Often, the process of making lasting change requires trying new and unfamiliar things. Maybe it’s walking to work a different way so you can avoid a tempting or triggering location. Maybe it’s practicing new coping skills in the face of an old problem. Maybe it’s reaching out to other people when you normally would go it alone.
Deliberately practicing new behavior has three effects: 1) you get better at doing it, which increases the odds that you will be successful at it when it matters, 2) you start to replace the old habits with new ones, and 3) you develop the habit of replacing old habits!
First, remember that when you are trying out something new, it is best to practice that skill when the stakes aren’t too high. You wouldn’t want to shoot your first ever free-throw in the NBA finals! Instead, practice a new skill when the pressure is low, so you can get used to it and fine-tune it in relative comfort. Then, you’ll know just what to do when you really need it later.
The second effect, replacing old habits, is a big one. Recent research has shown that our brains don’t get rid of old ways of thinking very quickly. Old neural pathways or habits remain ready to be reactivated if we don’t give our brains an alternative. However, every time we respond differently to a familiar situation, or try to, we forge new neural pathways on top of the old ones (see The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg, for an entertaining take on this). The more we practice, the stronger the new pathway gets, and the weaker the old one gets. So, by practicing new skills, you are making new habits!
And the incredibly big benefit of letting yourself “practice”? You get to learn a positive new behavioral process, which can become a healthy habit in and of itself. Practice is made up of several important emotional and structural variables. For instance, you have to get through the emotional process of finding the bravery to try new things and tolerating not being so good at things right from the start. The process of deciding (because it is a choice) to practice in spite of these feelings is a valuable skill in managing any change process. Learning to allow for, visualize, or have hope for the reward down the road requires the specific, learnable skill of tolerating short term discomfort for long term gain. Even if you end up not using or even particularly appreciating the new things you have introduced (and practiced a few times), having a process for introducing change is incredibly valuable.
The more you practice new ways of doing things, the more naturally they’ll come. This is true even if you decide not to keep the behavior in your life (i.e., you might decide to take a kick boxing class twice a week for a month…only to decide you can’t stand sweating that much). In the meantime, remember that change doesn’t happen after you practice, it happens when you practice, every time you practice, even if you don’t always make the free throw shot.