Have you ever tried to change a behavior? This includes most changes: exercising more, changing your eating habits, managing drinking behavior, improving budgeting or the way you spend money. Even waking up earlier or on time, leaving the house on time, eating without screens, not looking at your phone first thing in the morning, saying "I Love You" to loved ones more often are behavioral changes.
Most changes we make require changing our behavior patterns, and that is one of the most difficult things to do! There are some behaviors much more difficult to change than others because of the value our mind places on the "reward" of those behaviors. For example, the "reward" we get from drinking alcohol, eating yummy desserts, having sex, or buying new things are potently strong. (If they weren't, it'd be much easier to change those patterns of behaving).
For each of us, the behavior pattern most difficult to change is different, for many reasons. Part of my intentions of the new year included maintaining "7 Rockstar Habits", a worksheet I obtained from Laura Kupperman's program for marketing yoga therapy, designed to help instill 7 daily habits of my choosing to increase personal and business growth. Do you know how many days in January I met all 7 in one day? Zero. 0. Zip. Nada. Granted, there's 3 days of January left, but the odds are not in my favor (although today is my closest day yet, so we'll see how the night progresses).
Why on earth am I telling you this? It may seem odd for a therapist to showcase how she is failing miserably at her own goals. I am doing it because most clients I have, and many friends, family, and acquaintances, all struggle to make positive changes to behavior. And that is because we are human. Our brains are very clever at becoming conditioned to get us to do the things that feel good, and to avoid the things that are not fun (this is why it's way to easier to pick wine and the couch over going to a work-out class, for example...). You know the studies about mice and rats picking cocaine over eating until they starve? (If you don't know, it's a study, and there's many similar studies like it). Our brain works the same way (that's the reason researchers study rats, because experiments like offering unlimited cocaine to a human would be frowned upon). Our brain learns very quickly what feels "good" and what feels "bad", and becomes VERY clever at talking us out of the bad and into the good. Even for lesser substances, such as coffee and chocolate, our brain operates in a similar way in regards to choosing rewards.
This is important, because as you look at why your goal of going to the gym this year has not panned out, your mind will start to make excuses. Your mind does the same thing every time you are in the position of choosing between going home/staying at home and going to the gym, and you choose going/staying home. "I don't have time", "I'm too tired", "I don't feel well", "I'll go tomorrow when I have more energy", "I don't have the right gear", "I'm too embarrassed to be seen trying to run." There are a million statements like that our minds make in favor of staying the same. Occasionally, they are not excuses, but facts. If you have the flu and you opt to stay home instead, that's a smart choice! If you're wearing a suit from work and don't have the right work out clothes, also a good choice to go home after work.
The trick is to discern between what the real obstacles were (if you're reflecting back on the month), and what statements your brain generated in favor of NOT changing. Humans don't typically like change, even when it's good for us. Because it feels strange. It's weird! You know what a lot people say when they start feeling better after experiencing depression for a long time? "I don't feel like myself", or "Is this how it's supposed to feel, because it feels strange." The goal they have worked towards for months or years, and it's uncomfortable because it's new and it's different, which we perceive as uncertain and even scary. With a mental illness or not, most of us feel uncomfortable in new and different situations. (By the way, yoga helps us learn how to get comfortable being uncomfortable, so if change is particularly difficult for you, start doing yoga).
A key part of this process is getting outside input, because it's much easier for someone on the outside looking in to see where we're making excuses. This can be anybody who is supportive, caring, non-judgmental, and safe.
So here are my first reactions to seeing my lack of progress (I said failing miserably earlier, but that's an exaggeration, and not supportive to remaining motivated and hopeful about change. Beware of those mean labels we are prone to apply to ourselves): I picked habits that include multiple parts, making it more than 7 habits and more difficult to achieve; not all habits apply to every day, making it hard to remember them on "off days"; I was sick; we went on vacation, throwing off my momentum; some of my habits require other people in my life to also engage in the habit, making it harder.
It's important to sit back and brainstorm why you may not have reached your goal, and then decide which adjustments to make to improve the odds the next time around. Changing too many factors is not ideal, because it will be hard to determine which obstacle was the problem.
I believe 1 of my 2 habits with multiple parts, eating every meal sitting, without screens (phone, tv, computer) is difficult because it's multiple parts and includes my husband's cooperation. It seemed like an excuse at first (maybe it still is, we'll see), but have you ever tried changing your behavior at ALL 3 meals in a day? It's a pretty aggressive undertaking. I will be changing this to eating sitting, without screens 2 meals per day, because that is a much more realistic and achievable goal. Habit number 2 with multiple parts will remain, because it's both an extremely important habit to establish and also realistic and achievable the way it is.
Events like being sick and going on vacation are definite routine and habit destroyers. But we're not aiming for absolute perfection here, just improvements. In looking at my worksheet, I've done far more to reach my larger goals by engaging in these daily habits more often than I did in the past. You have to find the same acceptance of progress for yourself, no matter how small, as well as enhance your ability to recognize the positive changes you have made. Nitpicking at what could have been better will not help you move forward, it will paralyze you in staying stuck, because it will lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
Here's a re-cap for checking-in on the intentions you set for yourself at the beginning of the month:
- Find a strategy for tracking progress, whether it be a spreadsheet, writing notes on your phone, or downloading a task-managing app, or plain ol' pen and paper
- When your mind is balanced and clear, brainstorm different obstacles that may have prevented you from choosing new habits/goals over old patterns. Things like the number of times, frequency in a day/week/month, time of day, or other "logistical" aspects often create obstacles, and are easy to fix
- Seek out a mentor to help you review your progress and make 2-3 changes (at most) to your goals for the next month
- Ask your mentor for help in identifying limiting/unhelpful thinking patterns that create obstacles to progress
- Acknowledge any negative and harsh words you are using to describe your choices, actions, and progress over the past month, and work to re-frame them to something more objective and positive
- Identify all of the progress you DID make, and celebrate it!
- Revisit the bigger "why" underlying your habits and goals to generate continued excitement, motivation, and hope for cultivating a more balanced life through looking at the bigger picture
- Breathe. Take a break from continually monitoring progress and making changes and make sure you are living and enjoying life!
Next time on the blog: Stages of change/motivation, learning to identify the stage that you are in, and how to move forward into the next stage!
Sal can be quite stubborn when it comes to changing his behaviors, such as chasing cars...