How To Make (And Keep) New Habits
One perspective on how personal growth can feel a little more possible when we pair it with the practice of self-forgiveness.
Have you ever noticed that when you ask someone about their New Year’s resolutions, you typically get one of two responses:
“Well, I’m hoping to lose twelve pounds and stop procrastinating and call my mom more and spend more time reading.”
You can basically fill in the blanks with any sort of ambition towards self improvement. Or they say something like:
“Oh, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.”
So what makes a person more apt to want to create personal change and why do others so quickly shy away from it? Most often, those who fall in the latter group of ignoring the tradition of resolutions admit that sticking to resolutions is often too difficult, so they just don’t bother. It’s the whole gym-membership-in-January phenomenon. On the first of the month, every treadmill is taken, occupied by a blaze of colorful new workout gear, water bottles and determination to get fit. Come February, it’s a ghost town.
Why can’t we make these new habits stick?
For one thing, if you live anywhere where the weather gets cold, slogging off to Pilates through sleet and snow sounds a whole lot less appealing than a Master Of None Netflix binge. But more than weather-related discouragement, the truth is it can be pretty easy to write off change that seems daunting. Saying we’re going to become something different means we actually have to do something different. And say yes to something new is often frightening because we have to face what’s already failed and approach the possibility that we might fail all over again. Bottom line, new habits are hard to form without self-imposed discipline or the encouragement of others. And probably what we all really need is some of each.
“It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” — Meister Eckhart
I’m typically the type of person to set goals for the year ahead. For me, it feels good to sit down and really think about what I want to happen. I enjoy thinking about how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go. But just because I like to set goals doesn’t mean I always meet them. I’m an expert planner. I’m so-so at execution. Why? Here are some examples of my goals from 2015:
- Only say yes if you really mean it.
- Only say no if you really mean it.
- Be (a little) less of a hater.
- Open a Roth IRA (adulthood!).
- Don’t take it personally.
- Take better care of my hands.
- Eat less dairy.
- Have longer mornings.
- Do one less thing.
- Drink more tea.
While some of these were pretty easy to check off my list (I opened a retirement fund!), others were more challenging to put into daily practice. I didn’t always stand my ground when it comes to the yes-or-no and I had my fair share of cheese this year. I didn’t always take something off my to-do list that could wait and I have half a dozen half-used bottles of cuticle oil in my nightstand drawer.
But rather than taking my missteps as a reason to completely give up, I choose something else: to not feel bad about any of the times I didn’t 100% succeed. Why? Because I know I tried. I kept these goals in mind and I strived toward them. I fell short, a lot. Other times I made strides that still leave me feeling pretty pleased with my accomplishments. And the majority of my goals made me accountable to myself, so when I failed, I only let myself down. (Not saying that shortcomings are no big deal when you don’t have to answer to anyone, but it makes it easier to use it as opportunity to reflect, regroup and get back on your feet.)
“I am a firm believer that every few years one needs to shake one’s life through a sieve, like a miner in the Yukon. The gold nuggets remain. The rest falls through like the soft earth it is.” — Amy Poehler
Sometimes you shrug off the cashier who was rude to you and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you find yourself fifteen minutes early patiently waiting for your name to be called and others you find yourself rushing out the door, late for yet another appointment. Sometimes you have a long, relaxing morning, reading, thinking. Sometimes it’s all you can do not to pour that fourth cup of coffee and count down the minutes to when you can go back to bed. It’s all part of how we learn.
So how can we try to meet our expectations without losing our heads?
Attach new habits to existing ones. An example: Around this time last year I wanted to start meditating daily but I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate this new practice into my daily routine. So I thought about when I wanted to meditate: first thing in the morning. And I thought about the first thing I already did every morning: drink a cup of water. I’ve done that for so long that it doesn’t even feel like something I have to think about anymore. I just do it. So I tried to make a connection: water + meditation = suddenly a new habit was formed.
Don’t frame it as failure. See above.*
*But seriously, sometimes pizza is better than kale and sometimes staying up late to have a conversation with an old friend is more important than getting eight hours of sleep. Just because we don’t do what we meant to every time doesn’t mean we’ve screwed up beyond repair. It means we’re human. As such, we’re incredibly flexible and capable of bouncing back.
Repeat yourself. Just because you couldn’t make a habit stick one year doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. So if you aren’t happy with the progress (or lack of progress) you’ve made on a certain goal, try it again. Who knows, maybe 2016 will be the year of the healthy cuticle and a perpetually minimalist to-do list.
Further reading, watching and listening:
- Have you taken Gretchen Rubin’s 4 Tendencies quiz? The results are fascinating. (I’m an Upholder.)
- 7 Strategies For Highly Effective Resolutions: fancy. (Check out the seventh strategy!)
- Sometimes it helps to get the input of your friends. Sometimes it doesn’t. (Go, Ross, go!)
- And if you don’t know where to start, do one small, good thing.