I’ve always been fascinated about how our minds work – how can I improve and become a better version of myself, what drives new behaviours, what makes them stick, etc…? This is a complex topic and I cannot claim to be an expert, but I wanted to combine my personal experience, tips and ideas that I have learnt from clients and colleagues that have helped me along the way.
My personal opinion is that building new habits is all about starting small. Building, testing, experimenting, and only later optimising. I look at creating habits as journeys.
I have compiled some of the most important lessons into a few guidelines below, that could help with starting and sticking to those New Year’s Resolutions (even midway through the year).
- When considering a new habit, start small
I ruptured a muscle while playing tennis a few years ago. The recuperation process was not a pleasurable experience, so I definitely did not want to tear any muscles again. I researched how I might do this, and the solution was to build elasticity within the muscles.
I stumbled across Roger Frampton’s book ‘The Flexible Body’, and loved his simple approach – 10 minutes a day to stretch like a gymnast. I started with 10 minutes a few times a week and made startling progress, so much so that now I can attend his classes, consisting of 2 hours of intense stretching and still manage to walk back home, rather than crawl in agony.
- Focus on consistency versus the time it takes, and anchor it to an existing habit
When I am delivering training, sometimes people ask me how long it takes to build new habits. My opinion is that whilst making the time is really important, it is the scarcest resource we have, so I think the focus should be on consistency and the results will take care of themselves at the right time.
Let me explain…I started meditating about 5 years ago. Initially, I thought it would be a good idea to meditate for a few hours straight. With my busy schedule, I did not find it sustainable. It was difficult to be present and I did not see the results I was looking for. I have encountered a similar pattern in many of my coaching sessions with clients since. We try to do too much, too fast, rather than taking a gradual, incremental approach.
Such unrealistic expectations that we put on ourselves create dissatisfaction. So, then I thought, OK I am not approaching this in the right manner, what is the minimum I can do to make this work? I started to meditate daily and tied it to something that was already vital and a part of my life, which was sleeping. So I began meditating daily for at least 15 minutes before I went to sleep. I then introduced 10 minutes when I woke up and am reaping the benefits.
At present, I meditate much more, but that is the bonus I’ve received because I created a habit that I could build on. I use an app called Calm but there are many other apps out there or courses that can help.
- Our brains like easy choices so make what is easy difficult
I’ve found the lockdown a really good time to focus on things that I’ve lost sight of, like creative writing. I looked at my time and decided to reduce or cut time which I did not find productive. Because all of my meetings, training time, working and focusing on a screen, I wanted to reduce the time I spent on social media. So, I made it difficult for me to login to the various apps, by signing out of my accounts and logging in more seldom. I used some of that time to finally create my own creative ‘funny writings’ blog, and I write about more serious topics, like this one, too.
Think about the habits you have, that you want to change by making them difficult, less accessible or less avoidable. Throughout this period of lockdown, whenever I want to exercise in the evening, I get dressed in my sport clothes in the early afternoon so that I find it difficult to find an excuse later to not do it. As I am already dressed, I’m somewhat mentally prepared – halfway there.
If you have a sweet tooth like I do, do not buy sweets and cakes so you do not have them in the house. My sweet tooth is a challenge for me and something of a work in progress – I’m still figuring this one out!!
- Factor in that starting new habits is not about being in the perfect mood
I think I learned this lesson from my father at an early age. I was telling him I did not feel like going to practice. “Do it anyway” was always his answer. I think this is probably the mature approach that we need to have when we build new habits. It is very difficult and time consuming to start to build any habit, but if we do things only when we are in the perfect mood for them they’ll rarely happen.
I think that is a utopia created by media or the society we live in, perpetuating a notion of ‘enjoy what you do all the time’. Of course, we should choose habits or results that give us joy or satisfaction, but that is a different topic. I love playing tennis and the continuous aspect of learning from it, but I think I would be playing very little and, most importantly, progressing very little, if I only played only when I felt in the perfect mood.
- Reward milestones and celebrate your successes
As humans I think we are really good at seeing the fault in things we do or aspects of our character, but we struggle to appreciate or praise ourselves for those things that go well.
When building habits, we do not see the rewards right away, especially if we need to refrain from doing things that we enjoy, like eating cake. For example, reward yourself for your consistency by logging your measurable progress. My mind is pretty analytical, I like structure, so I have an electronic calendar where I log the days I exercise; looking at that makes me happy.
A client told me once he has a folder in his emails where he keeps all the emails where people have praised him. When he has a bad day, he just looks at that and he feels better. I thought that was an amazing idea and I wanted to share it as sometimes it’s good to appreciate ourselves as we don’t do that enough.
When starting a new habit, we need to have a realistic approach, and to be pragmatic in our outlook as there is no point in wasting our time. One aspect we need to be honest with ourselves about, is that there will be habits or projects that we think we want to do conceptually but we are not willing to put the actual direct actions in place, hence we spend time in “motion”.
James Clear defines “motion” in his book “Atomic Habits”, as strategising and planning more than executing. If we feel like procrastinating every time we need to take an actual action towards that project, then that means those projects are not for us or are not important enough to us at that moment in time. The beauty of spending time in motion is that it “feels” like we are getting things done, we believe we are making progress. The reality though, is that in the long term, we are just increasing our dissatisfaction and anxiety. Wanting something is not only about what we get but more about what we are willing to give up.
Building new habits is not easy, so be patient and kind to yourself at every step. Explore what specific, direct actions you can take in relation to what you want to achieve. As long as you dedicate minutes in measurable action consistently, whether it is taking up running, more walking, fasting, reading, learn how to play an instrument, playing sports etc… you are halfway there. People can achieve amazing things when they believe they can, and have the discipline to do so.
Alina Maraghelis is a Business Performance Manager and Trainer.
With over 10 years experience in consultative selling across a variety of industries, Alina’s focus is on building long term relationships and ensuring exceptional client satisfaction.
Passionate about people and delivering improved business results by increasing people’s performance, Alina specialises in supporting executive and middle level managers in facilitating growth of their revenue through effective strategy and team alignment.
To learn more about changing behaviours and formulating good habits, read about the Dale Carnegie Course: Effective Communications and Human Relations or watch this short video .