I’ve made resolutions for the new year for 3 or 4 years running now, not only tracking them throughout the year, but even checking in on them publicly at year’s end and admitting how [poorly] I did. I have, in years past, tried to make my goals projects or tasks that can be checked off and accomplished during the year, but there always seems to be one or two that are really aspirations more than projects.
I have an aspiration for this year, a theme: Get my groove back. I wish could come up with one word for it, but I can’t find it. Let me know if you do.
But, to achieve this goal, this aspiration, I am resorting to baby steps and habit-building rather than a big life overhaul. I want these little but vital changes to be made and to stick.
A Habit-Building Project to Reach My Goals
Goal – the result or achievement toward which effort is directed.
Clearly, I have a goal: Act more deliberately and orderly. Be more kind and cheerful. Manage and optimize my health and energy level.
Project – a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.
The good news is that this project involves only considerable attention, stamina, and self-discipline rather than money, personnel, and equipment. Wait. Why is that good news?
Habit – an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.
Almost involuntary. Automatic. I am aiming at making several key behaviors automatic rather than requiring will and decision-making. To just get out of bed without thinking about it instead of debating and arguing internally. To always have water nearby that I’m sipping. To get things onto my lists and calendars right away instead of “later,” when I won’t remember.
Whether habits are planned and created conscientiously, or allowed to be haphazardly filled in by chance, they are habits all the same. Habit rules ninety-nine percent of everything we do. – Charlotte Mason
Truths about Habits
A Habit is a Practice
And practice makes perfect. Practice means you’re working toward becoming good at this thing. It means you don’t expect yourself to get it right the first time or every time. Deliberate practice is work, but it bestows excellence after consistent, persistent application.
But really, consistency is merely a habit, and a habit is formed by exercising the will; it calls for a decision, repeated over and over again, and begins one step at a time.
And deliberate practice grows our own capacity, as well.
That which we persist in doing becomes easier — not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do it has increased. — Emerson
Creating a Habit Requires Effort
Everything is difficult before it is easy. — Goethe
It takes time and attention and effort to wear a groove down into the path you want to follow. The longer you wear that same groove down, the easier it is to stay in it and not wander off.
It takes a few weeks of work to build a new habit. Once the habit is in place, it must be guarded diligently to prevent a reversion to the old ways, but keeping watch is not stressful or difficult once the new habit is secure. — Charlotte Mason
Here are two practices to make building a habit easier:
Tie Your Habit to Something Secure
Attach your new habits to a trigger. You already have habits. Hook your new habits to current habits to help you remember them and to help them become your default more readily and smoothly. Don’t try to completely remake your life from scratch. Rather, add few small changes to your current routine. Drink a glass of water before each meal (the meal is the trigger to drink water); sort your mail as soon as you bring it in (getting the mail is the trigger to dealing with it); take your vitamins when you give your children theirs (getting out the vitamins triggers your own vitamin reminder); check your calendar and to do list while you eat breakfast (eating breakfast is the trigger to look over your day). Whatever new habit you want to establish, pin it to something that already happens routinely every day.
Don’t Exhaust Yourself
Forging new habits requires willpower, and willpower works like a muscle. It is exhausting to exercise and needs rest after exertion. It will give out if you attempt to overwork it (by taking on too many changes at once). But, it will also grow in capacity as you exercise it. Making positive changes is something that will become easier with practice, even if it wears you out at first. You might start with small baby step changes to begin with (like walking around the block), but if you persist and stretch yourself consistently, before you know it you’ll be able to tackle big and momentous changes (like running a 5K). Don’t lose heart and be discouraged in the day of small beginnings.
Take it 1-3 habits at a time, for 4-6 weeks. Focus on a small number of small habit changes for a full 4-6 weeks. You will be more likely to integrate them into your life if you persist and focus with a laser focus, not a scattershot approach. Decision-making is fatiguing, and making the effort of choosing your new habit is more likely to happen if you keep the number of decisions and choices you’re working on small and few. The small and few will add up, and your skill at focusing and integrating habits will grow with practice.
Use Intrinsic and not Extrinsic Motivation
Don’t use chocolate as a reward for dieting. Better to motivate yourself with natural consequences (“When I lose 10 pounds I’ll need a new pair of jeans!”) or with a sense of identity (“I am deliberate. I am orderly. I am not a slob, so I shouldn’t act like one.”). Don’t set up elaborate sticker charts for yourself or create score cards. Rather, visualize the end you are traveling toward to keep up the motivation. Who really cares about stickers? Imagining and visualizing the end you are working toward is working with something related and inherently motivating.
For more about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, read my series Motivating Without Stickers.