HABIT: a behavior that has been practiced consciously and consistently enough to become part of an unconscious pattern of behavior.

I suspect that many of us have recently made New Year’s resolutions to change or to improve something in our lives. Such intentions usually take one of two forms:

  • either we resolve to quit something such as smoking, snacking, working overtime and weekends, staying up too late, watching too much TV, procrastinating on jobs that need doing…the list can be quite long!
  • or we resolve to start doing something new or to improve on an already established habit such as diet, exercise, making time for friends, reading more books, taking up a hobby, or getting back to a hobby that has given you pleasure in the past.

Whatever your resolutions may be, they all have one thing in common: they all involve a desire and willingness to CHANGE.

Stage One:

This is the stage of initial inspiration fueled by enthusiasm and excitement at the possibility of accomplishing something new and different. It is a stage of Hope and Belief. This is where we need to identify quite concretely WHAT we want to change and exactly WHY. Here is where setting a well-defined goal is needed. Make it realistic! Many people set goals that are so far beyond anybody’s reach that they set themselves up for guaranteed failure. Be brutally honest with yourself. Many of us have ‘desires’ that we would like to have instantly delivered by some magical means. We would ‘like’ to have it but really don’t want to have to do anything for it. How badly do you really want this goal? Do you want it and value it enough to put some real personal energy into making it happen for you?

Once you have identified and visualized your goal and motivation, break the project down into smaller steps and stages. A mix of final and intermediate goals seems to work well in keeping people motivated. Make each step towards the final goal measurable. If you are giving up smoking, you could smoke one less cigarette a day until you get down to a certain number. This makes the behavioral change very visible. When you reach any interim goal, reward yourself with something meaningful. Believe it or not, rewarding success and compliance still highly motivates us human beings!

Stage Two:

This can be the most difficult one. At this stage you still have the ‘ghost of the past habit’ looming, ready to sneak in at any time of confusion, uncertainty or emotional stress. The new habit is still young and not fully established, so most of us have a tendency to fall back on the familiarity of the ‘old’ pattern. Here we have to continuously push ourselves and remind ourselves of the long-term (if not immediate) benefits to our happiness and overall well-being that this particular change of behavior will bring. We need to be convinced that we deserve the very Best! ‘I AM WORTH IT!’

This is also where we are vulnerable to saboteurs and distractions. Well-wishing friends will often tell you things like: “Oh, you look great! You don’t need to exercise SO much”; “Here, have some dessert. One piece of cake can’t hurt”; “You know you are always the first person to leave the office in the evening”; “Come on, it’s HOLIDAY!” Most often, these things are said with no malice at all. Yet whenever you change from the predictable pattern of ‘You’, it can threaten others by causing them to look critically at their own behavior patterns.

There is a wonderful folk tale from Africa that can inspire us here:

“An Ant found the carcass of an elephant. The Head Ant told him that he had to dispose of it by eating it! This seemed like an undoable and daunting task. He started out one bite at a time but he was overwhelmed at the enormity of the task! The ant began to despair. He took some time to think and eventually he called all his friends who were so very happy to help a friend in need! In no time the elephant carcass was consumed.”

Moral of the story? Enlist a support network of friends who can help remind you of the WHAT and the WHY and who can motivate you and encourage you when hurdles arise and motivation starts to falter!

At Stage One you are encouraged to reward yourself; at Stage Two you are encouraged NOT to punish yourself for any setbacks. Life happens. It is not so important that you fell off the bicycle; the important thing is that you get back on it. And that you are now aware of the potatoes that can possibly hurt you and interrupt your journey. Every misstep is an opportunity to learn more about yourself.

Stage Three:

Maintenance equals practice, practice, practice! The day that you wake up and think ‘of course, it goes without saying’ you realize that you have established a new pattern of behavior. You have changed the programming and now have a default setting. Rather than being seen as a good reason not to behave in a certain way, any ‘excuse’ now becomes an annoyance in itself! That is not to say the temptations won’t arise and relapses won’t happen. They will. But the desire to behave in a certain way has become ingrained in the psyche and the behavior has now become habitual. In other words, a consciously and consistently practiced behavior has now become an unconscious pattern of behavior. Once established, that New Habit needs to be paid attention to every day. But that’s what you’ll want to do anyway. Why? Because it makes you feel so good about yourself!