Mak­ing good habits stick

Here are five sim­ple ways you can make sure that wish to im­prove your­self in some way be­comes a re­al­ity.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­tar.com.my Sandy Clarke

WHY is it so hard to make good habits stick? It’s a safe bet that every­one read­ing this col­umn will have fallen at the first hur­dle at least once in an at­tempt to make some sort of life­style change.

Whether it’s los­ing weight, learn­ing a new lan­guage, cul­ti­vat­ing in­ner peace, or pick­ing up a new skill, these all seem like the best ideas when they first pop into our heads. But when it comes to the crunch, putting in the ef­fort can feel like too much has­sle. Even the com­mit­ment to a New Year res­o­lu­tion that will make a pos­i­tive change in our lives rarely lasts long – around 80% of peo­ple give up by mid-Fe­bru­ary.

I re­mem­ber when I first started med­i­tat­ing over 15 years ago. I knew about the ben­e­fits and re­sults that would de­velop over time with a con­sis­tent prac­tice. The prob­lem was that I found it chal­leng­ing most times and down­right bor­ing on some oc­ca­sions when I tried to “clear my mind”.

Since there were no ap­par­ent im­me­di­ate ben­e­fits, I’d of­ten get frus­trated and go off to do some­thing else, telling my­self that there were more im­por­tant things to do than sit­ting around do­ing noth­ing.

De­spite my protes­ta­tions, I was pulled back into the prac­tice again and again. It helped that I had a gen­uine cu­rios­ity about what med­i­ta­tion was and how it af­fected the mind. Over time, it be­came much eas­ier as my un­der­stand­ing of the ob­sta­cles and chal­lenges helped me to make some no­tice­able progress.

Form­ing good habits is tough – es­pe­cially when they’re de­signed to over­ride bad habits. Thank­fully, half the bat­tle is won with some key point­ers, which can help to in­crease the chances of new habits stick­ing around long enough to make the de­sired changes. Here are some that are handy to keep in mind:

1. Ditch the neg­a­tive and fo­cus on the pos­i­tive

Of­ten, a de­sired change is driven by neg­a­tive emo­tions. We might feel guilty for in­dulging too much dur­ing Chi­nese New Year or fear­ful that if we don’t change a par­tic­u­lar habit, it’ll even­tu­ally cause prob­lems.

Re­search into be­hav­iour change sug­gests that neg­a­tive emo­tions are ter­ri­ble at help­ing to make good habits stick. In­stead, fo­cus­ing on the pos­i­tive out­comes (vi­su­al­is­ing how your ef­forts will pay off ) pro­vides pos­i­tive mo­ti­va­tion that will see you smash through any tough mo­ments.

2. It starts with one thing

“Over the next six months I’m go­ing to be­come fit­ter, get a bet­ter job, learn to play gui­tar, and be able to con­verse in ba­sic Ja­panese.” All of these things are surely help­ful de­vel­op­ments but it’s far too much to ask all of this of our­selves over a short pe­riod of time. Big changes take time to de­velop, and our en­thu­si­asm wanes very quickly if we at­tempt too many things at once.

If you’re think­ing about four or five changes you’d like to make, fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing the most valu­able one first be­fore mov­ing on to the next chal­lenge, and so on.

3. All or noth­ing gets us nowhere

When I took a karate class in my late teens, I had my sights set on at­tain­ing the cov­eted “black belt” as soon as pos­si­ble, with­out hav­ing the first idea of the hard work re­quired for such an achieve­ment. Be­cause I had adopted an all-or-noth­ing ap­proach, the speed at which I was mak­ing progress wasn’t good enough for me. Af­ter a few years, I gave up.

Paint­ing a pic­ture in our minds of where we want to be is one thing. How­ever, if we ex­pect to com­plete our goal within a short while, we’re bound to fail. In mak­ing any change, steady progress should be the pri­mary aim and cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

4. Fail­ure is a valu­able teacher

Par­tic­u­larly with ma­jor changes, it’s bound to be case that we stum­ble along the way to­wards our goal. Whether it’s due to pride in sav­ing face or sim­ply be­ing afraid, a lot of us see fail­ure as an end point that tells us we’re not good enough, rather than a teacher that shows where we need to de­velop.

This is some­thing we re­alised as chil­dren ev­ery time we fell off the bi­cy­cle. Pride and fear were much less es­tab­lished then, and so we just got back on and tried again un­til we were suc­cess­ful.

5. Do it for your­self

When peo­ple push us to change our be­hav­iours, we tend to get de­fen­sive and feel the crit­i­cism more than the po­ten­tial. If we can see the value of mak­ing changes for our­selves, we’re likely to buy into the idea and make a com­mit­ment to cre­ate a plan of ac­tion and see it through.

Hav­ing some vague idea of what we’d like to achieve on the back of pres­sure from others will in­evitably lead us to a dead end. On the other hand, mak­ing a com­mit­ment is im­por­tant be­cause it’s helps us to stay on course for all the right rea­sons.

Sandy Clarke has long held an in­ter­est in emo­tions, men­tal health, mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion. He be­lieves the more we un­der­stand our­selves and each other, the bet­ter so­ci­eties we can cre­ate. If you have any ques­tions or com­ments, e-mail star2@thes­tar.com.my.

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