To learn something new, just go through the motions

“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it” — William James, American psychologist (1842-1910)

Many of our efforts as health professionals (and parents, for that matter) are directed toward helping people develop adaptive habits. How many times has someone in a white coat talked to you about eating right, exercising, getting more sleep or losing weight?  Yet, often despite compelling information from our medical professionals, the support of family members and our best intentions, initiating new habits is difficult.  Even doing new things and incorporating new behaviors into our repertoire can be an uphill battle.  So how do we initiate new behaviors and develop them into habits?

First, it is important to clearly identify what it is that you want to target in the clearest possible terms.  Clarity means making your goal not too complicated, achievable and worth the effort you are going to put in.

You may want to commit your goal to paper as a way to remind yourself when your motivation begins to flag.

Next, make a commitment to yourself to do the new thing one time.  Pick a day, plan it out and do it just once. Often, we create our own mental obstacles to doing new things by imagining how arduous it will be do that one thing — run, not eat ice cream, — for days, months and years into the future.  The trick is that even after doing something just one time, we can imagine continuing to do it and we get a taste of what it feels like to accomplish our goal.  In fact, this imaginative experience of thinking about your goal behavior and how it feels to complete it can be a powerful motivator.

Speaking of motivators, make your behaviors and potential adaptive habits public. Let people in your life know how they can help you and, just as important, what they may be doing that might get in your way.

Even if your heart is not completely in it at first, go through the motions and, as William James said over a hundred years ago in his book “Habit,” act the part.  The act of putting yourself in the mental and behavior posture of a new behavior often allows us to step outside of ourselves and do new things.

A recent study in the journal Psychological Science on dancers indicated that going through the motions of a dance — literally — improved the quality of the dance.  In part this was due to reducing the mental pressure of having to do something just right, yet still practicing and reinforcing the behavior.

Finally, developing new habits can take a while — research suggests that it takes even longer than the oft-quoted 21 days to make a habit stick.  Remember that the more you do it, the easier it becomes; or as William James said, “It costs less trouble to fold a paper when it has been folded already.”