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Use Power Words to Build Healthy Habits

Learn the secret of using mantras to form healthy habits, from life balance to controlling your temper.

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Executive coach M.J. Ryan is no stranger to the baffling nature of change: Whether she’s working with a Silicon Valley CEO who can't figure out how to delegate or a budding entrepreneur who struggles with fear, she understands that the problem isn’t knowing the right thing to do. We all know we shouldn’t eat the second piece of pie, say yes to a project we don’t have the skills to complete or micromanage others. It’s actually doing the right thing, and forming the healthy habit to keep doing it, that’s so difficult.

While studying Buddhism, Ryan stumbled on “slogan practice” and began using the concept with her clients (and herself). The idea is simple: Choose a slogan—or mantra, if you will—that sums up the change you want.

Ryan, author of Habit Changers: 81 Game-changing Mantras To Mindfully Realize Your Goals, is quick to point out that these slogans are different from affirmations. “Affirmations aren’t true. They’re things we tell ourselves that we want to be true,” she says. “So people will say things like, ‘I am calm and confident’ when they’re in the middle of a crisis. But they don’t tell you how to achieve calm or confidence.” Slogans are different—they give you a concrete reminder of how to achieve the new goal and turn the desired new behavior into a habit, something you do without thinking.

Let’s say, for example, you’d like to be a better communicator. You might choose a phrase like “headline first” or “ask, don’t tell.” Or, if you’re struggling to procrastinate less, try “all you need is the first action” or “work is the best way to get working.”

Then the next time you feel like you’re not getting through to someone, or you just can’t get moving on a big project, you invoke the new mantra. “Expect it to feel very awkward,” she says, “the same way driving did when you first started—everything, adjusting the mirror, holding the steering wheel, felt difficult and required concentration.”

That’s because all our habits, good and bad, are embedded in our subconscious. “They are the things we do without thinking.” She calls this first step the cognitive phase, when calling up the mantra–and then following its advice—is very deliberative. Over time, she says we improve to the point that it becomes associative. When we feel ourselves about to use the behavior we want to change, we can more reliably call up the mantra. Finally, we move into the autonomous stage. In effect, the mantra has sparked the newer, more desirable habit, and we can slip into autopilot.

So pick a mantra. Maybe you’d like to stop blaming people, so you can try, “a pointed finger is a victim’s logo.” Or perhaps, if you deal with a lot of conflict at work and often walk into meetings with a chip on your shoulder, you could work with “presume goodwill.”

Whatever change you’re trying to make, she suggests five ways to make it stick:

Change only one thing at a time. While it would be great if you could be more punctual and gracious, exercise regularly and be more authentic at work, that’s a pretty tall order. Change is hard. So concentrate on the single area that’s most important to you now. “It takes focus and practice, and part of why we fail at change is that we pick too many things.” Choose one behavior and stick with it until the new habit is automatic.

Find ways to make the new behavior visible, even if it’s only to you. One client was working hard to increase her self-confidence at work and began using a coffee mug to symbolize her “be a tiger, not a kitten” mantra. Carrying it into meetings meant nothing to anyone else, but was a cue to her to speak up and be heard. Just as some dieters might be helped by a picture of a little black dress they want to wear to a reunion, people who are working on relationships might benefit from mementos from loved ones. “Keep it vivid, so it can be a constant reminder,” she says. Sticky notes are great if you don’t mind other people knowing what you’re working on, “but a simple red dot can serve as a reminder if you’d prefer to keep it secret.”

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Appoint your support staff. If it makes sense, she’s also a big advocate of enlisting people you trust in your efforts to change. “Just ask them to point out when they see you doing the new behavior,” she says, “not the old way.” That way, it feels like praise rather than a scolding.

Expect to mess up. “The other habit is still there,” she says. “These habits are all on neural pathways. So while we’re building a new one, it doesn’t mean we’re erasing the old one.” So yes, she says, you’ll likely fall back on the old behaviors more than you’d like. The idea is to “track success, discard failure—we always do the reverse!”

Be patient. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about new habits forming in 28 days. “It takes as long as it takes,” she says, but six to nine months seems typical. It’s worth asking yourself, she says, “How long have you been doing it the other way?”

It’s easier to take the long view as you begin to notice the three distinct phases. “First, you were oblivious to what you were doing. Now you’re going to notice what you’ve done, even if it is after the fact.” Then you’ll notice what you are doing in the moment, and much of the time summon up the mantra that can help change the behavior. “But soon it will become automatic, and at the end of the day, you’ll look back and realize, ‘Hey, I used these changed behaviors almost automatically, without even thinking about it.’”