Happy New Year!
It has now been precisely one year since last February 1. Right about now, almost everyone who made a New Year’s Resolution has given up on it.
There are two types of New Year’s scoffers: the cynics and the self-disappointers. The latter category punish themselves for the terrible crime of not being aware of the latest advances in habit change research. Cynicism, well, that is its own punishment.
Look, habit change is hard. Part of why it’s hard is that we don’t have many role models for people who have done it. If my problem is nail-biting, talking to a friend who quit smoking may or may not help me quit biting my nails. Worse, if I tell anyone at all about my plans, I’m just as likely to be mocked or lectured by naysayers as I am to get any encouragement or support.
I’ve survived every day of my life up until now. Whatever I’ve done, it’s worked. I’m still alive. Whatever bad or good habits I have, whatever good or bad habits I haven’t yet adopted, doing one of them once probably wouldn’t give me enough information for a permanent sale. Flossing is the best example of this. I could never fool my dental hygienist by flossing only a night or two before my appointment. Once I started flossing regularly, I couldn’t stop. Rather than feeling annoying and painful to do for one night, it feels gross to skip a night. Like most beneficial habits, it takes only a couple of minutes. I can use this one successful habit change, one that has become a welcome part of my life, to remind myself that every time I’ve tested a new positive habit, I’ve loved it. I’ve always wished I had started sooner.
Self-compassion is the key to habit change. I’m doing this for myself, because I know it will make my life better. I know Future Self will be better off if I do this now. If I don’t do this now, Future Self will be disappointed and will wish she could go back in time to tell me off. I’m taking care of myself. I also treat myself compassionately as I fumble along the path to creating the new habit. It can’t be done in a perfect streak right from the start. I didn’t learn to stand up without falling on my diaper, I didn’t learn to tie my shoes without them coming undone regularly for 35 years, and I didn’t learn to talk without mispronouncing a lot of words. Why I should I treat myself any less patiently than I would treat a little child learning to eat with a spoon? I should be as kind to myself as I would be toward anyone else. It is this self-compassion that teaches us to be more compassionate toward others, as we finally realize that what is hard for us is hard for everyone.
New habits take an average of 66 days to form. That means that if you’ve so much as had the thought cross your mind of developing a new habit in January, you’re still totally on track. If you’ve made the tiniest motion toward researching the habit, such as thinking about what time of day you will do it, you’re doing great. If you’ve acted on the desired new habit even once, you’re acing it. If you haven’t done as much as you would have liked, how is quitting going to help? There are still 11 months left of 2016, and that’s plenty of time. Do it once a month in winter, a couple of times a month through spring, once a week in summer, twice a week in the fall, and by the next holiday season, you could be doing whatever it is three times a week. At that point, it’s starting to sound like a real habit, isn’t it?
Let’s do some examples:
I had the goal of learning to drive. I applied for learner’s permits three times, and the first two expired. I took the driving test three times, and the first two times, I failed. I applied for the first permit when I was 18, and got the license at age 29. Now I’ve been driving for over a decade and I’ve never had a traffic citation. I use this as an example because most people I have met learned to drive as teenagers, the minute they were old enough. Driving was the hardest thing I ever did, and if it was fairly easy for you, then you can do anything I can!
I had issues with my weight. I used to make vague resolutions like “drink more water” and then fail at them year after year. Now I’ve been at my goal weight for two years, and I feel strong and energetic. I first joined a gym at age 24. I have used and quit using five different gyms, and most of my adult life, I haven’t gone at all. I gained and lost and gained and lost the same 15 pounds at least 6 times, not understanding why it happened or what factors made a difference, or realizing that I was still overweight at my lightest. I finally made the decision to get educated and take any actions necessary. At age 39, 15 years after that first gym membership, I finally got where I wanted to be. (None of it actually happened in a gym, as it turns out). I love it about 10x more than I ever imagined I would.
The thing about habit change is that it’s a life change. Sometimes it winds up changing your actual personality. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hating on ourselves for not being perfect, for not nailing it on the first try, for not getting an A+. Perfection is the opposite of change. You know two creatures that haven’t evolved in millions of years? The shark and the cockroach. Perfection.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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