The Habit Changing Formula – MBTA

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Many of us are aware of habits we need to change or establish in order to live the life we want. But how exactly do we change our habits? Unfortunately, forming a habit doesn’t come out of reading as many blog posts as possible about the topic.

One aspect I was struggling with was to regain my physical health, which I believed would then support my quest to recover from major depression. I recognized that exercise is one key to my physical and mental health. Yet, knowing is one thing, doing is another.

I had these ambitious goals of being healthy and able to go running or work out for an hour a day everyday. Yet, they remained goals in my Google calendar for the longest time because I had no specific plan. So one day, I decided that I needed to establish a more regular exercise routine, for instance, running today, work out tomorrow, and running again the day after. I used to be quite sporty in my younger days (basketball, netball, sprinting, swimming, yoga, taekwondo, pole dancing) so I thought it shouldn’t be too difficult.

However, I had gotten used to sitting on my couch for 18 months as I battled with major depression. I had lost all motivation for any activities. Thus it was a Herculean task to drag my sluggish self down to the gym, even though it was only an elevator ride down.

Again, the routine I wrote down for myself, remained on paper.

I got frustrated with myself, for I knew I needed to form a new habit of exercising again. I tried all the planning, reconditioning my thinking, giving myself motivation and various other strategies, but to no avail.

Nevertheless, I was “saved” by my counsellor one day, and he taught me a formula that I’d like to share.

My counsellor suggested I try to change my habits using the formula MBTA:

-M stands for Motivation,

stands for Behaviour,

T stands for Timing,

stands for Achievable.

To illustrate, let’s take my example for establishing an exercise routine to apply the method of MBTA.

My MOTIVATION to exercise is to get healthy again, which would enable me to meet other challenges in life. Also, my husband would then be less stressed out since he won’t have to take care of me so much and run to the hospital so frequently with my regular collapses and faintings.

With a motivation in my mind, I determined the BEHAVIOUR I would like to change, i.e. exercise. But this behaviour needs to be specific. It does not suffice to simply say to myself, as I previously did, “I will go to the gym today”. Instead, I drilled down to a detailed behaviour, “I will go to the gym downstairs and run on the treadmill for 15 minutes at speed 10.”

In addition, TIMING is crucial because it is all well to say I will go to the gym downstairs and run on the treadmill for 15 minutes at speed 10—but when? There must be a commitment to a time of the day or week. I promised myself, that I will go to the gym every Wednesday mornings at 10am whatever the circumstances, except if I was in hospital or physically unable to. If Wednesdays 10am doesn’t work for whatever reason (not excuse!), I will postpone it to 4pm in the afternoon. No other exceptions or changes.

However, there is no point in being overly ambitious either. I thought carefully about what my body and mind is capable of right now, and adjusted accordingly. So my behaviour and timing that I set for myself must also be ACHIEVABLE. My physical health allowed me to run only 15 minutes each time I went to the gym before I start feeling faint, so I must not over exert myself. Gone were the days when I trained everyday.

Nonetheless, I’m sure as time goes by, I can increase the frequency and length of running. Step by step, each time refining my MBTA to suit the situation.

Have no illusions, MBTA is not an overnight panacea. MBTA serves as a framework to help us change our habits, or form new habits bit by bit. It’s been about 4 months since I started; there were only a few days where I failed myself in the first month. It was an easy act to follow, and each time I reminded myself of my motivation for exercise.

Today, I’ve increased my running to 30 minutes without fail. Still not where I envision my health to be, but it’s gradual improvement.

Maybe you can try MBTA too and see how that works for you, and let me know how it goes?

Photo by Abdullah AL-Naser