Nov. 4, 2013 at 3:16 PM ET
You know you could use a few more fruits and veggies in your diet—and a little less ice cream. You also know that unless you are sprinting around the mall with ankle weights, shopping doesn’t burn off that 880-calorie Cinnabon. But eating more healthfully and committing to a workout routine isn’t always easy. Neither is forming any other healthy habit.
But that doesn't mean it's not possible.
Start by asking yourself what your reasons are for wanting this change, says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “If it’s because you’ll please someone else or live up to some standard others hold, it will be harder to sustain. Ask yourself what you really want, without money, time or self-doubt constraints. This kind of open fantasizing is called brainstorming, and allows your creativity to break through.”
Then, think of yourself as both scientist and subject. According to Joseph Grenny, co-author of Change Anything and Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, those who succeed in achieving and maintaining their goals must “study themselves, their unique situation and environment and then create a change plan specifically tailored to them,” he says. Here's how to do that:
“Change the way you think about what you currently consider to be unpleasant behaviors,” says Grenny. So if the thought of working out makes you want to crawl back under the covers, remind yourself of why you need to work out by writing it on an index card. Read the card when you feel tempted to quit.
“Creating healthy habits requires skills, not just will,” says Grenny. “For example, when facing temptation our research shows people who learn a couple of simple skills are 50 percent better at resisting their urges.” For example, if you would like to eat healthier, it might be time to sigh up for a cooking class.
“Don’t underestimate the power of your peers,” says Grenny. For example, Harvard sociologist Nicholas Christakis discovered that obesity is partly infectious. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a friend who became obese.
So, befriend those who have already achieved what you’d like to achieve or join forces with your friend and lose weight together.
Also, don't be afraid to tell everyone about your plans. Posting your five-pound weight loss on Facebook will elicit motivational feedback from your friends and help keep you going. “Tell people about it,” says Deborah Beroset Miller, of Landmark, a personal and professional development company. “The more people who know, the more you are accountable.”
Consider hiring a life coach, personal trainer or other expert to help you achieve your goals. “People with a half dozen active friends who play the role of coach or mentor are almost 40 percent more likely to succeed than those with less than a half dozen friends,” says Grenny.
Even if you tend to buy what you want, regardless of your behavior, setting up a reward-focused goal increases your success. “Give yourself a small reward for reaching short-term goals,” says Grenny. If you give up soda, for example, take the three dollars a day you’d normally spend on soda and buy yourself something awesome when you’ve accumulated $50 in the piggy bank.
Your environment creates your habits. If you stock your pantry full of Twinkies and gummy bears, it’s harder to eat healthy than if you keep fresh fruit in an attractive bowl on the countertop, studies show. “Also focus on your mental environment,” says Tessina. “Use your senses and surround yourself with positive images and ideas focused on your goals. Choose a theme song that inspires you and play it often.” Or, buy flowers to lift your spirits and energy when you see and smell them. Use touch by holding objects that support your goals, and create positive affirmations that relate to your goal and speak to you.
After the honeymoon phase of your new venture wears off, at some point you’ll lose steam and just won’t want to continue. “To avoid this, develop a routine that’s very repetitive to take advantage of your mind’s reliance on repetitive patterns,” says Tessina.
If you want to, for example, to drink more water, schedule it into your day. Maybe your morning ritual becomes: Wake up, drink glass of water, hop in shower, etc. Or maybe your new thing is to stop at the water fountain after every meeting, before you get back to your desk. You may initially need a written note as a reminder, but it will become a pattern after a week or two, says Tessina.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.