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How to Swap a Bad Habit for a Good One

05/11/2016 11:40am ET | Updated May 12, 2017
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by Kara Baskin

We're constantly bombarded with "easy" ways to become better, fitter, and healthier. In reality, however, making new, positive habits stick feels anything but. Our routines, even if not always the best for us, feel comfortable--and comforting, too.

The key to making lifelong changes that last isn't about a lack of willpower or ability. It comes down to understanding our motivation, setting achievable goals, and being prepared for setbacks. meQuilibrium's Chief Medical Officer Adam Perlman, MD, explains:

1. Know your why.
Making a new habit stick is hard work. The first step is to connect to why it's worth your time and energy. Let's say you want to swap out television time for a nightly jog. Think about why this switch will enhance your life. "Connect it to a higher goal, like wanting to have more energy to play with your grandkids or to get less winded at tennis," Dr. Perlman says. "Make it practical."

2. Be specific.
If you try to do a total life makeover, you run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. Instead, drill down on what's really bothering you. What do you spend time thinking about? Which health issues occupy your mind on a regular basis? For example, "save money" is vague and difficult to zero in on--but a targeted goal such as "pack a lunch three times a week" is direct and achievable. Focus on making a targeted switch based on your own personal potential instead of a sweeping overhaul.

3. Focus on what you'll gain. Of course, eating healthier and exercising more will improve your health. But don't make that the sole driver, Perlman warns. "Often, people want to avoid poor medical outcomes. They say, 'I don't want a stroke!' But it's easy to fall into denial and think this won't happen to you," he says. Instead, focus on the positive and think about how your life will improve when you switch up your routine.

4. Cut yourself some slack.
Maybe you failed to swap out ice cream for fruit after dinner. Maybe you succumbed to Netflix instead of the gym after a long day at work. Having an off day is normal. The key is to not let one slip up derail you. "The purpose is to move forward," says Perlman. "As long as we're progressing, the slope of that improvement isn't important."