Making good habits stick
Here are five simple ways you can make sure that wish to improve yourself in some way becomes a reality.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.