The One Thing To Know Before You Change A Habit

by Megan Grant
Young woman using a smart watch in a gym. Unrecognizable Caucasian female.
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It's accepted by many that when it comes to changing your habits, baby steps win the game; but a new study suggests that changing a habit all at once may be more effective than phasing in changes. For a smoker, this could mean quitting all at once, as opposed to cutting back by a cigarette a day. For someone trying to get in shape, it could mean going from no exercise whatsoever to jogging five days a week, as opposed to a casual walk around the neighborhood to start things off. Could a complete overhaul really be the answer to making lifestyle changes like these?

A new study demonstrates that we might be underestimating our ability to undergo a complete 180. Published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the study followed two groups of college students over the span of six weeks. The control group continued their normal daily routines as they were. The second group made drastic changes to their lifestyles, including hour-long stretching sessions, resistance training, and balancing exercises every morning, all followed by an hour of mindfulness and stress reduction training. Each afternoon included a second 90-minute workout. Additionally, twice-weekly, they did two endurance workouts, and they also attended lectures about healthy living.

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At the end of the six-week study, the second group was found to be fitter and less stressed, and they had high self-esteem and better memories. These experiences even continued for six weeks after the study had ended. And sure enough, other studies have found that this approach has longer-lasting, more successful outcomes. For example, research has found that out of people who successfully quit smoking, 48 percent endorsed the cold turkey method, while just two percent said the slow-and-steady approach was best. In addition, smokers who stopped all together (versus gradually) were nearly twice as likely to maintain it for a month of longer. It appears that in allowing yourself to continue smoking (albeit less frequently), you're still seeking the satisfaction of a cigarette and possibly sabotaging your efforts.

These findings suggest that the cold turkey method of breaking new habits to form new ones could be the best approach, but there were still drawbacks to this study. For example, the programming for the second group was very tightly controlled and planned, more so than what you'd find in a person's average day. What's more, since so many changes were made at once, it's difficult to determine what specifically had a positive impact, and in what way.

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Regardless, looking at it from a broader perspective, these findings present an interesting (and potentially life-changing) possibility: that we're more adaptable than we believe. And while the idea of changing a habit so drastically can understandably seem overwhelming and intimidating, try to keep an open mind and remember that this approach could help you achieve your goal faster — and maintain it.

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