We get a lot of conflicting messages around making changes in our lives.
Some encourage a “make all the changes now!” mentality with messages of “what’s your excuse” and suggestions on all the New Years/ birthday/ summer resolutions you can make.
And why shouldn’t you try to make all the changes you can while you’re motivated? You’re tired of whatever is or isn’t happening, finally the pain of staying the same is too great and you are READY. You’re going to food prep, join a gym, go five times a week, weekend hikes, use your evenings to read that pile of books, and your lunchtime will be spent on those Coursera classes you’ve had your eye on. Yeah! You’re ready and your life is going to change!
I’ve done that. I know lots of people that have done that. And for most people in about a month they’re right back to where they started.
Why is that? I thought habits are where it’s at? They’re supposed to automate the things you want out of your day. Just make them all habits!
If only it were that easy.
Habits don’t come out of thin air, it’s not a matter of willfully squeezing your eyes shut and making them happen. It’s deliberate repetition over a long period of time. And I don’t care what we’ve all heard said on Oprah, there is no scientifically backed definitive amount of time it takes for a deliberate activity to become habit.
Psychologists list six stages of habit change:
Let’s talk about the transition from action to maintenance. This where, for many people, they think that the sheer wanting of a habit will make it so. But in my experience, maintenance comes in two parts: tedium and routine.
There is a space between the initial motivation that get you moving and the point where the action is so routine it’s not even a choice. That space is tedium. It’s lost the shiny newness but is still a conscience decision. And the more habits we have stacked up that enter the tedium stage at the same time, the less likely we are to stick with any of them.
This where people fall of. This is where, if you rely on motivation to carry you through, you’re probably going to stop. This is where if you don’t have a strong sense of why and a self image that encompasses the habit and the desired results, you’re not going to get through the tedium of day in and day out making the choice to make a change.
So what do you do?
I have two things I suggest depending on how big the change is. If it’s a big change, something like going to a gym before or after work, just focus on that ONE thing. Don’t try to add on food prep, macros counting, cutting out TV, or any other number of changes I often see people try to link together. These larger habits could take months to become truly habitual, and they are best solidified when you start seeing yourself as “I am someone who ______.”
If it’s a smaller set of changes, something like adding more vegetables to each of your meals, I think you can use a staggered start to keep up your momentum. For instance, maybe week 1 & 2, you just focus on your dinner. After week 2, you’re probably going to slip into the tedium phase of dealing with veggies at dinner, so now you start to add in veggies with breakfast. For some, myself included, this renews your interest in making a change and you can piggyback your dinner changes on the renewed motivation of changing your breakfast.
In both methods, you’re not starting multiple changes at the same time. You’re either letting one change steep into identity, or you’re using a cascade of changes to keep the motivation ball rolling.