When my clients come to me with a long list of goals, especially resolutions at the beginning of the year, the goals usually involve huge upheavals of behavior. This is the number one mistake of people who are trying to apply willpower to stubborn habits; it’s wrong not because the goals aren’t good, but because they are asking for too much to be accomplished. The too big-of-a change will require too much willpower! As per my December and January blog where I discussed willpower, this month I’m going to focus on habits.
Small behavioral changes have the most likelihood of becoming permanent. And usually, they don’t require a large amount of willpower! This is a winning combination since willpower is a limited resource. This is why a gradual shift from unproductive habits to positive changes make sense. Just how do you start?
First, you have to examine the reason for having the goals you have set. Your reason has to be 100% meaningful to you; research finds that you will almost never make a change to please someone else. I’ve found that when your goal involves wanting someone to like, love, or accept you more, it’s an ineffective goal. You have to make a change for you!
Billie Frances, an expert in creating change, says that you have to explore your values and establish a vision for the future. This helps you set up a framework for future goal setting. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” Therefore, your values have to align with goals.
Next, do not just create an action plan; Prepare for action. For those trying to make exercise and movement a habit, joining a gym, putting your workouts in your schedule and setting up a support system with a workout buddy are all great, simple steps towards making changes stick. Journaling, mindfulness, and meditation can all help you stay on track, as can affirmations. Envisioning a positive future and visualizing clearly where you want to be is also a useful tool.
Remember that your action plan needs to be full of tiny habits. B.J. Fogg Ph.D. from Stanford University says that some simple, easy to implement, and powerful steps are the key to making a change permanent. Simplicity matters more than motivation: If the behavior is really easy, you don’t need much motivation. Motivation, like willpower, is unreliable.
Also, try to put the new behavior “after” an existing routine. This is how I mastered the habit of meditation. I started to wake up a little earlier than usual; after I drink my morning coffee while reading a page from a daily inspirational book, I meditate. I put the meditation after drinking the coffee, which is something I have always done. I started with four rounds of breath counting (breathe in for four, hold for seven and exhale for eight). After a period of months, this habit has lengthened to a 15-minute regular routine. I feel so much better as a result of this simple habit, and I celebrate the fact that I’ve been meditating daily for the past few years. My success has made my tiny habit grow into a bigger habit that requires no willpower; it’s as much a part of my morning routine as the coffee. It’s a habit that helps!