Note: This is the final post in a series of blogs I’ve been doing about adopting a more positive mindset. You can find the others in my list of blog posts.
I’ve written a lot this year about ways to develop a more positive mindset. But all of that only helps if you actually establish new habits.
And we all know that simply saying, “I’m going to do that!” doesn’t work.
Why is that? And what can you do that’s more effective when starting new habits?
Why it’s hard to form new habits
As Shawn Achor points out in The Happiness Advantage, “Common sense is not common action…. [The] action to follow through on what we know is often the hardest part.” (p. 145-146)
The truth of this is all around us. You’ve likely experience it for yourself when you know that doing X will be good for you in some way – and yet you don’t do it.
This could be changing your eating or activity habits… starting a meditation practice… looking for a new job… going to a social event… having an important but difficult conversation… cleaning the house… and more.
Some of these things might be less common, like job hunting. But even the ones that come up more often are easy to ignore.
One of the biggest problems is that most of us rely on willpower to make changes. Unfortunately, willpower is a limited resource, and it gets worn out on all kinds of daily tasks. So you might not have enough left over to make the new choices you want.
It also helps to remember that changing something in your life is almost always going to be harder than going with the status quo. Unfortunately this is true even if the status quo or easy option doesn’t make you as happy as the harder option. Inertia keeps us going down the familiar route.
3 ways to help new habits
The key to making these positive changes is to have them become habit. And to form a new habit, here are a few tips:
Make the old habit hard to do. One of the biggest reasons we stick with patterns that don’t serve us is because they’re easy. Doing something often enough for it to be a habit creates pathways in your brain, until it becomes like a well-worn trail. Continuing down that path is the easiest thing to do – unless you deliberately make it hard. Achor used the example of taking batteries out of his TV remote to help him watch less, but this can be applied a number of ways.
Make the new goal easy. It’s not enough to make the old habits hard – you also need to make the new ones as easy as possible. Anything new requires a certain amount of “activation energy.” As Achor writes: “In physics, activation energy is the spark needed to catalyze a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kick-start a positive habit.” (p. 156) The goal is therefore to require as little energy as possible to get started. This means planning for it and finding ways to bring it to your attention so it’s almost harder to ignore it than not do it.
Remove distractions. Another reason it’s hard to establish new habits is because it’s easy for us to be distracted. Even if you’re on your way to doing what you want, you might still get derailed if something pops up to distract you. It’s best to block those possibilities, at least in the early stages of forming a new habit, which often means changing things for your phone or computer.
How this relates to mindful eating
Since mindful eating is all about forming new habits, this ties in very closely.
You might find that you need to make it harder for yourself to get at certain snack foods that you eat mindlessly. You could try putting them in hard-to-open containers, or in cupboards, or you may decide simply to not have them in your house.
As for making new plans easy, you could prepare lunch for the next day the night before. Or do some food prep for your dinner ahead of time so it’s easy when you get home. You could also put notes to yourself on your fridge or cupboards to remind yourself to eat mindfully so you enjoy your food more. Or whatever works best.
In terms of distractions, a lot of them come from phones and computers these days. But you can turn off most notifications. Also, you could try not letting the computer save your login passwords for email, or to not automatically open to news or social media sites. The idea isn’t to make it impossible for you to access these things, but to make it difficult enough that you only do it when it’s important or what you really want.
How I’ve been using this
One new habit I’ve had to develop is around giving my cat medication. He gets probiotic mixed with his food in the morning, plus a pill for hyperthyroidism every morning and evening.
This was an adjustment for me, so when it started, I developed a new habit. At night, I put his food dish, a can of food, the probiotic, and the pills on the kitchen counter so they’ll be obvious in the morning. I do this at night when I’m more likely to remember it. This means I don’t have to look for anything or worry about forgetting when I get up – I just work with what’s there.
And similarly, when I’m getting my dinner ready, I put the cat pills on the table so I won’t forget the second dose.
In terms of exercise, if I plan on going out for a walk or doing weight-bearing exercises in the morning, I put out my clothes for that the night before. Again, this helps me because it means I don’t have to remember this or decide what to pull out when I’m still waking up.
For eating, I also keep an eye on my fruit bowl. I tend to keep most fruit in the fridge (barring bananas), but I don’t like to eat cold fruit. So when my fruit bowl is empty, or I eat the last thing, I take a few more pieces of fruit from the fridge to replenish the bowl. That way, the fruit is always available for snacking at room temperature, and because it’s visible, it’s easy to remember.
For distractions, I’ve turned off auto-play on Netflix and Hulu. This makes it more of an effort to watch the next episode. Not a big effort, admittedly, but more than just letting it keep playing. I’ve also been minimizing my email browser, so I don’t necessarily notice the instant I get new messages and can just check email when I’m ready to.
How about you? Do you have any other tips for creating new habits, or a new habit that you’ve formed recently? I’d love to hear about it!
Either way, I hope this helps you think about what can make new habits more successful.
I also hope the series on positivity has given you some ideas to apply. And personally, I find that spring is a great time to try something new, so maybe is the time for you to start something new, while the world around you is also opening to newness and growth.