New Year resolutions are just the best aren’t they? And the worst. It’s such a motivational time of year for new beginnings and life changes, both big and small. Yet, if we stumble our way through January, without being derailed, we think we’ve done well! Habits are hard to change and some have been with us for decades. So how do we make a change for life?
Stopping and starting
There are two types of behavioural change that we might want to make:
- Stopping (for good) a behaviour that we don’t want any more.
- Starting (and maintaining) a desirable behaviour.
Stopping and starting require the right mind-set to begin (that’s the bit that welcoming in a new year provides for us), but the hardest part for most of us, is the maintaining
Take my relationship with exercise. I understand that exercise is a great habit to get into. I know that when I exercise, I feel great, as endorphins cascade through my brain. I know that it helps me to maintain a reasonable weight, or if I am trying to lose weight, it gives me a boost. I know that it helps my body to stay supple and ache-free. So why, oh why, do I find it such a hard habit to maintain?
I had an active childhood, walked hospital wards as a nurse, took three children out and about, and walked a myriad of dogs (for pay), yet I would describe myself as someone who finds it hard to exercise. I have almost zero motivation and real envy those who actively want to go out and ride their bike, jog, swim or go to the gym.
Over the years I have discovered that I really enjoy (once I am doing them) walking, dancing, weight training, kettle bells and yoga But if any of these things are actually going to happen, I need to make it easy for me to do them, and increase the ongoing motivation to do so.
Change for life
Creating a change for life hinges on two things:
- Increasing motivation.
- Reducing obstacles.
Both of these aspects need to continue over time to be successful in establishing your new habit or behaviour.
Although true depression can greatly reduce motivation, relationship loss can often have the opposite effect. Emotions are often flowing fast and hard, and emotions are great motivators. I remember using my anger to fuel my ‘walking for weight loss’ in the last couple of years of my marriage. It got me out there and pushed me forward, and helped me succeed over time. As did frustration and shame and sadness. Don’t be afraid to feel and use your emotions.
Motivation is also increased and maintained by:
- Making one change at a time and giving a significant part of your attention and energy to that aspect of your life.
- Having a goal, the more visual or tangible the better.
- Breaking up the journey into small steps, and keeping the timescale for achieving them realistic. Set yourself up for success.
- Writing some kind of record of what you intend to do and when.
- Keeping a journal of your progress.
- Being accountable to someone else, and (particularly if your are a outgoing person), finding a group of other people, who are on a similar journey.
Reducing obstacles means removing the things that naturally occur to derail you. If you are trying to get more sleep, for example, keep your bedroom uncluttered, fresh and dark. Don’t start ‘addictive’ type behaviours mid evening (computer games, box sets and the like) and reduce your caffeine intake from late afternoon onward.
Other obstacles we all experience are stress and fatigue. It is very hard to maintain will power or find motivation in the midst of stress and exhaustion. When we are at our lowest, we are in greatest need of comfort, and this need can be anticipated and met, before it drives us to do the opposite of what we really want. Meeting comfort needs with food or alcohol are commonplace, but all of us can find other comforters if these would ambush us. A pampering bath, head rub, back massage, really good coffee/tea, pyjamas, a warm bed, yoga, or snuggling my dog can all help me to unwind. Create your own comfort list… you’ll need it!
Reducing obstacles can also include:
- Making it really easy to do the thing you are trying to do.
- Making it much harder to do the things that will derail you.
- Avoiding people who will tell you not to bother; that there’s no point in trying as you will only fail. And those who will try to ambush you.
- Avoiding triggers for the behaviour you are trying to change. If I’m driving home after a relentless day, I often feel triggered to go to buy something comforting to eat. It helps me to have a plan for what I intend to eat when I get home. It also helps to take hunger out of the equation, by having a healthy snack to eat before I drive home. This is the worst possible time or me to go food shopping.
- Forgetfulness is a big obstacle to creating new habits. You can overcome this, by attaching the new habit to another habit, that you already do regularly. Make it something you don’t have to think about. For example, before I have a shower I will do 20 minutes of yoga. Since you won’t forget to take a shower, you can use that to prompt you to do the yoga, perhaps even leaving a post-it note on the shower door. This is called habit stacking.
Change for life – change for today
Much of our ‘coming undone’ is because we get fixated on the past (what has already been said and done), or over invested in the future (what may – or may not – happen next), and we fill our present up with these two anxieties. Today, right now is all we ever have. It’s all we can ever ‘make happen’ and it’s where we succeed or fail. Moment by moment.
The beauty of this is two fold:
- It is truly liberating to realise, that time spent raking over the past (which won’t change a thing) or obsessing about the future (which we can’t control) is simply wasted time that only fuels our anxiety and pain. The now – today – is what we can alter, and if we focus all our energy into the present, we’ll not only alter our future, but we will feel much less pain about our past. This is a decision made in the mind. It is a habit all of it’s own that we can develop. I allow myself to feel what I feel in any given moment, but the second my mind takes over and invites me down memory lane to find some terrible wrong to rake over, or goes off into the “what ifs” of the future, I simply refuse to entertain any such thoughts. This takes practice, but the literal peace of mind that comes from not thinking backwards or forwards, is an amazing reward.
- If we give ourselves to the now, all that energy that we used to spend worrying and re-living events and conversations, can then be focused into the present. That gives us a huge advantage in terms of making a change for life. Will-power is known to be a finite resource. It gets tired through overuse, just like the rest of us. The more focused we are – and the less depleted our energy is, by anxious worrying – the more will-power we will experience.
So start small and make a commitment to one change for life. Then, wait until you have fully established that change – so that it’s not a huge effort to maintain – before you make another change. Finally, log your successes, so that you can appreciate and celebrate change over time.
Let me know how you get on, in the comments below.