When you try and fail to start a new habit — say, going to the gym after work four days a week — it’s tempting to beat yourself up for your inability to commit.
You’re lazy, you’re stupid, you’ve got no willpower — we know. But the self-deprecation isn’t very productive.
Instead, it’s helpful to do a little troubleshooting by taking a step back from the situation.
Rather than fixating on everything that’s seemingly wrong with you, think about a time in the past when you successfully changed your behaviour and ask yourself: What was different then from now?
That’s according to Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.” Rubin recently spoke to psychologist Ron Friedman at the Peak Work Performance Summit about the process of habit formation.
During the talk, Rubin emphasised that, when it comes to starting new habits, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. You’ve got to find a plan that works for you personally.
Reflecting on a time when you successfully changed your behaviour in the past will help you figure out how to do that.
Rubin gave an example of a friend who used to work out regularly when she was on the track team in high school, but finds it difficult to make time for exercise now that she’s on her own.
What was different then from now? Then, the friend had external expectations to meet — presumably, she had to show up to practices or else she’d get kicked off the team. Now, she’s her own coach.
“Her own inner expectation wasn’t enough to get her to follow through,” Rubin said.
“Those are the people for whom accountability is so important,” Rubin added. Accountability might come in the form of having a running buddy or signing up for a class that requires attendance.
Here’s Rubin again:
“A lot of times we get discouraged about our habits because we think, ‘Oh, I tried this and I failed. I keep trying to get myself to go the gym and I don’t succeed. So I have no self control, I have no willpower. What’s wrong with me?’
“Whereas in fact if you set it up in a way that’s right for you, you’re going to have much better success.”
Other people with the goal of going to the gym regularly might find something different when they examine their past successes. For example, maybe they only exercised daily after their doctor told them it would help prevent potential cardiovascular problems.
In this case, the difference between then and now is that then, they had a concrete reason to stay fit. So it might help them to do some research on the benefits of regular exercise.
Ultimately, whether your goal is to start a habit of hitting the gym or getting to work earlier, you’ll want to get introspective and figure out what worked for you — with any habit — in the past. Then go ahead and change your present circumstances accordingly.
It might sound simple, but oftentimes we get so caught up in frustration and discouragement that we overlook straightforward strategies like this one.
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