We all long for self-improvement. Sometimes we have a dream: “I want to write a book.” “I want to run a marathon.” “I want to retire at 55.” Other times, something triggers a desire for change. We eat a big holiday meal, or step on the scale after a vacation, and think “That’s it! I’m losing 30 pounds!” Or we babysit our grandkids or help someone downsize and move to another state, and we realize “Wow! I’m really out of shape! I’m going to start exercising every day.”
There’s no reason to doubt our motivations. The problem with a new positive habit is not that we have no resolve. We really mean it when we decide in December to start going to the gym three times a week in the New Year. Our intentions are sincere. But you know what? Gyms are pretty empty by the end of February.
The problem for most of us isn’t starting a new habit. It’s maintaining one.
I remember learning to type, back in the “old days” when typing skills were valuable. I had class every day. We practiced various exercises to learn the keyboard and to increase speed and accuracy, and took timed tests at the end of every session. Eventually, after a lot of consistent work, I could type 85 words per minute with no errors.
And the same is true for any new habit. If we adopt it, and practice it regularly, and keep doing it for long enough, we’ll write that book or lose that weight or become a pretty decent piano player.
So why do we stop?
We don’t stop because of a lack of purpose or determination when we committed to the new habit. We stop because we think differently than we did then. Our emotions and motivations are tuned to the present situation, not to what happened several months ago. This made perfect sense for our ancestors. If a predator appeared, fear and action needed to happen right then, not a month later. And for us, after a huge holiday meal or a long day of physical labor that ends with an aching body, we may feel intense resolve to make a change.
But in February, after a long day at work, or a frustrating day with the kids, we feel different emotions. We don’t decide to quit, but we may feel that we deserve a break. We may think, “I’ve worked hard. I deserve a reward and some downtime. I’ll do an extra day next week.” We’re not deciding against our new beneficial habit, we’re simply choosing a well-earned rest. But after missing one day, it’s easier to miss two, and then more. And the habit dies.
You might think the trick to maintaining your habit is to think back to what got you started in the first place. But few of us can recreate December’s emotions on a February evening.
The secret is to prepare for February’s feelings in December.
Imagine the most disheartening day you can. The cat pukes on your new sofa, your car battery inexplicably dies, you’re overdrawn at the bank, you rip your favorite blouse, and your kids are sick, miserable, and complaining. Plus it’s windy and raining. (I sincerely hope I’m not describing any day you’ve actually lived through.)
When you start a new habit, think of the day I’ve just described. What would you be able to do on that day?
Let’s say you want to run a half-marathon. You should be running at least a 10K (approximately a quarter-marathon) three days per week. But what could you manage on that day? Maybe you should make your habit a run around the block. After that, you can run 6.5 miles if you want to, but you’re only required to run around the block in order to complete your habit.
Why? Because we can’t predict when that day will come, we only know that it will. And on that day, just run around the block. It still counts. You didn’t miss a day, so you won’t miss two days, and your new habit won’t die.
This advice applies when you begin any life-changing habit. Whether it’s writing every day, preparing a home-cooked meal every day, practicing your instrument, meditating, eating healthy, or anything else, choose a small specific behavior. How many words could you write on that day? Which simple meal could you prepare on that day? How many minutes could you meditate or play your violin? What is the threshold for healthy eating? Think about it, and start there.
After you’ve practiced your new habit for a while, you might discover from experience that you can run twice around the block on those terrible days, not just once. In that case, you may consciously choose to increase your baseline habit. Please notice that you have improved yourself through your efforts. You have become someone who can run around the block two times instead of one, even on a bad day, even when you’re tempted to give up. This is not an imaginary or trivial gain.
I know that emergencies happen. When my son had to be rushed to the hospital because he stopped breathing during an outpatient surgical procedure, I definitely felt all of the worry and concern that any parent would feel. But while I was waiting in the emergency room, after I had been told he had started breathing again and was under observation, and after I sent texts to my daughter, my sister, my best friend, and my mother-in-law letting them know what was going on, I opened the note-taking app on my phone and wrote one sentence for this blog. That’s my habit, and I was able to do it even during that anxious time.
Does that sound too little? That tiny habit allowed me to write and publish five books within the last year. My habit is one sentence, but I often write 1000 or more words. I frequently achieve beyond my expectations, and I don’t let my habit die during crappy circumstances.
Stop dreaming of the positive changes you want in your life and make them real! You have your whole life to grow from wherever you start.
About the Author: Karen Trefzger is a writer, singer, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother who has been choosing a simpler life for over 20 years. She is the author of Minimalism A to Z, and blogs at MaximumGratitudeMinimalStuff.