This will be an elephant-sized post, but bear with me – I hope to give you plenty of useful ideas by the end of it.
At the start of every year, millions if not billions of people make lists of things they want to change so that their lives would be better, and promise themselves they will stick to those changes. Within a week, most of those people have broken their promise. Before the month is out, almost everybody does. If you have managed to keep your resolution till the end of the year, congratulations – and why are you even reading this? Maybe let people know how you did it!
Two basic types of resolutions are:
1) developing new habits (exercise, relaxation, meditation, communication skills, any desired and productive action)
2) getting rid of old habits (destructive or unhealthy habits such as smoking, overeating, alcohol or any other addiction; any activity that we spend too much time on; unhealthy communication habits and similar)
Many people would say that it’s only the matter of persistence and strength of will to stick to those decisions. I think the situation is much more complex than that! Do you know people who criticize others for not being able to lose weight, for example, but in the same time they are not able to stop smoking, playing video games, watching TV or internet porn, feeding their cat or just about anything else? Some people are even addicted to communicating to other people. Everybody has at least some sort of unwanted habit that is difficult to reduce or give up. So let’s explore some factors that might feed your unhealthy habits:
1) Difficult emotions. A huge number of people resort to their old addictions in times of emotional stress. Addictions are commonly used to distract us from emotions: fear, guilt, sadness, anger, shame, feeling inadequate… Many of those emotions – as well as the addictions that help suppressing them – are created in childhood or adolescence. When we work with addictions, we first focus on finding and resolving those emotions, and finding ways to replace them with more comforting ones. This often greatly reduces chronic stress.
2) Sometimes addictions are used to artificially create or enhance pleasant emotions. Heroin addicts might say that they feel deeply loved when they are under influence of heroin. Alcohol addicts might crave cheerfulness and social openness that alcohol evokes in them. In that case, it’s useful to explore what can you do to encourage desired emotional states in healthier ways – and if there are any emotional obstacles to that.
3) Biological instincts. Anger, laziness and overeating are some examples of (partly) biologically motivated behavior. Our bodies are stuck in Stone Age and want us to fight for power, eat at least a bit more than we need and conserve energy whenever we can (sometimes at the expense of others). Individual genetic differences can make some of those urges stronger in some people than others.
4) Metabolic differences. People react differently to each addictive substance. Some people will just shrug alcohol or certain drugs off, while others’ brains react with instant intense craving. Some people can eat a few spoonfuls of a desert and leave the rest on the plate, while others’ palates sense sugar and immediately ring bells for food frenzy. It’s not just about willpower – our metabolic responses are different from person to person.
5) Neurological differences. Perhaps you are more sensitive to stress, for example, or your brain is more easily distracted, or you are an extroverted person who wants to learn an introverted habit?… Biological diversity is huge, and Mother Nature is known to be experiment-prone. Some results of such genetic experiments can be quite subtle, but enough to encourage an unwanted habit.
6) Social pressure. Perhaps smoking or coffee are your way to initiate communication with other people? Or will your circle of friends mock you if you want to live a healthier lifestyle? Perhaps you are a part of a group that shares an unhealthy habit? In such cases, giving up a habit might mean losing important connections with people. Young men are in bigger danger in this context, because neglecting one’s own body is often considered “masculine” in some inarticulate circles.
7) Bonds to other people. Similar to previous entry, but less conscious, subtler and more instinctive. Such bonds are usually created in our early families. Did your parents smoke? For you, it might become an unconscious way to either feel closer to them, or to tap into their perceived power, or to imitate their ways of coping with stress. In the mind of a small child, the parents’ way is the right way. A part of you might still be unconsciously afraid to let go of such a bond.
8) Neurological paths created by repetition. Any behavior we repeat – even patterns of thinking and feeling, let alone physical behavior – encourages the brain to strengthen the connections between the neurological circles responsible. If we repeat certain behaviors for years, such neurological paths are so strong that we fall into such behavior without thinking, almost like robots. This can only be changed by persistently defying such urges and practicing new habits.
9) Big industries. For decades now, food industry is dedicated to creating foods that will trigger addictions and addictive behavior. This includes many products labeled as healthy and natural. It’s often difficult to avoid all of those products – and any of those can send you spiraling back into addiction. Same goes for alcohol and tobacco manufacturers – and many other industries are doing their best to induce automated responses and exploit your physiological and psychological mechanisms.
10) Resistance to change. Some people fear change – for example, fear attention, or success, or envy of other people. Others are just so used to a certain image of themselves, that they might unconsciously strive to preserve it. One way to prepare for a change might be to imagine it often enough.
So when you are trying to change a habit, you are probably fighting all of those factors, as well as some I might not have mentioned. Decisions and willpower are not enough! You need to be well prepared. First, explore the emotional background and do whatever you can to heal it. Then, choose the advice from the following list that works best for you.
I’ve divided the suggestions into 3 groups: general advice; ideas how to resist unhealthy urges; ideas how to motivate yourself to stick to a new habit. You might find that one day you respond well to one of them, while other days some other of these ideas might be more motivating. I suggest to create a little reminder for yourself with the ideas you like most. Read it often, perhaps print it and keep it in your pocket, as unhealthy urges can be intense and distracting and you might find yourself forgetting these ideas in spite of your best intentions, if you don’t have a written reminder handy.
Let’s dive in!
A) General suggestions:
1. Make the goal reasonable in the long term. Don’t expect yourself to run 5 km the first day, or to lose 1 kg a week (or even half a kg a week), or to stop using social networks altogether. Consider what would be your “maintenance” habits; what can you imagine doing for the rest of your life? Create an exercise or diet plan that you can stick to for years without too much stress; plan to use social media or play video games for about an hour in the evening, instead of starting in the morning and continuing during the day.
2. List all the ways, big or small, achieving your goal will make your life better. List physical, social, emotional, financial and any other benefit you can think of. As often as possible, spend some time imagining each of these benefits.
3. List all the unwanted consequences of not achieving your goal, as above. Spend some time reflecting on them.
4. Prepare for temptation and crisis moments. Do you expect to be stressed at a certain day? Sometimes just mentally preparing ourselves for predictable stress can prevent feeling overwhelmed and falling back to old stress-reducing habits. Sometimes we fall back to old habits just because we don’t have a ready idea what else to do. Make a list of what can you do to relax if a day is particularly stressful, especially if unexpected stress happens. Maybe you can call a friend and complain your heart out (first make sure that the friend wants to listen!) Maybe you can put on some music that makes you feel good and perhaps dance to it. Maybe you can plan to make a soothing tea (I recently discovered I like tea with a little milk much better than plain tea) or fruit juice (freshly squeezed, not those chemical cocktails they sell as fruit juice in supermarkets) instead of cookies or cigarettes.
5. Notice when your brain starts making excuses. “Just a bit more today, and tomorrow I stop!” or “Just a little bit, it won’t hurt me so much!” “It says low-carb on the label, it means it’s allowed!”… Make a list of excuses you commonly use and learn to be aware that it’s your brain playing tricks on you. Your brain will make excuses. It’s an excuse-making machine. Your brain works in silence, creating more and more excuses to mess up with your brain. Be smarter than your brain.
6. When you feel tempted to cheat, remind yourself that the future is an endless stream of todays. If you give in to temptation today, you will likely give in tomorrow, too. You will probably be tempted to decide something like, “This little bit doesn’t count”. It’s like saying, “These few seconds of putting my head into the jaws of a crocodile do not count.” It catches up with you sooner or later.
7. Perhaps schedule “cheating days”, let’s say a day a week when you are allowed to relax a bit. Note: this does not apply if you are trying to give up an addictive habit! Even if your habit is not addictive, be careful with this advice; do not allow the cheating day to undo the benefits of your previous efforts.
8. Pretend that your life, or something you really want, depends of your next decision. Many times this is true, but it’s so far away in the future that our now-focused brain just isn’t motivated enough. Imagine as intensely as you can that what you do right now is detrimental for your happiness.
9. Don’t fight frustration. Don’t think you shouldn’t feel it. Acknowledge it, but don’t identify with it. Remind yourself that frustration means the desired change is in process. Frustration is your body trying to go back to the old automatism.
10. Find role models – at least one, preferably several, people, who already act the way you want to act. Imagine their point of view: what motivates them, how do they think and feel in this context, how do they resist temptation. Perhaps you can ask them directly about it, but it’s not necessary if your imagination is good enough. Even a cat can be a good role model if your goal is to learn to relax (or to ignore other people’s opinions).
11. Ask a spiritual entity of your choice for help. Even if you are not overly spiritual, this might help you tap into subconscious resources you don’t normally use.
12. Think about how your life will be different in 10-20 years if you keep your resolution, and how will it look like in the same time frame if you go back to old habits. A bigger picture can often make the consequences much more obvious than short-term perspective.
13. An useful mantra is: “I choose long-term happiness over short-term fun.”
14. If you can, spend some time after you wake up relaxing in bed and building up your motivation to keep your resolution in the day that follows. Motivation likes to dissipate over time, it’s important to renew it regularly.
15. If you fail, start again. Everybody fails at some point. That doesn’t have to determine the rest of your life.
16. Find motivating books or articles and read them often. Make a little compilation of your favorite paragraphs and use them to motivate yourself.
17. Think about your present efforts as a favor to your future self.
18. Think about what would be your advice if a friend was in a similar situation as you are. Imagine friends encouraging you – or ask for direct encouragement.
19. Make your goal into a sequence of small goals. Reward yourself when you achieve each of them. Make sure that the reward is not something that undermines your efforts.
20. Include your goal-focused activities in your daily schedule. If you don’t, you might find yourself doing all kinds of other things until you are too tired or it’s too late – and then it’s much easier to fall back to old habits. Prevent this by good planning.
21. Keep a diary of your efforts. Sometimes the embarrassment of writing down a failure can be motivating enough to prevent that failure.
B) Resolving unwanted habits
22. Addictive behavior is often automated – people find themselves, for example, reaching for a cigarette without even consciously thinking about it. If you notice automated behavior, freeze in place. Make a pause. Breathe deeply. Feel your feelings and thoughts. Remind yourself of all these ways to motivate yourself. Distract yourself from the addictive urges in any way you can think of. It is important to break the automatic sequence of behavior.
23. Mentally associate your object of addiction or addictive behavior with very unpleasant things. This is what those photos of cancerous lungs on cigarette packages are trying to achieve. If you are addicted to sweets, immediately after looking at sweets, imagine fat, disease, weakness, discomfort in tight clothes… whatever feels repulsive to you. If you crave sweets, but find cigarettes disgusting, imagine a cookie as if it was a sweet cigarette. And the other way around. The goal is to achieve the state in which seeing or thinking of the object of your addiction is immediately followed by a repulsive image. If you make unpleasant associations strong enough to counter pleasant expectations, it will be much easier to resist temptation. You can even think of completely unrelated disgusting things – roadkill, manure, vomit… – anything that causes revulsion.
24. Think about what feelings do you hope to achieve through unwanted behavior. Imagine that you already feel that way. Perhaps create a little visualization or fantasy that helps you feel relaxed, loved, safe, acceptable – or whatever your toxic habit artificially provided. Make the feelings as strong as you can.
25. Remind yourself that your craving gives you a false hope of feeling good. Do you really feel as good as expected when you give in to craving? It’s often only a shadow of the feeling you really hope for.
26. Make a list of other activities that make you feel good and plan some time for them each day. If you already feel happy, you will have less reason to resort to addictive substances to make you feel good.
27. Remind yourself that giving in to craving doesn’t mean that craving would go away – it would probably become even stronger.
28. Consider that if you give in to craving, the relief will be short-term – but the unpleasant consequences will last much longer.
29. Remind yourself of withdrawal symptoms you would have to suffer all over again if you give in to temptation.
30. Remind yourself that your body is still in Stone Age and its cravings are not necessarily healthy. Many people give in to cravings because they think: “If my body needs this so much, it cannot be that bad!” It is that bad. Your body did not evolve to respond adequately to all the challenges of modern civilization.
31. Focus on your body. Notice the parts of your body where you feel craving – and notice also the parts of your body that feel better when you act in healthy ways, the parts that “want” to be clean and healthy. Focus at the latter rather than the former.
32. Remove all the triggers in your environment that remind you of the habit you want to stop. Put all the food in cabinets or fridge, out of sight. Throw cigarettes away. Avoid even looking at commercials. Ask friends and family to stop offering you such things.
33. Find healthier substitutes. If your addiction includes ingesting something – processed food, alcohol, cigarettes – try carbonated water (unsweetened – perhaps with some fresh fruit juice) or chewing gum, for example. Some people find that electronic cigarettes can help with reducing cigarette addiction. Of course, you’ll need to give up that habit eventually, too.
34. Think about how happy and proud of yourself you will feel tomorrow if you resist temptation today.
35. Or, think about regret and unpleasant feeling of toxic residue next morning, if you give in to temptation today.
36. If you feel you have to give in to craving, postpone it for 15 mins. After that, another 15 mins. And so on, as long as you possibly can. The idea of 15 mins is easier to agree to than the idea of an eternity without your addictive substance of choice. Perhaps you’ll even find out that the craving subsides after that time. If not, at least you will probably end up “straying” less often than you normally would.
37. Imagine that you’ve already ingested your addictive substance and you don’t feel the need any more. Even better, imagine that you ingested so much it already makes you feel sick. The better your imagination, the better your results.
38. If you have a child, or plan to, consider what role model do you want to be. Many people are more motivated by their children’s benefit than their own. If you are a woman, you might imagine for a moment that you are pregnant. If you wouldn’t want to harm your unborn child with addictive substances, would you want to harm your own body?
39. Some people feel compelled to eat up any food remains so that they wouldn’t be thrown away (another instinct from Stone Age). Tell yourself, “My body is not a garbage bag!” Freeze extra food or donate it.
C) Developing desired habits
40. Prepare everything necessary to start (for example, exercising, writing, learning a language), but without an obligation to start immediately. Once everything is ready, your brain will probably find it easier to start.
41. Make just a little effort, without commitment to continue for a long time. One exercise, a few sentences… often after the initial resistance is overcome, we can relax into the activity we started and continue for quite a while longer than we expected.
42. Remember how you feel about activities you like and imagine to spread that enthusiasm and enjoyment into the new activity you are currently practicing. Even a little enthusiasm is better than nothing.
43. Consider that everything you do today, means less work tomorrow.
44. If you are motivated by deadlines, imagine that you have a deadline – and it’s awfully close. If you want to develop a habit of cleaning your house, imagine that you have guests coming over in a few hours, for example. (Speaking from experience here!)
45. Imagine the pleasure of a job well done.
46. Make a conscious effort to develop a pleasant feeling inside while you are working on a new habit. This way, it can be associated with a good feeling rather than frustration or boredom.
47. Note any discomfort or resistance. Consider that it’s probably exaggerated.
48. Note that relaxation and fun is not so relaxing and fun if there is work waiting for you. Use relaxing activities as a reward for a job well done – and then you can enjoy them much more.
49. Don’t expect to be perfect from the start in your new activity. People often procrastinate if they are afraid of failure. Give yourself a permission to make mistakes.
And finally, 50 – my favourite strategy I developed when working with a client. Make a commitment to donate certain amount of money every time you stray from your decisions. It has to be on top of what you might be already donating. It has to be giving money away, not saving it for something else. This is great way to develop awareness of how every action counts and has real consequences (as our brains’ favourite excuse is often “just a bit, it won’t count!”) It makes you more aware of the pull of temptation and what excuses your brain creates. It’s a way to get you focused on the wider picture and the sum of all of your decisions. Try it out for fun – you might find it so efficient you might want to keep it up for life! A word of caution, though – it might only work well if you are generally responsible and well organized with money. If you tend to let money seep through your fingers, this method might end up as just another drain. Perhaps find another part of life in which you are responsible and rational, and apply it in a similar manner to your bad habits.
Here we are. You might need to experiment a while to find out what works best for you. Sometimes the suggestions that felt flat yesterday will feel spot on today. Read your reminder often – but don’t allow it to become a mindless routine. Knowing doesn’t automatically mean applying that knowledge! Everything we repeat often, becomes a routine, so when reading your reminder over and over again, put some conscious effort to get emotionally involved into it. Good luck!