There seems to be a perception around that starting good habits is way easier than giving up a bad habit. That just because it’s good for us, or makes us happier, or makes us more calm that should be enough to override the basic human nature of staying with what’s familiar. That comfort zone is…comfortable! So it is way easier to stay there, even if we’d feel better if we changed our habits.
This subject came up because a client recently was beating themselves up for not doing those good habit actions that they wanted to do. But there is never any value in beating yourself up for what you’re not doing – it doesn’t help you do the good habit, and it undermines your confidence in you. And Creating Good Habits is hard work! Ever tried to give something up and failed over and over?
Yep, it’s just like that! I gave up smoking 10 times before I actually gave up for good. At first, I thought I was a failure, with terrible will power, and a Bad Person. Especially as a friend of mine gave up cold turkey, once, and easily…they just woke up one day and stopped smoking. Bloody show off.
But then I realised that every ‘failure’ was teaching me something. Every time I started up again, I learned something new…which made it easier the next time I tried to give up. And ironically, that 10th time, I didn’t expect to succeed. I expected that I would do what I’d done so often in the past, stop for a couple of months and then fall spectacularly off the wagon for some reason, and just start again. But I didn’t. Because of the other 9 ‘failures’, I knew what could trip me up and I was prepared to deal with them.
Starting up good habits is so similar. You’re used to not doing that thing, so you have to make a really conscious effort to keep going. In the beginning it’s easy, you’re full of zeal and determination…and then life happens or you get bored or you realise you’re spending half your life trying to coax yourself to do the thing you say you want to do…and you stop. Perhaps telling yourself you are a failure, with terrible willpower, and a Bad Person (you’re not).
But what’s actually happening is that you’re figuring out how to do what you want to do. You’re finding all the little things that could get in your way…so you can keep that good habit going (or ditch it if it’s really not for you!) You’re figuring out how you tick, what works for you, what inspires you, what tends to trip you up and get in your way. And it’s not that you’re a failure, with no willpower, or a Bad Person (although saying that to yourself will definitely trip you up and make your life way harder).
So here’s my 3 top tips for keeping up your good habits…
Notice what’s going on. On the other side of “I’m a failure with no willpower and a Bad Person” what really happened? Quit beating yourself up for 10 minutes and objectively see what’s going on – have you stopped meditating because it was making you late for work? Did you stop eating healthily because you were too tired to cook or because winter calls for stodge? Did you stop exercising because your friend stopped going? Be a detective, get your magnifying glass out and find the real ‘reason'(s) you stopped.
For example my yoga practice has slid over the past 10 months…and I’m struggling to get it going again. I realised this week that it’s because when I do yoga, my shoulder hurts. It’s not me being a Bad Person, it’s self-preservation! So I need to think about how I honour my yoga practice and my shoulder. Hmmm…
2. Turn failure into experimentation
So you’ve failed a few (thousand) times? GOOD! Then you have lots of lovely data. You have lots of things that worked and things that just didn’t work and things that worked for a while and then stopped working. Take a look at that data. Find the results of your experiments – what worked? What didn’t? What stopped working? Why? What do those results suggest?
For example, I wanted to start a daily practice of writing the morning pages. But it was such hard work and it took so damn long that I kept stopping and starting. I intuitively knew this would be a great practice for me, but it was always a struggle…in the mornings. So now I do my ‘morning’ pages in the afternoon or evening. I’m not a morning person, and this introspection that early just wasn’t working for me. Once I realised mornings were the biggest problem, not the writing itself, the practice really took off for me.
3. Make it easy(er) to DO the habit
Humans have an infinite capacity to overcomplicate life! But the harder you make it to DO your good habit, the harder you’ll find it to commit to it over time. In a perfect world perhaps you would spend hours every day with your favourite happy people, dance for an hour a day, work on your Big Dream daily, belly laugh and have fun daily, be in bed asleep by 9pm, eat your fruit and veg and take your vitamins without fail. But in the real world, those things might not work yet. So make it easy for yourself to DO it…give yourself space to improve instead of trying to be perfect from the get-go.
One of my clients had a list of 5 great habits she wanted to start doing daily that would make her feel healthier, happier and calmer. It was a great list. But she was trying to go from none to all 5 in one fell swoop (and getting angry with herself that she wasn’t doing it perfectly). Once she’d noticed doing all 5 took up a lot of time (that she didn’t have) and they were actually stressing her out (not the idea), she decided to pick ONE – the most fun one, which happened to be the most impactful one – to do every day. Super easy….and because it was so easy, she often did 2 or 3 of the habits in a day.
I’m all for reaching for the stars…but if reaching for the stars isn’t working, try reaching for something you can easily reach for now…and build up to the stars when you’ve got into your groove.
Bonus tip 4: Quit beating yourself up over whatever you’re not doing.
It’s not helpful. In fact, it’s harmful. Don’t do it to yourself. Get in the good habit of being kind to you and loving you and trusting you and letting yourself be imperfect. We all are, and creating good habits is hard work too…so don’t make it harder for yourself by being a slave-driver about it!