Do you have a habit that you can’t change no matter what you have tried? For the last decade, I have worked as a teacher, coach, and consultant with companies. The subject of what drives and sustains change internally and socially fascinates me. I can say with absolute confidence that I know the steps to change a habit for good. These four tried and tested steps all start with the M word, Mindfulness.
Step 1: Mindfulness
What are habits? Habits are behaviors that become automatic because they have been performed frequently in the past. This repetition or automaticity creates a mental association between the situation (cue) and action (behavior).
Automaticity is the opposite of mindfulness. Research suggests that 45% of our behaviors are repeated almost daily (1).
Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment. When mindfulness is present, we can see our thoughts, feelings, motivations, reactions, and responses with greater clarity and wisdom. We can pause before reacting and choose the appropriate response for the moment we are in.
Step 2: Train your mind, change your behavior
Before we can change our behavior, we have to get to know our brains a bit better. We can map out an unpleasant experience in this four-step process:
Situation- Thought- Feeling- Behavior
Situation – I have a meeting.
Thought – “I don’t like this meeting.”
Feeling – anger, frustration, anxiety
Behavior – I go to the meeting, but feel agitated and checked out the whole time. I go to the vending machine right after the meeting and get a sugary fatty snack food. Now, I have a habit.
In my work with organizations, I hear the above example over and over. We distract from the unpleasant feelings by reactively choosing something more pleasant. This quick fix is ultimately not rewarding, but we keep choosing it automatically. With mindfulness and seeing our habit clearly, we have the power to change it.
Step 3: Implement a NEW rewarding routine
Situation – I have a meeting.
Thought – “I don’t like this meeting, but I know it is important for me to be there.”
Feeling – ease, contentment
Behavior – I go to the meeting with an attitude of receptivity. I also make a plan to go for a walk after the meeting as a reward.
We change our habits by changing our routine to a new rewarding one.
By looking closely at our thoughts and how this impacts our behavior, we can change our thoughts and also change our routine to something with a more long-term reward. We often remain in a cycle of unhealthy patterns because we believe that they are rewarding us. When we look closely, we see that many of our habits are NOT very rewarding. A walk is much more rewarding in the long-run than emotional eating.
Step 4: Create a compassionate action plan
Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion, has shown in her research that we often think we need to “beat ourselves into shape,” but the opposite is actually true. The research shows that when we have a critical thought, our nervous system goes into fight/flight/freeze and from this place we can only respond from our reptilian brain (we are in survival mode). From a place of fight/flight/freeze we are unable to see the bigger picture, be creative or compassionate toward the perceived stressor. Criticism makes us feel more anxious, more depressed, and more afraid of failure. However, compassion is the antidote to criticism and in my opinion the greatest motivator for change.
What negative or critical thought gets in the way of your creating this new routine?
- “I will never exercise.”
- “I don’t have the willpower.”
- “I don’t have enough time.”
- “I am not smart enough to get the promotion.”
Since we know that many of our thoughts are NOT true, change it around to something more empowering.
- “ I know that with consistent effort I can find time to exercise.”
- “ I had a difficult week and I still finished the project and got rave reviews.”
- “ I am highly intelligent and can do anything I set my mind to.”
Out of the critical or compassionate thoughts, which type encourages you to move forward? The compassionate thought.
Do you notice the difference? Once we can be compassionate in our thinking, we can figure out the next best step we can take. It is important to understand your readiness for change. For example, if you are in stage 3, preparation, you may still have some resistance to change because you are getting ready and will likely go into action within a month.
On your path to create change invite compassion and embrace and accept where you are. Only from a place of compassion will your efforts move into fruition. What is the next compassionate step you can make towards this change today?
- Wood, W., Quinn, J.M., & Kashy, D. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281–1297.