You wanted to make changes. This summer was when you were finally going to get fit, eat more healthily and lose those extra pounds. However, that new gym membership has seen your four weekly visits reduce to a single one due to changing work demands.
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In fact, you have not returned since you fell ill last week. Weekly viewing that subscription payment on your bank statement has become that fine thread of hope to convince yourself are still doing something…or are at least connected to something that can bring you positive change.
You need to just do it.
But you don’t.
Those little three words are damning. Your parents’ judging voices speak loudly in your head of having no discipline yet again, and your shoulders shrink under the weight of regret, guilt and loss of confidence. In your weaker emotional state, you convince yourself you are no worse off as you are back where you started.
Coming up with ideas and ways to change your life is easy. Making those changes become habits is harder. However, when you understand how we form habits in the first place, you can become a master of applying a quick process for yourself to redesign and change whatever area of life you want.
How do we develop habits?
Habits give us something. They make us feel better in some way – physically, mentally and/or emotionally – otherwise, we wouldn’t do them.
Our brain subconsciously learns that particular behavior is one to keep. We are usually unconscious of the habits we develop but when we dig deep to see why we developed them in the first place we unleash a whole universe of possibilities!
Firstly, we create and keep long-term habits in one of three ways:
- Having an enlightening epiphany
- Changing our environment
- Making small adjustments and changes over time
Having an epiphany is usually a rare event and something we aren’t in control of. Changing our environment is also something which can be done, but takes time. Making gradual changes is the simplest and most effective way to make big changes in your life!
Your habits play out in a three-step sequence:
The trigger might be the mid-afternoon yawn signaling you need an energetic pick-me-up. Notice the trigger of yawning is not something you consciously control?
For us, that is great news because it means triggers aren’t dependent on your mood state or motivation level.
If you want to change certain habits to change the course of your life, you can use the smallest triggers – occurrences which happen daily, all the time – to catalyze the changes you want.
The routine behavior
With the yawn, the thought of your favorite caffeine fix automatically comes to mind. You reach for loose change in your purse or wallet and tell your co-workers you are going out to get a coffee.
Now you’ve developed awareness of this automatic behavior you’re in a greater position of power to choose whether you want to modify it to something better.
Leaving the office brings the logical rewards (reinforcement) are feeling the sun on your face and feeling more relaxed in your body because your legs have had a chance to stretch.
These common-sense rewards pale in comparison with the entertaining jokes you have with the quirky, perky coffee cart owner as they prepare your latte. Something about their smile and spirit always lifts yours.
Knowing this sequence to all your habits, you can strategically manipulate these steps to steer your life’s ship toward Paradise Island.
How to build habits and make lasting changes
Here are seven steps to do make changes in life:
1. Clarify and decide on the positive life changes you want and extensively explore the benefits.
Simple goal-setting is extremely helpful in deciding what changes you truly want to experience.
Think deeply. Decide on the changes you want first then prioritize them.
If there aren’t emotional reasons why you want certain changes in the first place, trying to sustain the habit will be harder.
Your brain always operates in ways to keep you safe, relaxed and happy. Use this knowledge to your advantage.
Expect to experience some discomfort in doing something different to your habitual routine. That’s normal. So are those rotten excuses and reasons that immediately come to mind to keep you stagnant.
Acknowledge these but don’t resist them. Honor their voice and in addition, purposefully and extensively explore the benefits you will experience. Identify the immediate and secondary (delayed) benefits and write them all down.
An example of a new habit might be getting up earlier and meditating. We might draw to mind the benefits to be:
- My mind feels clearer. (immediate benefit)
- I feel a sense of calm. (immediate benefit)
- The rest of my day becomes easier to manage. (secondary benefit)
- The pain in my shoulders melts away. (immediate benefit)
- Ideas and answers come to me freely. (immediate and secondary benefit)
- My mind works sharper and faster; when I slow down I actually can speed up. (secondary benefit)
- I see possibilities I can’t usually see under stress. (secondary benefit)
The more instantaneous benefits you can identify, the easier changing your habit/s will be, because your brain will love them!
2. Make sure the goals and changes you choose are yours.
It is possible to pick the wrong habits to change. Learning that others have found a great eating plan that worked extremely well for them does not mean you should do it too. Trying to lose a few pounds because your partner says you should also raise alarm bells.
Resist being compelled to follow the masses and motives of other peoples’ agenda and spend time getting clear on what changes you want to experience in your life.
Research has shown time and time again that when you develop your own goals, you’re much more likely to follow through on achieving them.
It’s your life so take the reins and choose your own adventure.
3. Identify behaviors that will give you the change you want, then choose ONE.
Choose wisely. There are many ways to exercise and achieve weight loss, a multitude of frameworks to help you prioritize your time better and become better with managing money. The key is to choose something that positively resonates with you that has a strong element of fun.
If you choose something you associate more with punishment and delayed gratification, sticking to your new habit is going to be harder and unlikely.
Choose one habit change and become good at mastering it. Continue with mastering it to the point of it becoming second nature and it feels wrong to not do it.
Your initial job is to become a master of the change process. When you do that, the result will speak for itself.
4. Change your life through making minor habit adjustments, not by punishment or denial.
Going cold turkey will shock your system and before long, you will have resumed the old habit.
If you look to make big changes, when you fall, you fall further emotionally and mentally.
Denying yourself pleasure is already attaching a negative perspective to the new habit you are trying to create; you have sacrificed the guilty pleasure habit for the sake of a new habit.
B.J. Fogg, researcher and psychologist at Stanford University, recommends training your brain to succeed at achieving minor adjustments.((B.J. Fogg: Tiny Habits)) Pair your desirable habit with an existing trigger.
Don’t look at changing a habit altogether. Gradually reframe it in gradual steps.
Using the previous meditation example, let’s say you desire increasing morning meditation to help calm your anxiety. If your morning routine is already hectic, see if you can pair it with another behavior you do already:
- As I shower (trigger), I stand still for twenty seconds with my eyes closed and let whatever thoughts come into my head, come;
- I close my eyes as I gently brush my teeth (trigger) paying attention to spending 30 seconds in each quadrant of my mouth;
- When I wake (trigger), I sit up in bed, close my eyes and deepen and slow my breathing for ten cycles
Doing one of the above is much easier and faster than putting on a candle, getting into a lotus sitting position, turning on the calming music and trying to meditate for 10 minutes.
Your brain will always struggle to adapt big, unfamiliar changes even if we know they’re good for us. Work one minor change into your already existing triggers, slightly modify your routine and make that your focus for a week.
5. Choose something that is easy to start.
Prioritizing what changes and new habits you want to make is not as easy as you think.
Do you start with exercise or focus on replacing your afternoon coffee and biscuit with? Do you do both? Do you work on getting better at leaving your work on time instead of staying behind an extra ½ hour every day?
We get pulled here and there by changing work demands, our children getting sick, the vicarious stress of friends or extended family going through challenging times.
Start small and choose to start with something that you have full control over despite the curve balls life may throw at you.
Using the morning meditation example again, it’s nonsensical to think you’ll have uninterrupted time in the mornings if you have young children to get ready for school. Your morning tea break might be a better time to grab 2-3 minutes of uninterrupted time. If your workplace allows it, play a calming non-lyrical tune on your workstation and put your headphones in for 2 minutes.
Changing your life can be easy, taking one small step at a time.
6. Strengthen and stabilize your new habit by increasing your attention to it.
Make your new habit easier to stick to by increasing your focus and attention to it.
Talk about it. Talk about it with friends, family and work colleagues. Talk about it with your neighbors.
Write about it. Read about it and actively seek people who have been successful in changing this habit. Create a community you can plug into which supports the change you are looking to try and create.
When you fall off the bandwagon, acknowledge and accept this. If you keep falling off the bandwagon, review your triggers and modified routines. It might help to adjust them.
Maybe you need to create some variety. It might be highly possible your initial existing/new behavior-pairing no longer gives you the satisfied feeling you initially felt. It’s probably time to mix things up a bit.
If you want to increase your exercise – for example, gentle walking as a start – you might start with walking up the three flights of steps to the third floor, then take the elevator to the fifth where your work area is.
Extra motivation might kick in to walk the full five flights particularly if you want to avoid morning conversation with that energy-draining work colleague at all costs!
Eventually, you become bored again.
You might then look at walking outside for 10 minutes when the alarm you set yourself for lunch at 1:00 pm, tingles its pleasant ringtone. You will feel the air on your face, see the sky, and see different people.
When you come back in after lunch, you feel more energized whilst your colleagues are falling victim to the post-prandial dip from eating lunch at their desks.
Get good at creating little, interesting modifications. The magic of great life changes comes from tiny habit changes.
7. Reward yourself every time you implement your new behavior
Celebrate all wins! Regardless of how minor it might seem, anchoring a positive experience will help burn that pleasurable memory into your brain that your new habit is one you want to keep doing.
Wallow in that celebratory feeling to help your new habit stick. Swim in it like staying in the bath water too long until your finger pads turn into prunes. Tell your brain, this is something good!
As you are carrying out your new habit, pay attention to how you feel better about yourself as you are doing it. Increase dedicated, purposeful recollections of this.
Over time, your brain will direct you to keep this habit, you will feel better for it and one day you will wake up with your life looking radically different. And when you look back, it won’t have been as hard as you thought.