Small Steps Make a Big Difference

So many people bite off more than can chew when it comes to habit changes. They know the big goal they want to accomplish but it is too big, too overwhelming and they never start or stop too soon to see the change happen. Don’t be that person. Just start small and keep going.

9 Steps to Starting Something New: Making Change Happen

Ready for spring and something new? It’s time to change! Let go of old habits no longer serving you and create new habits to move your life toward the goals you want today.

As spring equinox takes us by storm this week and ushers in the season of new beginnings, I thought it fitting to talk about creating new beginnings for ourselves. In many spiritual traditions, this is the season where rituals focus on creating something new in one’s life. In many practices this is the time of renewal, rebirth, and new growth following a time of reflection and rest. 

As we move toward the culmination of the reflection period we emerge from a period of challenge to slingshot into something new and better. We have faced our demons and recommitted to our journey to become the best version of ourselves. These concepts are observed in religious traditions (lent, fasting, giving up), fairy tales (the quest), philosophy (the hero’s journey), and nature (winter). This week, where will you be challenging yourself and what will you be giving up in effort to spring forward into something new and better for yourself?

Change is hard. If it was not we’d be making a lot more changes in our lives on a more regular basis. However to build new habits we must be conscious that we want to change. We must reflect accurately on our lives and determine what is working and what is not working for us. We must be willing to observe our own patterns and challenge our own beliefs. This is not easy. It is hard to consider what I may be doing that is not helping me and it is hard to change a habit. According to Lally and Gardner (2013) “when designing behaviour change interventions, it is important to focus both on disrupting existing undesirable habits and developing new desirable habits” (p. 16). This means it is important to determine what you want to let go of and then figure out a way to disrupt it in your daily life. Then you must figure out what you do want and figure out a way to anchor it into your routine. 

Disrupting Old Habits

Let’s start with disrupting an old habit. Habits are different than goal directed behaviors. Whereas goal directed behavior happens with consciousness and effort, habits are behaviors that have become somewhat automatic in your life. You often do not think about them, they are just the way you go about doing things. 

For example, you come home from work and have a glass of wine everyday. For some they do not pay much attention to this habit it is just something they have been doing for a long time. The glass of wine is anchored to coming home from work. Another example is overeating. Often the person is not paying attention to how much they are actually eating. They overfill a plate or grab the full bag of chips and eat it while distracted by the TV. They reach for a soda or candy bar to give a quick burst of energy but do not notice that they did not really need the whole thing, they just finish it because it is there sitting on the desk or as a familiar option in the vending machine. Again, examination of the environment in which the behavior is done will reveal anchors and help disrupt the process of habit completion. 

As you disrupt the anchor part of the habit, what you are really doing is disrupting the environment. This is a key factor in changing behaviors. By disrupting the environment you change the way your anchors are engaging you in routine behaviors. This is a very effective way to break a habit. To start, track your habit. Behavior research shows us the power of tracking. Just the act of tracking a behavior can change it. Tracking brings awareness and opportunities to reflect upon what is working and what is not from an objective point of view. 

Ask yourself these questions as you track:

  • What is happening right before you do it? 
  • What happens right after? 
  • How do you feel when you want to do it? 
  • How do you feel when you are in process of doing it? 
  • What does it feel like when you have completed it? 
  • Who were you with? 
  • Who did you want to be with? 
  • Where were you? 

The answer to these questions offer examples of places you can make a change in your internal and external environments. For some, disruptions of the environment may look like taking another way home so you do not pass the liquor store or bar you like to hang with your friends. It could be finding new places to eat so you are not habitually ordering the same thing off the menu. Or it could look like changing communities or homes. 

Creating New Habits

On the other hand once we take away an old habit we need to replace it with something else. We call this a redirection or attention shift. It helps us maneuver change by giving us something else to focus on. As you consider the answers to the questions above you begin to see places you can change your environment, now look at them to see what else would work in those instances. For example, you might find that coming home from work to a glass of wine is about connecting to your partner and slowing down. Can you create a ritual that helps you meet those two needs without the wine involved? Of course you can, it just takes time and repetition. 

Building new habits is about consciously changing our behaviors and then repeating them so we build the neuro-pathways for the new behavior. This can be difficult as we often have habits paired with anchors as noted above. When the anchor behavior happens we automatically do the routine habit. We might forget to do the new habit and feel defeated as a result so we give up easily. However the more we go through the process of deciding to change and working to change, even when we fail, we are shifting our neural structures toward our goals. There are two ways we can help ourselves remember to complete the new habit: 1) create an action plan and 2) create a coping plan. 

In the action plan walk yourself through the new habit, the corresponding behavior anchors, the feelings you will have as a result of successfully implementing the new habit, and visualize yourself completing it. It is as simple as writing out your new habit step by step. This creates a play by play plan to create the new habit in your life and obtain its automatic status in your routine. As part of the action plan create implementation intention. Research points to using if – then implementation intentions (Lally & Gardner, 2013) as a way to help guide you through the steps needed to complete the new habit in your routines. If X happens I will do Y. This gives you planning and options for dealing with real life situations. In the end, by creating an action plan you are helping yourself visualize and mentally walk through necessary steps to make your new habit a success. 

Coping plans offer a little more flexibility. They ask you to create a plan to deal with obstacles that are going to arise on your path to creating a new habit and breaking the old one. They offer the opportunity to think through difficult steps on the journey to creating new habits by reflecting on what could derail you. In the coping plan we often list all the obstacles we can think of and create options to get around them. Say you want to quit drinking but are not sure how to handle social situations. We would review possible scenarios and come up with ideas and ways you can manage your behavior in them with success toward your goal. 

As in disrupting a habit by changing or redirecting the anchor behavior, you can use anchors to help you create new habits. A example is working out. The alarm goes off in the morning and the person gets up, changes into workout clothing, and puts on running shoes. They head out to run. Changing of clothing and putting on running shoes is anchored to the alarm going off and getting out of bed. When creating a new habit it is best to anchor the new habit to follow one that is solid in your routine. You do not want to be crafting 2 new habits. Using something you do everyday – like get out of bed, go to bed, go to the bathroom, eat meals, etc can be very helpful making the new one successful. 

Finally, you have to consider motivation. Motivation comes from inspiration. In the beginning we are all motivated for new habit formation. We get excited and make plans, offer ourselves rewards, and share our success and struggle, but a month in, 2 months in, a year into a long habit change and we often struggle to maintain motivation, which will kill a new habit faster than you can blink. The trick is to manage your inspiration. Everyday, look at your vision board, find interesting photos on Pinterest, youtube videos, or discuss your goals with friends. It is important to socialize your changes for accountability and to find intrinsic motivation to help you stay connected to the reasons you are working so hard to change. External rewards – prizes, new stuff, accolades – work for a bit, but if you do not find the internal pride, pleasure, and strength to stay on the path, your motivation will wane. Once it is gone so is the hard work of getting the change to happen. 

The down and dirty on change:

To disrupt a habit you want to break:

  1. Track and figure out your patterns and anchors
  2. Change your environment
  3. Find new ways to focus and shift your attention
  4. Replace the old habit with something new

To create a new habit:

  1. Create an action plan
  2. Create a coping plan
  3. Determine your why – why is this so important to you now
  4. Find daily inspiration to maintain motivation
  5. Anchor new behavior to an activity you are already doing regularly

References:

Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7:sup1, S137-S158. DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2011.603640

Same Sh** Different Day

Are you one of those that thinks – why does this keep happening to me?!??!? And how to make it stop …

Feeling like it’s the same shit different day? That’s a common theme for a lot of us. We feel like were in the same places over and over, meeting the same types of people, doing the same sorts of things – getting ourselves in the same sorts of trouble.

In reality we have to look at what our themes are. the story may change day to day but it often feels very similar.

We have to look at what the themes are before we will ever be able to shift our worldview and change our behavior to become the people we know we can be. To make ourselves great we have to be ready to look at what keeps happening repeatedly over and over in our lives. Then decide “who do I want to become”, “what am I willing to give up”, and “what am I willing to do differently”? Start with the slow small steps of change. Change one step at a time using those smart goals we talked about on Monday (missed it? Read it here). Tackle just the next step.

So today look at all of the different ways that you see the same sorts of patterns playing out your life. The same sorts of people, the same sorts of arguments, the same sorts of problems, the same sorts of disappointments, … even the same sorts of joys. Where do you find your greatest joy, your greatest strength, your greatest excitement? These are great places to help focus the direction you want to go while looking at all those negative aspects of self to change

Trade the life you were handed for the one you want … Time for Change.

If you find yourself in the same situations over and over, it may be time to drop the cultural lenses you were handed and take over authoring your life. Do not settle for the life you were handed, you can create the life you want in a few small steps. The hardest is always the first.

If you missed yesterday’s article on understanding why we find ourselves in repetitive patterns and how to break free from them. Read it here.

Change Up Your Workout

If you are plugging along with the same ole’ workout and still are working toward a particular goal it may be time to change it up. The body gets good at our overloads which means it becomes efficient. When this happens you are not working as hard and we tend to plateau. Many of us just get bored.

So maybe add intervals, change the days you workout, if you haven’t been strength training or doing cardio add it in, or maybe add more of it. Check the internet, magazines, or hire a trainer to get some fresh ideas and new exercises for your routine. Sometimes the small changes are the ones which keep you moving forward.

Be Happy, Lose Weight

How often do you think about being happy with your life and yourself and as a result you lose weight?

How often do you think about being happy with your life and yourself and as a result you lose weight? A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research makes the point that being happy can help us see the big picture. Participants were better able to think abstractly therefore enhancing their ability to reach their goals and stay motivated.

Laymen terms – if you are happy you will see beyond crisis right in front of you. You’ll be better able to hold the vision of your desired weight, running time, speed and the efforts it will take to get you to your desired point.

If you are happy you will be able to focus more effectively on what to do in the short term to reach the larger goal. A direct result of being able to hold the big picture of what you ultimately want in your mind when taking smaller steps toward completion of the goal.

You’ll train harder and maybe longer and definitely more consistently if you are focused. When you examine the contents of the fridge you are more likely to choose healthy options if you are happy than if you are looking for emotional comfort in your foods.

So start today and take steps to make yourself happy. Surround yourself with activities, things and people that make you happy to reach your fitness goals.

References:

Labroo, A. A., & Patrick, V. M.(2009). Psychological distancing: Why happiness helps you see the big picture [Abstract]. Journal of
Consumer Reserach, 35(5), 800-809.

Pawlik-Kienlen, L. (2009, March/April). Happy pictures on the fridge will help you lose weight. Spirituality & Health, 30.