It’s almost the end of the first quarter of 2021. How are those 2021 goals coming along? Hopefully, you made reasonable bite-sized goals that consider the weirdness of life during a pandemic. Ideally, you give yourself lots of grace and re-evaluate things as needed.
No matter how carefully you set goals and how seriously you take self-care, it is hard to change habits. March is definitely a time of struggle. Most of us can brute-force our way through changes for about six weeks, but eventually it isn’t sustainable.
How not to achieve a goal.
Once I set a goal to switch up the furniture in my living room. I was sick to death of my old college furniture held together with duct tape. In a burst of energy, I moved all the crappy furniture out to the garage. After vacuuming the floor, I looked around at the empty room in satisfaction.
All I had to do next was move the new furniture in — except I hadn’t purchased any yet. Oops.
The next week was busy, and I didn’t have a chance to go to furniture stores. The satisfaction of the empty living room faded, and I was irritated that I didn’t have a place to sit. I looked online, but I didn’t have a clear sense of my style or even my budget. I felt a lot of pressure to get new furniture, an expensive purchase, and I didn’t want to have buyer’s remorse.
I thought about my old furniture in the garage and decided to bring in one of the not-so-bad chairs. “Just until I get new furniture,” I reasoned with myself and sank into my old comfy chair.
A few weeks later, I looked around the living room. I had long since stopped looking at new furniture and just dragged in all the old stuff. It’s familiar, and I didn’t need to worry about dog hair or spilling drinks. I still intended to get new furniture, but I didn’t know when it would fit my schedule.
What did I do wrong? I had a goal; I had the motivation and the energy. I just didn’t have a plan.
Think of your mind as my living room. If you give up bad habits without a plan to replace them, you will soon be dragging those familiar habits back into your life like an old chair. And if you decide to add something new into your life without a plan, it can be challenging, no matter how exciting the new habit is.
If you quit a bad habit or add in a good one, your mind might still work against you.
For me, the most challenging aspect of habit-changing is filling the space in my head where the habit lived, kind of like a corner of my empty living room. Our minds are tricky and will often work against change.
I had a terrible habit of breaking my own commitments and disparaging myself. For example, every evening right after dinner, I would think, “In 90 minutes, I’ll go down and hop on the exercise bike,” which I never, ever did. Then I would berate myself for not exercising.
I decided to break the habit of hating on myself for not exercising. As I caught my negative thoughts and dismissed them, I noticed a considerable emptiness in my mind. I had nothing new to think about besides my guilt around fitness. To fill that space, I started exercising, adding in a good habit. But because I exercised in the morning, somehow, I would still have negative thoughts about myself at night after dinner.
To combat the space in my head where the berating thoughts lived, I consciously reminded myself that I had already done a challenging workout that morning. Each night I planned out what I would listen to or watch on tv as I exercised the next morning. That helped fill the space in my head, and gradually the negative thoughts ceased.
It was harder to break the habit of beating myself up than to add the practice of regular exercise.
Plan to fill your time and your mind.
If you have begun to creep back into old habits or not met some goals, it’s ok! You can start over today. Right now.
First, do some thinking about the ‘furniture’ you are adding or taking away from your living room-mind.
Maybe you want to break the habit of checking your phone constantly. When you think about checking your phone once every two hours instead of every few minutes, do you feel an empty spot in your mind where random tweets or social media posts would normally be? Or do your hands feel open or itchy because you are used to picking up your phone at every beep and buzz? Sit with that feeling. It is uncomfortable. It feels different. Your phone, that pleasing rectangular shape, fits your hand and mind so well.
Before beginning to set your phone down for long periods, you may have to come to terms with that uncomfortable feeling. Prepare yourself. Imagine not seeing a text from a friend for 90 minutes and how that will feel. How will your friend feel? Imagine missing a Breaking News update. What if that guy finally texted you, and you didn’t reply right away? What if a celebrity died and you didn’t know for two or even three hours? These all sound faintly ridiculous when in black and white, but this is the stuff that drives social media and teaches our brains to be alert to every buzz from our phones. And you will miss it.
Focus on your desires.
Decide what will be in your living room-brain instead. Make a plan. One plan that resonates with many people is to focus on your desires. What are your deepest desires? Do you want to be more well-read? Connect more authentically with your children or partner? Pay attention to that show that has everyone talking? Stay focused at work? Finish that quilting project you’ve been working on forever? Once you have picked out your new additions to your brain, it will be easier not to grab your phone at every spare moment. You can fill your life with those desired activities.
Spend some time thinking about your empty living room-brain, how you will furnish it, and how the final result looks and feels. Anticipate how good it will feel to have a fresh new habit and leave an unhealthy one behind. Then, once you have thoroughly planned out how to fill the space in your mind, begin your new routine.
Say goodbye to the old habits.
Another step in sticking to goals and quitting old habits is mentally putting the old pattern away. That habit of smoking, looking at your phone, biting your fingernails, or eating mindlessly, served a purpose in your life. It distracted you, soothed you, protected you, kept you from being anxious, or supported you somehow. For example, those crappy duct-taped chairs supported me through thousands of study hours.
Thank old patterns sincerely for the part they played in your life and release them. When you notice those old habits wanting back into your mind, you can say, “Thank you for helping me, but I’ve got it now,” and gently close the door on them.
And remember: You can do this. Be kind to yourself. Enjoy your new furniture.
Audrey Zetta is a writer living in LA. You can connect with her on Twitter @sweetandzesty.