5 Hard Truths About Habit Change
I have an 8 year old son and watching him learn how to read has been a truly remarkable thing to witness. It has, by no means, been an easy process for him but the kid shows up consistently to practice and has learned to befriend the work required to enable him to read.
Ok, maybe I nagged him a little along the way and maybe I had to correct him that it was DIARY and not DIARREAH of a Wimpy Kid. Regardless, I am proud to say that my son is now reading novels.
Did he learn to read quickly? No.
Was the process all rainbows and butterflies for him? No.
Did he mess up a lot in the process? He sure did. Still does:)
His journey spanned over several years; he had to start by learning sounds, and then letters, and eventually he was able to string words together to form sentences and then paragraphs. And now… novels!!
It is a curious thing how we can respect the learning process childen must go through to aquire new skill, but we don’t extend that same level of respect to our own learning process. We understand the necessity of a slow, systematic method that spans over the course of several years to develop a skill like reading, but when we want to learn a new skills as an adult we employ methods that resemble trying to learn how to read overnight. Then we wonder why we fail. (insert faceplam here)
You know what I am talking about…
You decide you are finally ready to learn how to start taking better care of yourself, so you commit to working out 5 days a week (bootcamp style), radically changing your diet, meditating 20 minutes a day and going to bed an hour earlier on a Monday (it is ALWAYS on a Monday). And by Monday afternoon, you are already losing traction, feeling overwhelmed and like you have proven to yourself (yet again) that this getting healthy stuff really is just too hard for you.
There is nothing wrong with you! You are perfectly capable of learning new skills, but there just may be something seriously defective about the way you are trying to implement change in to your life. And that, my friend, can be remedied.
You are, indeed, what you repeatedly do and what you repeatedly do is called a HABIT.
Habit change is only possible when you become acutely AWARE of what your habits actually are.
Sounds like a simple enough starting place, right?
Right!! And yet…
We can make this first step so very, very hard. This is where so many of us get caught up in judging ourselves for what we aren’t doing well and what we should have done better, that we actually sabotage our ability to do better! Sadly, most people do not make it past this first step.
If you want to improve your health you have to learn how to take stock of what you are already doing and what triggers that behavior without judgment. Did you catch that last part? WITHOUT JUDGEMENT.
“You mean I have to be nice to myself, Courtney?”
Yes. Yes, you do.
Judgement just makes us feel lousy and when we feel lousy we act accordingly by making lousy choices.
“Courtney”, you might be saying, “I already know what I am doing that is preventing me from getting healthier.”
Actually, research shows us that humans are not so great at recollecting what they actually do.
Do yourself a favor and track what you are ACTUALLY doing, so you can see exactly what your habits are and you can identify which ones are specifically getting in the way of you making progress more easily.
Once you are standing in the ring with what you are actually doing (the good, the bad and the ugly), how do you start improving your habits with more ease and less frustration?
After nearly 2 decades of working with women on habit change, here are a few of my thoughts on that:
Know Thyself and Thy Motives
Wanting more energy, wanting to keep up with your friends while hiking or wanting to lose weight are all valid reasons for wanting to improve your health, but they aren’t weighty enough to carry you all the way home to your goals. You need an emotional connection to WHY you are committed to healthier behavior (otherwise you will rationalize, negotiate and compromise your way out of it. Every. Single. Day.)
One of the easiest ways to forge for a reason that lights you up is to ask yourself 5 times WHY the outcome you are seeking is important to you.
Here is an example of me working through this exercise with an actual client.
Why are you doing health coaching?
Because I want to lose weight and get into the best shape of my life
Why is that reason important to you?
Because I’ll feel more confident and powerful, both physically and mentally. Not in the “I’m power-hungry” sense. Power in the “I am capable” sense.
And why is that important?
Because I’ll have the freedom and confidence to try new things without fear of feeling ashamed of how I look, without fear of the physical discomfort caused by my physical conditioning and extra weight, and without fear of how my weight will limit my physical performance.
And what difference will that make?
Seizing opportunities to try new things is how I would describe the essence of a full life.
And why will that previous thing matter?
I only get one shot at this life, and at the end of it, I don’t want to look back at the things I did (or didn’t do) with regret. I want to fill it up with experiences that say I had an adventurous spirit, and didn’t live in fear. I want to look back and be able to say “hell yes! *that* was a fantastic life.”
Read that last paragraph again. Isn’t that so much more powerful than “I want to lose weight”?
Heck yes! This gal’s fifth answer makes ME want to do better.
Respect That Change Takes Time (a lot more than you would probably like it to)
I like to think of habits as well worn paths in the brain. Even though you may have been practicing a new healthy habit for 6 months to a year does not mean that habit is as ingrained as the habits you have been traveling with for a lifetime.
It took you how many years to develop the habits you currently have? 20, 30, 40 years? So why would you expect to unravel those habits in 21 days, or 6 weeks or even 6 months? It is likely because the diet and fitness industry sold you on the idea that you could.
Establishing new habits takes a lot of time and practice. A lot more than anyone would like admit. Which is why no one uses “you are going to have to work at this for a very long time” as a sale pitch. Awareness and hard work do not make for sexy or lucrative marketing campaigns:)
The “long road” approach does not sell products and programs but the long road approach is the only way to deep health.
Extend yourself the grace of MORE TIME to implement meaningful changes into your life. A lot more.
Take a Sip from a Sippy Cup NOT a Firehose
I don’t know a woman who doesn’t have an over full plate of to-do’s and yet most women who come to work with me expect me to give them BIG, DRASTIC measures right out of the gate to help them improve their health.
Many are surprised and even irritated when I ask them to commit to a 5-minute action step over the first two weeks!
“What??!! Come on, Courtney, I can handle WAY more than a 5 min action step.”
Really? Show me:) Better yet… show yourself that is true.
A five-minute action done consistently over a two week period is a powerful first step because it teaches women how to consistently follow through with something and that big changes result from seemingly insignificant behaviors.
I know you are smart, I know you are capable. Every woman I have ever worked with IS, but the amount of change you think you can handle vs the amount of change your brain can actually handle are not one in the same. Not by a long shot.
If you want to change your health, or any area of your life for that matter, do yourself a favor and start by taking a sip out of a sippy cup NOT a fire hose.
Find JOY in Discipline
You aren’t going to like hearing this but the work that is required to return to and sustain health is never going away. Like, not ever! Sure, with practice and consistent awareness it will get easier, but if you get mindless for too long, you will likely revert to your “old ways”. So…
Although that bootcamp class kicked your ass, did you actually enjoy it to the extent of making it a regular part of your life?
Even though you lost the weight drastically reducing calories and eating 75% fat, will you be satisfied eating like that forever?
My point is, extreme measures are rarely sustainable. We need to adopt new habits that are sustainable AND, dare I say, even fun. How could you make the journey of improving your health more enjoyable for yourself? Do you need to talk nicer to yourself, find a community, unload some expectations, stop slaughtering yourself in your workout or perhaps eat some damn carbs once in awhile?
Focus on Today NOT Someday
It doesn’t matter what your long term health goals are; if you want to lose 50 pounds, run a marathon or race your kids to the bottom of the ski hill (and live to tell about). What matters MOST is the behaviors you are committed to engaging with TODAY to make that outcome possible.
Too often I see women hyper-focusing on huge health goals they have for themselves to the point that they feel overwhelmed and deflated because reaching that goal feels like such a long way out from where they are.
Focusing on being successful with your healthier habits TODAY is tangible and far easier to claim a victory with. And once you start stacking many of those days together, you will find yourself a heck of a lot closer to your ultimate goal.
And something else to consider here….
Personally, I don’t have a health goal right now. I am just simply committed to the direction of living a healthy life because I deeply believe that is what my mind, body and soul deserve. When I stray from the path or life starts to consume me, I just simply remind myself of the direction I intended to go, and get back to the actions that will reroute me there. I find committing to a direction (which I learned from The Minimalists) rather than a specific goal has helped me to remove overwhelm from my process and allowed me to enjoy the journey a heck of a lot more.
If you enjoyed this article and you would like even more advice on how to make habits stick, you can download my 7 Steps to Creating Habits That Stick by clicking HERE.
IT IS TIME,
you incredible human.
Time to make MIDLIFE Magic.
Grab your MIDLIFE Magic Quickstart Guide, a handpicked collection of Grace & Grit Podcast episodes that will help you learn the tools to rock your second act.