There’s a change you want to make — a habit you want to kick, or a healthy one you want to kickstart.
How long have you wanted this change?
Boring isn’t it, even agonising, to wish for it, and to struggle for so long to make it happen?
There is a way, indeed ways, to put yourself out of your misery; to decide once and for all to make the change you want, and to succeed with it.
First, you need to get clear about what DOESN’T work when it comes to changing your habits.
What doesn’t work
Motivation is overrated.
Stop giving yourself a hard time about not having enough motivation. It isn’t the problem. As Oliver Burkeman puts it:
The real problem isn’t that you don’t feel like taking action. Rather, it’s the underlying assumption that you need to feel like taking action before you can act.
The motivation you have longed for is rare and elusive, and more importantly, it is not the answer to making the changes that escape you. You do not need to be motivated. You do not need to be in the mood to make your desired change happen.
And in fact, acting purely as a result of a burst of motivation will likely see you fail. How many of your sudden inspirational new year’s resolutions have stuck?
Motivation will not sustain your habit change efforts. Motivation doesn’t work.
Don’t wait to be in the mood, you can make your desired change happen, whatever your mood.
What is not your only hope
You might think that if we’ve crossed motivation off the list, it must come down to willpower. Don’t panic: success is not contingent upon willpower alone.
Yes, like the quit smoking ad says, willpower is like a muscle. Like a muscle, you can strengthen it. But also like a muscle, your willpower has a finite capacity. You can only do so much heavy lifting until you fatigue and reach failure.
Willpower is important, and the ideas in this post will indeed make you stronger. But it’s not your only hope. The ideas below will support, and compensate for, your willpower.
What will help
Knowing what you want and why, will help you. Get clear on your reasons for change.
When withdrawal kicks in, it will be easier to stay strong if you can picture the anguished look on your daughter’s face every time you light up, or if you remember how badly you want to be alive and fit, for when she has her own children.
Draw detailed pictures in your mind, alive with colour and strong feeling — these dramatic emotional snapshots are handy to have at your beck and call.
Telling yourself, “I’m quitting because I should” doesn’t quite cut it when an unwitting friend entices you with the offer a cigarette.
It is also enormously helpful to embrace the frustrating truth, that habit making and habit breaking are processes. It is tempting to say and believe that you quit last week, or you’re starting tomorrow. But it’s not about single-day events, habits by their very nature are developed or broken over time.
When you convince yourself of the ‘process’ idea, you immediately reduce your failures — instead of throwing in the towel after a bad day, you simply clock it up as a bad day and part of the process, and you continue on tomorrow.
As soon as you adopt the ‘process’ mindset, you skyrocket your chances of success. You do away with a whole lot of failure, guilt and giving up. Instead, you get learning and progress.
Once you are clearer about the reasons you want the change, and you adopt the process mindset, you’re ready to embark on habit change. Here’s how to make it happen.
What really works
Actually, there are many approaches for breaking and building habits. You could read a hundred well-researched books and speak to a hundred experts (for example, I recently read Kelly McGonigal’s excellent The Willpower Instinct, and I spoke with Zen Habits master of change, Leo Babauta.)
By all means continue to read and research, but the key of course, is taking action.
So I have distilled all my own reading, research and training, and perhaps more importantly, my 20 odd years of experience in adult learning and education, counselling and therapy, working at the coal face with groups and individuals, facilitating and supporting the process of change.
My list of distilled ideas that really work is all about helping you to take confident action, to turbo-boost your process of change…to quit or create your chosen habit.
10 ideas that really work
Take some time, maybe a week, to examine your habit — the one you want to be rid of, or the absence of the one you want.
Make a concerted effort to notice the relevant details. Do you start the day eating healthy food and get derailed by a mid-afternoon energy slump? Do you have plans for a nutritious dinner but exhaustion steers you to take-away?
What are your triggers, weaknesses, strengths and resources? Do you a open a bottle of wine as soon as you arrive home from work? But does a fitness session on the way home make an alcohol-free evening possible?
Is it anger or boredom that sets off a cigarette craving (or is it straight nicotine withdrawal)? What happens if you delay lighting one? How many minutes does your craving last, when does it peak and subside?
You need to examine your behaviour and the psychology, thoughts and emotions that go with it. You need to know exactly what you’re dealing with, in order to be ready to deal with it effectively.
2. Plan and prepare
50% of people who try and fail to quit smoking, fail in the first couple of days! Nicotine withdrawal is the worst on these days — know what you’re up against and prepare for it. (It may be as straight forward as stocking up on suitable nicotine replacement products.)
You need to be vigilant in your planning, especially to get your habit change efforts off to a good start.
80% of failed quitters go back to smoking within the first two weeks. That’s why you are advised to forego alcohol, parties and other key triggers for at least the first fortnight of your quit attempt.
You need to plan ahead, you need to be prepared.
Be ready and you can make it through the early days — schedule your time to avoid high-risk situations and have contingencies in place: stock the freezer with healthy meals for the nights you’re too tired to cook.
Planning and preparation set you up for success. Do your homework and those early days will be so much easier. Planning and preparation mean that a lot of the heavy lifting is already done, by the time you get started with your habit-change efforts. They ease the strain on your willpower immeasurably.
3. Team up
Going it alone is tough. Find someone who wants to tackle a change at the same time — doesn’t even have to be the same change.
You want to keep up with them. You support their efforts, they support yours. You share war stories.
A buddy reduces isolation and reduces your chances of throwing in the towel.
4. Go public
Tell the world (or in the very least, one person in the world who matters to you) that you’re embarking on a significant habit change. It raises the stakes.
It feels exposing and daunting but it will solidify your commitment, your efforts and your chances of success.
5. Be accountable
However you do it, you need to keep tabs on yourself and your progress.
What will you measure? How will you measure it, and where will you record and share your results?
Use a Fitbit or an app, a measuring tape or calendar. It doesn’t matter. Lasting change rarely happens without measuring and monitoring it.
(And don’t guess: a standard drink of wine is about 100ml, most restaurants serve about 150ml per glass. Late at night, the glass of wine you pour yourself will probably be more like 200ml. Don’t cheat on yourself, measure and count accurately.)
6. Nurture and reward
When you climb a big steep hill, you do what is necessary to get to the top: rest a moment, take off your jacket, have a drink, something to eat, maybe admire the view while you recover a little.
You will get further with tackling your habit if you look after yourself. Do what you have to, especially in the early days, to reduce other stressors in your daily life.
If you’re trying to establish a habit of rising early to exercise or meditate, perhaps you could shout yourself to a couple of weeks of a shirt-ironing service?
And how will you reward yourself along the way to habit change? Will you book a massage or plan a gift for yourself?
Nurture and reward are more than just a pat on the back and an encouraging treat. They are critical because deprivation is dangerous. Remember, like your muscles, your willpower needs rest and recovery to guard against failure.
And as Kelly McGonical and her research explain, you need to be cautious of “being good”. For example, when you are “good” and work hard all week, you then give yourself permission to go on a Friday-night bender. Or you eat healthy all week, and blowout on the weekend.
Nurture yourself and plan your rewards wisely – the better you care for, and treat yourself, the further you’ll get with your desired change (and the less you’ll encounter benders and blowouts).
This one is a no-brainer, and yet often overlooked and underestimated.
Commit the night before to exercising in the morning. Lay your gear out ready and set your alarm…or you could just wait until you wake up and decide to exercise then. How much more likely are you to get the job done, if you’ve pre-committed to doing so?
Don’t leave it to chance or whim, make decisions ahead of time when you have the headspace and sufficient willpower.
And support your pre-commitments with appropriate planning. For example, have your excuses ready: at the beginning of your night at the pub, announce that you’re going easy tonight and that you don’t want to be included in rounds.
Take a minimal amount of cash and no cards. And plan to follow every alcoholic drink with a soft drink.
Pre-committing means making your decisions in advance, without risks and temptations all around you. “I’m going to go for a jog in the morning no matter what” can seem too simple to be effective. But having that conviction and expectation in advance, will always improve you chances in the habit-changing stakes.
8. Make it manageable
This idea makes motivation redundant, and relieves your willpower of any great burden.
Making it manageable means translating your long-term habit-change goal into a simple here-and-now proposition.
Aiming for a daily-walking habit doesn’t have to start with a commitment to walk for 20 minutes each and everyday forevermore, starting tomorrow. And in fact that approach is likely to fail. When it rains on day three or you come down with the flu, your new habit will come to an abrupt halt, and you’ll feel defeated and frustrated, like it’s too hard, not worth it and why bother.
Instead stick to habit sprints, to use Leo Babauta’s expression. Decide to get off the bus a stop early and walk a few extra minutes to work, each morning for the rest of this week.
Leave it at that, you can tackle next week later. Whether you choose to aim for two days in a row, or everyday this week, doesn’t matter. Just stick to short manageable habit sprints and keep building as you can handle it.
Starting from scratch to break or build a lifelong habit can’t help but seem like an enormous undertaking. A habit sprint over the next few days is eminently more doable, and less off-putting.
9. Be observant and self-compassionate
Observe yourself, both when you’re struggling, and when you’re managing well.
Notice the situations that put your habit-change efforts at risk, as well the circumstances that facilitate your efforts.
Is it lack of sleep that thwarts your progress? Is it lack of expertise and/or confidence? And if so, how can you help yourself on that front? What do you need to do to get more sleep, or who or what do you need to consult for more know-how?
Observe yourself and your efforts in order to support a problem-solving approach. Ask yourself, what’s not working and why? Rather than, “this is hopeless, I’m hopeless, it’s no use.”
Observing in this way promotes Mindfulness. It helps you to pay attention in the moment, rather than succumbing to automatic reactions (which most often involve self-recriminations and giving up).
How would you respond to a friend who’s trying to improve their fitness but who is frustrated because work pressure has won out over exercise this week? You’d empathise and encourage them. So, show the same kind of compassion to yourself. Be kind to yourself as you confront the inevitable challenges that go hand-in-hand with habit change.
As Dr Melanie Greenberg explains, self-compassion helps you meet life’s challenges. She cites research where subjects who were given a compassionate message after eating doughnuts, were less likely to submit to temptation later.
If (and in all likelihood, when) you slip up, self-compassion is your best weapon against throwing in the towel. It’s the difference between:
“I’ve done it now tucking into those chips, I’m hopeless. I’ve got no self-restraint and the fat to show for it, may as well have the pizza and beer too.”
And “damn it, I wish I didn’t start on those chips. Then again overall I’ve had a good week. I’m bound to trip up occasionally, I’ll get there, doing okay, and I won’t fall for the chips next time.”
Learn to be observant and compassionate towards yourself, and your habit-change achievements will prevail.
10. Guarantee your own success
This is about doing the opposite to setting yourself up for failure. And it draws on many of the points above.
If you are clear on the change you want and why, you have committed to it and embraced the idea that habit change is a process, it is simpler than you think to guarantee your own success.
Identify the next smallest (even tiniest) step that you need to take.
The next smallest step you need to take, is the one that will be a step in the right direction, and it must be small enough that you can’t fail.
Will you set an alarm right now to chime in 30 minutes to prompt you to get up and stretch or walk around the block?
Will you switch that afternoon treat for a piece of fruit?
Will you delay your next cigarette, or wait until you sit down to eat before you open the bottle of wine?
Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps your next step is to make a list of information and/or things you need to get started.
Whatever your next step is, remember it must be so doable that you can’t fail.
My motto is “start small, start now”. Or in it’s extended form:
So, what is it for you? What’s your next step?
Why not tell us in the comments below (or if you’re not quite ready to go so public, you’re welcome to email me). And do please share this post with anyone whom you think might benefit.