Have you ever resolved to “get back to the gym” or “quit sugar” or “start regular meditation practice” and then find yourself staying late at work and grabbing a burger on the way home instead? Do you believe that just because you think it, you should be able to follow through and do it? You are not alone.
When we want to create a new healthy habit, like regular exercise or meditation, it seems like it should be as simple as giving ourselves a strong talking to and using enough willpower but unfortunately it’s not that easy. “Just do it” was a clever marketing slogan but it seriously underestimates the complexity of the human mind.
It’s rare that you meet someone who has no idea what they should be doing for their health and wellbeing. Most of us know that we should be moving our bodies, avoiding too many doughnuts, keeping our drinking to a moderate amount, getting more sleep, and the list goes on.
It can be frustrating when you can do other things in your life with ease but somehow getting, and staying, on track with the habits that are good for our mind and body can seem like a never-ending battle.
The trouble with starting a new habit is that it often involves overcoming a not-so-great habit – snoozing the alarm for the gazillionth time, ordering uber eats because there’s nothing in the fridge apart from hoisin sauce and olives, letting Netflix start the next episode without getting in its way.
And our minds don’t like letting go of these pleasurable habits easily. Once these habits are formed, our mind is hardwired to hang onto them. What’s the typical response top that? To beat yourself up, to tell yourself “I am an unmotivated slob, get your shit together”.
Research shows criticising ourselves isn’t an effective motivation strategy. And willpower is a limited resource – it runs out of oomph really quickly and most of the time it’s no match for making the change from comfy-and-warm-on-the-couch to no-pain-no-gain.
So if willpower and stern words don’t get us to the gym or meditating, what will?
We need a system of strategies. We need to know what will work for our personalities and lifestyle. We need to learn how to give ourselves a break when we have a set-back and remind ourselves we’re just a human who isn’t always going to nail it. We need to find solutions to overcome the things that get in our way, even if they seem silly. In short, we need to understand how our mind works.
One common mistake people make when they decide to start, or get back to a healthy habit is that they set a goal. This seems like a sensible idea but it can often backfire.
Say you set a goal of completing a “30 days of exercise challenge”. You go along well for the first 12 days, and then you miss a day. Bam, you failed. “What’s the point in continuing now?” your mind asks (with more than a fair amount of attitude and judgement).
Or maybe you complete the challenge and your mind is like “great now I can get back to pressing snooze and letting Netflix kindly start the next episode for me”. You’re off the hook.
To shift any healthy behaviour from a flash-in-the-pan to a hardwired habit it needs to be connected not just to our goals, but also to our values. We need to understand why this behaviour is important to us. What does it say about who we are and what we stand for? Do you exercise to stay fit and health for your family? Or as a way of connecting with friends? What’s your why?
Habits that are motivated by values in combination with clear and flexible values-based goals are more likely to be sustainable in the long run. The more you repeat the behaviour, the easier it becomes. You’ll start to miss it if you have to skip a day. And if you have to skip a day or a workout it’s no biggie, you’ll do it again next time. It’s going to become your new habit. And with time, your brain is going to have a hard time letting go of it.
The number one thing to remember is that you aren’t alone. This stuff is hard, otherwise we would all be out running marathons, quitting sugar and meditating just because we decided to. But armed with the right tools, you’ll be much more likely to get started and commit to a new habit. And then who knows what other healthy habits might follow.