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Change an unhealthy habit? Yes, you can! Here's how

Updated: 10-05-2019

Want to change an unhealthy habit? Maybe your diet's off the rails or you're binge-watching TV instead of going for a walk after work. Whatever unhealthy habits you're struggling with — and we all have them — take comfort in knowing that change is absolutely possible.

There's a science behind behavior change, says Amy Charland, national board-certified health and wellness coach at Mayo Clinic's Healthy Living Program. One key factor? "Many of the people I see who successfully change a habit are also successful in overcoming the need for perfection, and the all-or-nothing thinking that can trip us up."

Charland often coaches people seeking help with weight loss, poor diet choices or flagging exercise habits. She helps people overcome both internal and external challenges to successfully reach their wellness goals. And she says you can do it, too.

Let's say you want to start eating healthier and lose weight. Charland says following these four steps can start you on your path. (And they'll work for other wellness goals, too.)

1. Prepare

Get clear about what you want to accomplish and why — and the why is very important, because it'll help motivate you. Charland recommends getting super specific with your goal: Instead of saying "I want to lose weight," say "I want to be able to get down on my hands and knees to play with my kids" or "I want to be able to walk around comfortably and see everything when I travel."

2. Plan

Focus on one meal first — or even a regular snack — and plan it out for a week. Write down exactly what you will eat on which day, and when. This advance planning is especially helpful if you're eating out. Writing it down in advance has helped many of Charland's clients achieve success. Having a list also helps with grocery shopping.

3. Experiment

Put your plan into action for one week. Write down what worked and what got in the way of following the plan. Remember: You're just trying this new plan out; you can't "fail." Stay open-minded and learn from your experiment.

4. Assess

Now it's time to reflect on your week. Is your goal still clear and meaningful? Did you try to do too much? Is it too difficult to cut up fresh fruit and soft boil an egg on Wednesday mornings when you have an early meeting? Adjust your plan accordingly.

Support and consistency help build new habits

Charland says 30 days is a common time frame for putting new habits into practice. But that doesn't mean you'll be done in a month's time.

"You may do well for several months, then hit a stumbling block and fall back into the old habit," says Charland. "That's common."

Instead of beating yourself up for "failing," show yourself some compassion. Revisit your goal. Think about those kids or that amazing vacation you want to take. Review your meal plans and take note of where and why you stumbled. Stay positive and get back on track. You've got this.

Charland also encourages you to get support. "Find the support that works for you, and don't be afraid to ask for exactly what you need," she says. You may seek out support groups, rely on your spouse or friends, or choose to work with a health and wellness coach.

She adds, "Any habit can be changed, but it needs to be done as consistently as possible. Start with a small change, do it every day, and build on that." So, sure, maybe old habits die hard, but they're dying. And new habits are being formed.

Now, which habit are you ready to change?