We’re almost through the first week of 2019, and many of us have already left our resolutions in the dust. Why? Well, it’s hard to change ingrained behavior, for the simple reason that our minds and bodies prefer to follow established patterns, whether that’s a thought cycle or our daily route to work.
Just as the Buddha recognized over 2,000 years ago, almost everything in our lives revolves around our mental activity. The brain forms a “habit loop” where certain triggers tell our brain to unleash a cascade of activities. For example, if you always use the toilet and then brush your teeth before bed, you will begin to associate going to the bathroom before bed with brushing your teeth. You can become so ingrained in such a routine that your bladder will signal to your brain that it’s time to go!
Habit loops help us reduce mental strain and move through our lives easily, but they can also prove destructive. Many of us have heard of the term “trigger” in relation to mental illness, referring to situations or stimuli that create anxiety or flashbacks. Triggers can be everything from a certain scent, a physical sensation, or a physical location. In this instance, the mind’s association between a painful memory and a stimuli can cause self-destructive behavior like panic attacks, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. This in itself proves the power of the mind’s patterns of association.
But habit loops don’t have to be destructive – in fact, we can harness the power of the brain to improve our lives and help us meet our goals. Through the intentional development of routines and rituals, we can make those resolutions stick!
Any new routine, at first, will feel uncomfortable and strange. This is the time that it is extremely important to intentionally practice the behavior, allowing yourself to be completely present in the activity. Through mindfulness, you can allow yourself to become fully aware of all the components of your new routine, helping your brain recognize the repetition of the activity and develop a habit loop around it.
Let’s discuss some of the tactics you can use to help new habits stick! I’m going to focus on weight loss, as that’s a very common goal (and one I’m working at!)
Create a “baby-step path” to reach your goals: If you’re working on your weight and your ultimate goal is to lose 50 pounds, don’t make that your immediate goal, as the time between making the goal and achieving the goal is too long, and you can easily become easily discouraged. Instead, choose “baby-step” goals with reasonable, short time frames.
Rather than picking a time period in which to lose 50 pounds, pick a time frame to lose five pounds, then one for 10 pounds, and so on. Current research suggests that for healthy, sustainable weight loss, you should only aim to lose one or two pounds a week. With that in mind, set a goal to lose five pounds in six weeks. Why six weeks and not five? That way, you can feel proud if you reach the goal early, and you have some wiggle room in case you have a bad week. Even though you might have the same overall time frame for losing 50 pounds, setting shorter goals helps you stay motivated and provides you with positive feedback regularly – one of the most important things for motivation.
Associate your routine with an existing one: It’s far easier to modify an existing routine than to create a completely new one. To do this, you need to think carefully about the routines you already have. It doesn’t have to be anything seriously significant – in fact, it’s better if it’s something you barely have to think about. For example, if you want to be better about exercising, you can decide to do five squats every time that you wash your hands. Even though it seems like insignificant in the moment, if you wash your hands ten times a day, that’s fifty squats per day! It may not be a massive effort, but over time it will build up to quite a bit of exercise.
Use reminders, timers, alarms and notes to keep your goals present: Not only do alarms help you keep a consistent routine, but if you specialize them with a note or reminder, they can help to “keep you honest” and ensure your goals are always forefront in your mind. You can set alarms for as often as you need, or put a recurring alarm on your phone or computer that helps you to check in and assess how you’re doing.
My mom uses timers to help her get work done when she’s not motivated; she’ll set a timer for 30 minutes and force herself to work for that long, and then allow herself 10 or 15 minutes to relax and do something she enjoys. As with making short-term goals, the short period of work helps to trick your mind into feeling the work is manageable, even if you’re doing the same amount of work in the same amount of time. Also, the human attention span is far shorter than we really think it is; working intensely for brief periods, then allowing the mind to rest, helps to improve the quality of work.
Modify your living space to strengthen your routine: This is to do with ‘trigger objects,’ physical items that you associate with an activity. As mentioned above, association is a crucial part of changing habits, and being physical beings, we regularly associate items with corresponding behaviors. We also tend to arrange our physical space to support our daily activities, keeping things within easy reach of the space where we use them. This seems like a duh, but when you consider it carefully, you’ll realize that it’s actually a critical component of developing a healthy life. Just as we keep soap next to the sink or our glasses on our nightstand, placing things within easy reach (or out of easy reach if necessary) will encourage the behaviors you want in your life.
This doesn’t always mean putting things in “their right place,” because you need to consider your own habits (and remember that associating new routines with old ones really helps). Whatever you want to think about or do regularly, put it where you see it, pass by it, and encounter it constantly.
One of my resolutions this year is to drink more water, as staying hydrated is absolutely critical to good health. As such, I’ve been buying water bottles and putting them absolutely everywhere. I have one on my desk, one on the bookshelf next to my bedroom door, and I’m going to also put bottles next to the toilet, in the cup holder in my car, and at my place on the dinner table. This way, I don’t need to go hunting for a bottle of water; they’re everywhere, and the more I see them, the more I remember to drink. This also encourages me to reach for water rather than a caloric tea or soda, because the soda is all the way downstairs but the water is right next to me.
Another important part of this is to put things you want to avoid in places that are “out of sight, out of mind.” The harder you make it to access these items, the less motivated you will be to use them. For habits that are very difficult to break, keeping trigger items out of the house together helps immensely. If you don’t keep chips or sweets in the home, and you have to go out to the grocer every time you want a candy bar, you will be far less motivated to binge on snacks than if they are easily accessible in your home. Since most of us are relatively intentional when we go out to buy our groceries, that little bit of willpower at the store (and eating before you go!) can prevent you from indulging completely.
Be your own biggest fan. Many of us are far harsher on ourselves than we ever would be to anyone else in our lives. To be successful in bettering yourself, you must stop beating yourself up for minor setbacks. Consider how you support and encourage your friends and family, and practice offering that same love and acceptance to yourself.
Remember that every single day is a new opportunity to improve yourself, and that this very moment – right NOW – is all that truly matters: it is all we truly have. The Buddha makes this abundantly clear throughout his teachings, and it is an extremely empowering mindset. You may have messed up yesterday, but yesterday is gone! You can and will be better today. If you ate too much, had a cigarette, or lost your temper yesterday, accept and forgive yourself and consider it a learning experience that helps you improve. Do not trap yourself with your own past.
Another thing involved with this is celebrating your achievements with the same excitement you give to others when they do well. Many of us, focused on being modest, are embarrassed to share their successes or feel they shouldn’t make a big deal of reaching their goals, afraid that it makes them self-centered. Celebrating your successes doesn’t mean you crow about being so awesome to everyone around you – rather, it means you that you crow about being awesome to yourself! Keep a journal where you chronicle all the great progress you’ve made; write a list of nice things about yourself. You can even write yourself letters saying the kind of caring and loving things you offer to others.
I am a big proponent of spoiling yourself and rewarding yourself for good achievements. Recently I bought a charm bracelet, something I wanted as a child. I have always been a very ‘tactile’ person who likes to keep mementos of happy times, and so I’ve promised myself that every time I reach a goal, I will buy myself a charm to commemorate it. This way, reminders of my success are always right there for me to cheer myself up on hard days, and I can reward myself with an affordable present that keeps me motivated.
Be optimistic. It sounds silly, but a positive mindset can help push you to better decisions. As Brian Tracy notes, optimistic people see challenges as opportunities and search for the good in people and situations. By intentionally cultivating positive feelings, you will find your goals seem more attainable, setbacks look smaller, and your great attitude draws success toward you. Psychologist Nikki Martinez points out that “Maintaining a positive attitude during the day can help you be more productive and forward moving, and can leave you more open to options and solutions that can keep you from getting stuck.” This suggests that the law of attraction is more about attitude than luck, and we can all bring good things to ourselves by focusing on the positive.
No post about resolutions would be complete if I didn’t share with you what I plan to change this upcoming year, and how I intend to do so. Here’s a brief list of what I want to improve in 2019:
- Lose 20 pounds by June (a little less than a pound a week!):
- Drink eight glasses of water a day
- Do something active every day (even if it’s not at the gym)
- Park further away from stores
- Limit gluten, sugar, and fat
- Get a smaller latte at coffee shops or make coffee at home
- Save $1,000+ for retirement by the end of the year:
- Eat at home more and avoid fast food (helps with losing weight too!)
- Make coffee and tea at home and bring it with me in a thermos
- Put $84 per month in a Roth IRA or other retirement account
- Sell crafts on Ebay (I’m always knitting, might as well profit!)
The little things add up, and before you know it, you’ll be a completely different person!
Let’s all commit to making 2019 a year of joy and growth!