How mindfulness and a rewarding routine can help us develop good habits that last.
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: MindfulnessWhat 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 behaviorBefore 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 routineSituation – 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 planKristin 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?
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?
By Leo Babauta
Over the last five years or so, as I’ve worked with thousands of people on changing their habits, I’ve come to a realization: dissatisfaction with ourselves is a pretty universal phenomenon.
We are unhappy with who we are, sometimes in small ways but often in very fundamental ways.
We doubt ourselves, feel inadequate, dislike our looks, criticize our failing harshly, feel uncertain about whether we’re worthy of praise or love.
The result is anxiety, procrastination, fear, and the inability to change our habits. I’ve seen so many people who are unable to stick to an exercise program or healthy diet changes because they don’t believe in themselves. At the heart of their failure to make positive changes is a deep feeling of unworthiness and inadequacy.
Every time we fail, we are harsh with ourselves, and we see it as just more evidence that we suck. Every time things are less-than-ideal, we blame ourselves (or, if we don’t want to be blamed, we blame other people).
What if, instead of beating ourselves up (or blaming others), we just accepted what happened and then took appropriate action? What if we took this as an opportunity to see our humanness, to love ourselves, to see ourselves as innately good?
This dissatisfaction with ourselves doesn’t just hurt our health habits … it hurts our productivity and ability to focus on meaningful work. We doubt whether we’re up to facing this task filled with discomfort and uncertainty, so we look for relief from all of it instead of just trusting that we’re up to the task. We procrastinate, seek distraction, try to run from the uncertainty.
Our relationships are also harmed by this dissatisfaction with ourselves — when we don’t believe in ourselves, we are insecure in our relationships. That can result in jealousy, anger, fear of losing someone, and treating the other person with distrust. That’s not a good recipe for a good relationship, and if the relationship becomes shaky, we often either blame the other person or see it as more evidence that we suck.
Our happiness is marred by this dissatisfaction with ourselves— if we don’t like ourselves, don’t trust ourselves, don’t see ourselves as worthy of love … then how can we truly be happy in each moment? Underlying each moment is a dissatisfaction, a lack of contentedness, a wish that things would be different.
These are just a handful of ways that dissatisfaction with ourselves is harming us. This problem actually affects every area of our lives, from jobs to finances to parenting and more.
The Way Out: Loving OurselvesInstead of harming ourselves with this self-doubt, this constant feeling of inadequacy … what if we loved ourselves instead?
What if we trusted ourselves, believed in our basic worthiness, believed that we would be OK even if things didn’t work out as planned, believed that we are loving, kind, and innately good human beings?
That would change everything: we’d be more trusting in relationships, we’d procrastinate less because we knew we could handle uncertainty and discomfort, we’d become healthier because we would see healthy food and exercise as just two more ways to love ourselves. We’d seek ways to love others, to serve the world with meaningful work, to enjoy the basic goodness of every moment. We’d be happier, and in the times when we’re not happy, we’d still be able to find contentment in the middle of difficulty.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done. We have so many years of experience in disliking ourselves, in being harsh with ourselves, that loving ourselves can seem impossible. It’s not. You can do this.
It starts with the simple intention to love yourself, to see yourself as adequate and worthy of love, to wish for your own happiness and the relief from pain and stress.
Once you have this intention, you can practice a daily session of wishing for your own happiness, wishing for an end to your pain. A daily session of gratitude for the good things about yourself.
You can start to see the basic goodness in everything you do, even if it’s less than perfect (as all humans are). You can see the good hearted nature in every one of your actions, even the ones that are harmful. You can start to see the good-hearted nature in what everyone else does as well.
This is the practice, and it takes lots of practice. But loving yourself might just be the most important project you’ve ever undertaken, because it will change your world.