If you’re reading this whilst trying to break in a new habit, chances are your intention is not in question but you may be unsure of your ability to see it through.
Whatever we purpose to do (or not do), it has to be repeated often enough in order for it to become a habit. Until then, it’s not safe.
Writing this, I’d prefer not to talk about ‘me and my’ but think a story of personal transformation can be more relatable than a distanced third-person narrative. For that reason I’m going to draw on the process I used ten years ago when I finally began to get myself in better shape amidst a very difficult time in life.
The steps I took, worked, and what I have come to understand through my studies and training in human behaviour since, point to why. The same steps are the framework I use for helping clients today and can work for you too.
Why can’t we ‘just do it’?
Our minds are hard-wired to avoid pain and to gain pleasure. To ensure survival, the mind will point out everything that is a potential ‘threat’ in any given situation (just watch all the excuses it comes up with next time you’re in a dilemma).
The perceived pain of following through on an action we intend keeps us from doing it whilstever the upside of not doing it is greater.
It’s the same principle whether you are trying to stick with a healthier eating regime or leave your phone alone in order to be present. I recall psyching up for hours about leaving the house to go for a walk as a mind v’s willpower battle took place. It seems laughable now but that internal struggle was REAL! The thing that swung it every time, was the leverage I created for myself which was that I had never been out and not enjoyed it – never come home from a run having hated it.
Because of that, I then had to go. Therein are steps one and two:
1. Create leverage for yourself
2. Decide that the mind doesn’t get to call the shots.
The other thing I now know is that things stick when they are hooked up to strong emotions (be they positive or negative!).
3. Get emotionally involved
As well as raising a young child I was going through some pretty major life changes, the kind I wished I wasn’t alive for. Committing to the simple act of going for an hours walk, six days a week, was my constant, my certainty. I wasn’t sleeping (at all… for months), and knew my body was under immense pressure but I remember telling myself that if I could just get out for a walk, it would be a good thing, the endorphins would kick in, I’d be contributing to keeping in shape etc. My decision to exercise almost daily was linked to incredibly strong emotions of survival through pain.
The good news for those wishing to develop a new habit without the proverbial going down (recommended!) is that we can choose strong positive emotions to attach our forming habits to. With exercise then, what makes you feel fantastic and can that be linked to your workout? Is it music, being around certain friends or places, how about the inner strengthening you get from learning? Audiobooks and podcasts are a great way to expand the mind and soul, not just the body.
When we focus on how we want to feel as the result of an action, we are more likely to follow through than if we focus on the material achievement itself.
4. Start with ONE thing you can win at (basically cheat).
If I’m going to motivate to do anything regularly, I need to do whatever I can to make it palatable (you’re damn right that’s my mind wanting to avoid pain).
Realising I could ‘work out’ in my fat-burning zone whilst simply walking – I picked that. No pain, no red face, no need to even have to shower afterward; it totally felt like cheating, but it worked and it stuck.
Later I began running and have since stacked many other habits on it but it began with this ONE. Mastering one (or two) habits first, focusing on what we can control, and knowing we can’t fail (set the bar low), gives us the helping hand we need and builds a strong foundation for subsequent habits.
Developing new habits takes time but once instilled, run deep. Allow yourself the process ~ I hope this has been helpful.
Coming up next week: The changes we know we need to make (but would really rather not).