How are you doing with your new year resolutions? According to some random post I ran across online, which I will now treat as fact for the purpose of this post, today, January 19th, is the day by which most people have given up on their new year resolutions. Not even three weeks into the new year and many of you reading this have already called it a wrap and may even be considering yourself a failure unable to stick to your ideals of self improvement.
Let’s look at the reality. Nineteen or so days ago you set out to create a change in yourself and in your life. You began. At some point you chose to do something other than the desired behavior -- you hit snooze on your alarm, you indulged in dessert, you didn’t make it to your work out, whatever it was, your old patterns kicked back in and took over. That’s totally normal.
Changing behaviors is hard. You can be easier on yourself, it’s okay.
Don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, bring some realism into the mix and try again. The truth is that our brains are running a pretty big show keeping us breathing, walking without falling, driving while texting (oops -- that one really should stop), digesting, notifying us of danger, etc. Your brain is not eager to bring in some new behavior when the old one takes less energy to perform. You don’t have to think about hitting the snooze button as much as you have to think about actually getting out of bed. Your brain wants to keep things easy. It thinks it’s doing that to keep you safe and alive, but our brains, for as much as they do, aren’t that great at thinking outside the box.
You need to be smarter than yourself if you want to succeed.
Okay, so how do you outsmart your brain and what does your morning coffee have to do with it? If the brain likes things to be easy, you need to make incorporating a new habit as easy and, let’s just say it, as thoughtless as possible. Habits are habits because they have become automatic. Do you think about how you brush your teeth? Probably not. Everyday you begin brushing on the same side and finish on the same side because it's how you've always done it, it's a solid habit.
I’m going to provide some pretty basic examples. What I’m sharing with you here I learned from Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you want to build more complex habits or break bad habits, I strongly recommend reading or listening to it. I’m using the morning coffee ritual as my example, but you can substitute any daily practice you have fully cemented into your routine. The idea is simple:
Link your desired habit to an existing one.
Say you want to start journaling daily, make your coffee and journal while you sip. Or maybe getting in a workout first thing is your top goal: before or after your coffee, get it done. No excuses. If you miss a day, don't miss two.
I have begun to string together a full morning of habit building all based around that first cup of coffee. After I’m done I get in some yoga with Adriene. I’m on day 21and admit there has been more than once I’ve almost missed it, but I’m working through routines that are maybe half an hour. Knowing that it might take all of 30 minutes makes it much easier. (Confession: I actually started this same 30 day challenge back in June and it took me about 6 weeks to get through the first 7 days. I did not link it to an existing habit and it showed.) Bonus: since we’re still quarantining, I can keep the yoga clothes on as I work at home and stay comfy the rest of the day. Adding a reward after doing the new behavior is another way to help set the habit. I have found that simply checking my daily yoga goal off on my habit tracker gives me a little hit of serotonin.
When I set out my goal wasn't to do yoga every day for a month. My goal was to move more. I've become a bit sedentary over these past 10 months and though I've steered clear of the Coronavirus, the covid-19-pounds is creeping up on me. My goal is to feel stronger and to rebuild my stamina. I can picture myself where I want to be and that vision continues to help inspire and motivate me. My little 20-30 minutes or (pretty easy) yoga isn't going to make me into that version of me, but it does get the ball rolling and get me out of my inertia so I can begin to build momentum toward where I want to go. Once I got the yoga flowing pretty smoothly, I decided to add another habit to the morning mix.
If you follow me on instagram you may have noticed my less than consistent posting. To be honest, it’s not something I care tremendously about (I know, blasphemy! In this digital age). However, I find that when I am posting consistently it primes me to write more consistently and I really do enjoy writing these musings, so creating a more indelible habit of regular IG posts is important. What I have realized in this is two things: I may need reading glasses and I make a lot of typos before the coffee has kicked in. Throwing perfectionism to the wind, I am continuing to post first thing and make corrections later because that is how it’s getting done and right now getting it done is more important than doing it perfectly. Who said that? Who am I?
The most important part of habit building is doing the thing. Every time you do the new behavior you make it so your brain can do it again with greater ease. If you miss a day of the desired behavior don’t miss it again. When you do the thing you build the habit. When you don’t do the thing you build that habit. Either way you’re building a habit so be conscious about which you’re choosing. If you find that you took a break more than a week ago and forgot to start again, don’t worry! It may be a little harder to get going, but you can do it. Momentum is key and the first step toward building momentum is taking that first step.
Set yourself up for success by starting small.
If you want to get up half an hour earlier, start with five minutes. If five minutes feels like too much, start with one minute. Once you have that down, increase it to ten (or two) minutes earlier, continue with that until you're waking up at your goal time with ease. If you want to run a marathon and you're not a runner, you're not going to make your first run 26.2 miles. Start with baby steps and build all the way to the version of you you dreamed of way back on January 1st.