So you had a habit change you wanted to tackle, you set a SMART goal – you were very specific in your goals, they were measurable and achievable, you had a specific time-frame – and you still weren’t able to achieve your desired outcome. What went wrong?
Of course there are many different answers. But firstly I want to ‘zoom out’ a little in answering this question – widen the perspective and look at some essential ‘pre-steps’ to habit change. And contrary to the catchy headline, there may be more than one ‘secret ingredient’!
Firstly, the biggest ‘zoom-out’ question
Are you trying to achieve a goal or change a habit? Mistake number one that many people make is to use the strategies you would use for achieving goals to achieve habit change. When you think about it, you can see that habit change is a whole lot more complex and harder than achieving a goal. For example, imagine you have a goal of saving $2000 for a big holiday you have planned. Let’s say you have 50 weeks to do this. All you need to do to achieve your goal is to save $40 per week, starting today, right? And hey presto! You have achieved your goal. If you are already a good saver, it will be that easy and straight forward. But if the real issue is that you need to be less impulsive with your spending and be more disciplined in how you use your money, a habit change is required. And that means making good choices multiple times every day. Which requires a robust strategy, because there are so many things that can cause us to ‘fall off the wagon’ when we resolve to change a habit.
Dike Drummond, in his book ‘Stop Physician Burnout’ talks about the difference between a ‘problem’ and a ‘dilemma’ – a problem is something that has a simple solution of one or two steps, and applying that simple solution fixes the problem. But many difficult issues in our lives are more-so ‘dilemmas’ than ‘problems’.
So what is a dilemma? A dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives, especially when both alternatives are either undesirable or mutually incompatible. Issues like ‘work-life balance’ are more-so dilemmas than problems. And consequently require a ‘strategy’ rather than a ‘solution’. Resolutions (such as “From now on I’m going to make healthier food choices”) usually require habit change.
The dangers of treating a dilemma as if it is a problem
When we treat issues that are more-so dilemmas as if they are problems, what tends to happen is that we analyse the situation (‘problem’), come up with a solution we think will work and try to implement it, sometimes with some short-term success. And soon we find that our solution isn’t working or feels too hard to continue to implement. We feel despondent and may well beat ourselves up and think the we are the problem e.g. “I just don’t have the will-power required” or “I’m not committed enough” or “I’m too lazy.” Or we start to ‘play victim’ to justify to ourselves why this change is not possible – e.g it’s some-one else’s fault, or it’s the fault of our genes. And then we might start looking out for a ‘magic bullet’ – the ‘fool-proof solution’ that will fix our problem – the magic diet or exercise programme, the magic time-management system, the magic app or gadget or product. Which makes us vulnerable to hard-sell marketing for all the ‘new’ (and “simple”) solutions being offered.
And to make matters worse, each time we set goals and don’t achieve them, we start to erode our belief in our own ability. So the next time we may be a bit half-hearted about our goal because in our heart-of-hearts we don’t actually believe we can achieve it. Which of course means we are less likely to succeed.
Dilemmas require Strategies, not ‘Solutions’
A dilemma requires a longer term approach. With a dilemma we need to identify the various things we could do that might make a difference to the situation, then choose a place to start. And when we choose the place to start we choose an action that seems ‘do-able’ and that we think will make a significant difference to the situation. Then we try implementing this new action. And we continuously review and ‘tweak’ the plan. And ideally, schedule a regular time to review our over-all strategy, taking time to problem-solve the things that aren’t working with our first action, and when we have this first step embedded in our life, we then choose the next action which will contribute to the situation improving.
And a further really important step, when we are ‘in for the long-haul’ is celebrating every small success and tracking our progress towards our desired outcome.
It can be very helpful to have an ‘accountability partner’ or ‘change partner’ when we are tackling big changes – some-one who you share your goals and strategies with, some-one who will be a cheer-leader for you, encouraging you and acknowledging your successes, while also challenging you to persevere when you might be tempted to give up.
This is not a ‘quick-fix’ approach. But it is an approach that is more likely to succeed.
Creating a robust strategy
And perhaps the most important part of successfully moving towards an outcome that requires habit change is building in strategies for dealing with temptations, doubts, impulses, unhelpful thoughts and those times of the day when your will-power might be low and you are more vulnerable to ‘falling off the wagon’. And it is this part of the plan that requires special attention in our ‘ongoing maintenance’ – our regular tweaking and reviewing. Often we are not conscious of what these challenges will be until they happen. So we may fall off the wagon when these challenges first occur. But we can learn from each of these experiences and for each challenge we can identify a mini-strategy that will help us to deal with that challenge the next time around.
So What is the Secret Ingredient?
In addition to changing your approach from ‘problem-solving’ to ‘strategy-building’, what if there was an approach or method that enabled you to improve your ‘foundation skills’ for habit change? What if it was possible to learn the skills that help you stick to your resolutions and not ‘fall off the wagon’ as often, and not ‘give up on yourself’ when the going gets tough?
What ‘foundation skills’ are we talking about here?
How about these for starters …
- The ability to be aware of unhelpful thoughts, let them go and not take them seriously? For example, you are tired and hungry and a thought pops up – something like “I never manage to stick to my goals, I might as well give up now because I’m going to end up giving up anyway.” Or “Right now I need a break so I’ll skip going to the gym today” or “I deserve a reward for being so good, so it’s O.K. if I blob in front of tele tonight with a tub of icecream” – or that really seductive thought “just this once won’t really matter”.
- The ability to be with uncomfortable feelings in a way that enables you to be aware of the feelings and can accept them compassionately and not be over-whelmed by them, and so not have them jump into the driver’s seat of your life. For example you have a goal of spending less time at home by yourself and going out and doing more things socially. You are getting ready to go out to meet some friends but you feel anxious, shy, self-conscious and even a bit nauseous. Imagine if you could calm down that feeling to the extent that you were able to remain committed to your intention to go out, and thus achieve your goal.
- The ability to notice an urge and be able to ‘surf’ urges without giving in to them.
- The ability to spend less time ‘dwelling’ on mistakes, regrets and guilt about the past or worrying and feeling anxious about the future or daydreaming about the future. And therefore spending more time being in the present moment. Daydreaming and worrying don’t help us to make the changes we want to make. And dwelling on our imperfections and mistakes take our focus away from enjoying the present. In fact, the only place we can make a difference to the quality of our lives for the future is in the present moment – we can’t change the past or ‘magic’ the future inside our heads.
- The ability to be less judgmental towards ourselves, to not be constantly putting ourselves down or noticing what we’re doing wrong more than we notice what we’re doing well.
- The ability to be compassionate towards ourselves and to forgive ourselves and move on when we slip up.
- The ability to feel gratitude and appreciation, and to pat ourselves on the back for our small achievements.
- The ability to ‘get perspective’ – to step out of the detail and to step back and see the ‘bigger picture’. That is, the ability to step into the ‘observer stance’ where we can make wiser decisions, the ability to not be ‘in’ the issue but an observer outside the issue, so being able to be the ‘manager’ of the issue.
Without these abilities, tackling a challenging habit change and persevering over the ‘long-haul’ will be difficult. These abilities are, I believe, some of the most essential ingredients for habit change and the achievement of challenging goals. They are not ‘magic bullets’, but they are powerful ‘secret’ or not so secret ingredients. They take time to learn and develop. But they are skills that make a difference in so many aspects of our lives, both in solving problems and dilemmas, and in enhancing our wellbeing and happiness.
If you have read my previous blogs you probably already know that I am a big fan of Mindfulness, and you may recognise that all of the things listed above are aspects of Mindfulness. I can’t emphasise enough how practical and useful Mindfulness skills are in our everyday lives. If you haven’t already looked into learning Mindfulness, I strongly encourage you to do so.
But Wait – There’s More: Another Secret Ingredient
Another really important skill, which I see as critical to any goal achievement or habit change is that of using ‘Implementation Intentions’. Peter Gollwitzer (American Psychologist, July 1999) makes the distinction between ‘goal intentions’ and ‘implementation intentions’ – goal intentions are what we want to achieve, and implementation intentions are ‘pre-decisions’ about the when, where and how of achieving a goal. They have the structure of ‘When situation x arises, then I will perform response y”. These are particularly helpful for things that might tempt us away from persevering with our new habit.
And if we don’t ‘pre-decide’ what we will do in these situations it is much more likely that we will ‘fall off the wagon’ (of progress on our new habit). For example let’s suppose that you are establishing a new habit of avoiding sugary foods. It is 3.00 p.m. and you have been making healthy food choices so far today. But right now you are hungry and tired and would love a little bit of added energy. And you have had a habit of visiting the confectionary bar in your workplace at about this time whenever you felt the need for a bit of added energy. If you have ‘pre-decided’ how you will handle this situation, having identified it as a potential challenge point, you will have prepared, for example, making some healthy sugar-free snacks and packed them in your lunch box – in which case you are more easily able to stick to your resolution. You have an implementation intention for this situation – that is “When I feel the need for a sugary snack, I will eat a healthy snack from my lunch box”.
Implementation intentions that involve a mental rather than a practical response are even more important. For example “When I have the urge to eat a sugary snack (even when I have a healthy alternative in my lunchbox) I will employ the ‘urge surfing’ steps, and will make sure I have my laminated card with these steps on, in my pocket. And while I am waiting for the urge to subside I will go to the water-cooler, get a glass of water and sip my water each time I notice this urge.” If you are not familiar with urge surfing you will find plenty of info on the web. For example, you will find a good clear description of the process on here
So let’s look at an example of putting together a robust habit change strategy.
Your goal is to get up earlier in the morning, perhaps so that you can be less rushed in the mornings, not be late for work, fit in some exercise or have leisurely breakfasts with your partner or friends. If you treat this habit change exercise simply as a goal or as a problem, there is a good chance you may fail to achieve your objective. The obvious ‘solutions’ if we treat this as simply a ‘problem’ are things like set your alarm clock an hour earlier in the morning. And for some people, it is this simple. But for many others a series of habit changes are required to achieve this goal.
So, if, instead, you come up with a ‘strategy’, it might look something like the following. And this is much more likely to achieve success.
Goal: To get up at 6.15 a.m.
1. Identify possible steps to solve the problem e.g. Set two alarms instead of 1, have a friend phone me in the morning, go to bed earlier … etc.
2. Choose one ‘do-able’ step that you feel you could achieve and that might have a significant impact on the problem. Let’s say I chose ‘go to bed earlier’
3. Identify as many of the likely challenges that you might experience as possible, and for each, work out how you will address them i.e. set an ‘implementation intention’ for each. For example:
a. I get busy doing something and don’t realise the time – “Half an hour before I need to go to bed, I will set an alarm to ring, then even if I am in the middle of something I will remind myself that I can come back to it tomorrow, and remind myself of my goal and will pack up and go to bed”.
b. I have a habit of not having everything ready for the morning, so I end up staying up late to get things ready for the morning and then going to bed late. “(When) An hour before bed time (then) I will do everything on my checklist for getting things ready in the morning”
c. You get the idea. Identify the potential challenge and put an implementation intention / plan in place that covers how, when and where.
4. Identify some of the practical issues that might come up and work out strategies for them
a. There’s something really good on T.V. (I’ll record it)
b. I’m so tired that I’m sitting in front of T.V. mindlessly and just ignore my alarm (put your T.V. on a timer so it turns itself off)
c. You get the idea. Again – more ‘Implementation Intentions’.
5. Identify some of the thoughts, feelings, temptations and urges that might lead you to give up on your goal, and work out ‘Implementation Intentions’ for them
a. Potential sabotaging thought “I’m not feeling tired and I feel like I don’t need as much sleep tonight”. Implementation intention: “When the thought comes up that I don’t need as much sleep tonight, then I will remind myself that sleep works best when we keep routine sleep hours, and that if I don’t keep routine hours I will keep struggling with not feeling sleepy at bedtime and feeling tired when I wake up and wanting to sleep in. I will remind myself of ‘the big picture’ and will make a choice to go to bed on time, even if I am not feeling tired”.
b. You get the idea – Again – more ‘Implementation Intentions’ for other potential sabotaging thoughts or feelings you think might trip you up.
6. Each time you slip up, identify what led to the slip up and what you will do in that situation next time. That is, create an ‘Implementation Intention’ that will cover this situation. Then let it go and move on. Forgive yourself for the slip-up.
7. At the end of each day, as you lie in bed, pat yourself on the back for all the things that you did that in any way contributed to you making progress on establishing and maintaining your new habit.
8. Regularly review your strategy e.g. each Sunday evening read over your strategy, identify times you slipped up and create ‘implementation intentions’ for these situations.
I wish you all the very best with any habit changes you are tackling at the moment. I hope that, by employing these not-so-secret “secret ingredients” you have not only greater success, but that you get to enjoy the journey of change that you are on.
Image credit: Dollarphotoclub.com
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences).
Have you found Mindfulness strategies to be important to you when engaging in changing your habits or achieving challenging goals? If so we’d love to hear about your example/s. Or do you use ‘Implementation Intentions’ (even if you don’t call them that)? Or do you have other useful tips to share. We’d love to hear about this too on the Comments Board below.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.