment you learn from the most”, Suzan Czajkowski says.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.