In having the opportunity to work alongside people who are trying to change habits, I have learned a thing or two. When we are modifying behaviors, it can be difficult to truly know whether we are on track. We can even convince ourselves that we have made strides into new territory, though, in reality, we largely remain in our familiar zones. Such self-deception and reluctance makes sense and is common. After all, what is familiar is comfortable, even if it is detrimental in some way. For example, when I teach clients a new technique, such as abdominal breathing, I always give homework. It is not all that unusual for people to come back and explain that they really didn’t need to review the instructions on the audio. They proudly report the discovery that they were already doing it the “right way” all along. But I have become skeptical when I hear that these days. It would be great if it were accurate. Unfortunately, a quick check typically reveals that they are indeed doing it the way they had always done it, but this is not the new habit we are trying to train. These clients understandably struggle to correctly gauge their progress and begin trekking into unfamiliar regions, and part of the process is helping them acquire these skills.
So, if those who have the support of counseling struggle in their efforts to change habits how can the rest of us work toward successful habit shifts? If self-assessment is difficult and our minds can trick us into remaining in the land of familiar, how can we overcome these initial obstacles, much less continue on our new route? Whether or not you want or are able to receive therapy to assist you, I would like to share three tips that will ensure you are on the path to success!
First, set markers for yourself. Markers help with the often confusing task of knowing you are on track, of self-assessment. For example, when I work with people on their breathing, I make sure they identify things that physically feel different when they effectively relax in my office. They may say their muscles are heavy or light or their mind is blank. I encourage them to use these signs for comparison to see if they are on track outside of the training environment. So when they are at home and they aren’t getting these sensations, they can know that they are not fully relaxed in the true and “new” sense of the term. Identifying how something in your body feels is powerful for forming new habits. Essentially, you have a valuable “thermometer” accessible to you at all times without having to rely on external feedback. Think about it. When is the last time you left the house without your body?
Second, visualize yourself carrying out your new habit. Visualization is potent. If practice makes perfect, visualization is its second cousin. When we visualize change, we are taking our mind and body through a rehearsal that has the effect of speeding up our success.
Third, anticipate road blocks. We have all had the experience of setting a goal with the best intentions, only to find our efforts thwarted quickly after we have set out on our new plan. Perhaps this is why we commonly hear the quote “the best laid plans.” So what if we could foresee these barriers and prepare ourselves to prevent them from hindering us or even completely derailing our goal? I have found that this foresight is not only possible, but it is essential for effective habit change. For instance, if we have vowed to eat healthy, we may think we are set. We even brought our organic, raw, vegetable-laden, super, wholesome, power food to work with us. However, we may quickly find our resolve fading when we pass by the Krispy Kreme doughnuts or giant bag of potato chips that a coworker brought in yet again, especially if the healthy food we brought with us is not food we actually enjoy. However, if we have planned for this situation, we may be able to buttress our still fragile willpower with our bag of sweet clementines or crunchy carrots (or whatever healthy foods we enjoy that also assuage our sweet tooth or desire for that crunch). Though we may have the craving, we arm ourselves ahead of time to help us face temptation.
I hope you try these steps with your next goal. I look forward to hearing about your efforts in the comments section below. Sharing in this way helps you get support from others, which is a powerful boost. Lastly, remember this adage, as it contains an important truth: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Trial and error can help you collect information about your challenges that you can use to revisit each step. Eventually, these steps will lead you into your new territory. Once you learn how to get there and stay there, it will become your new familiar land. Don’t be surprised if you find a rainbow!
Readers who are interested in learning more about the science behind applying mindfulness and self-awareness for habit change are invited to check out Dr. Klich’s website MyMindfulwayoflife.com