I learned a lot about myself this last week. I learned about the power of habit and how easy it is to do something that is a habit (like brush your teeth), and how hard it is to start a new habit. In the spirit of sharing, I thought you might appreciate what I learned from the experience and how knowing the science may also help you in reaching your goals. Perhaps you aspire to get to run or get to the gym more often or eat better, or stop smoking. It seems that we all have goals we struggle to consistently incorporate into our daily lives.
Let me give you an example here and then provide the evidence and 5 strategies to help to you include more of what you want in your life. I get up every morning at 6 am and go to an early morning yoga class. It is a 15-minute walk away. I find this easy as it has become a habit – I don’t think about it and I find it has become a great way to start my day. The studio is currently being renovated and I thought this would be a good opportunity to try out some new studios in town. The problem is I haven’t been that successful in getting to yoga regularly this week.
So what happened? Sometimes, I get lost in my work, and before I know it, I have left it too late to get there on time. The other day, I planned to try a studio near where I was getting my hair cut. But, I was on my way home before I remembered that I was going to go and it was too late to turn back. Another day, I wanted to try somewhere new. By the time I goggled all these new places and looked at their schedules, tried to figure out what worked around my appointments, I was so tired of looking at all the options I just gave up. Today was successful – I did an on line class and followed along at home at my usual time.
I looked to the science of applied positive psychology for some answers on why I had sometimes been successful and why it had been so hard to be consistent. It turns out that there is a lot of research on energy and willpower, and now that I am familiar with the research, I can see why sometimes my strategies work and sometimes they don’t. I thought I would share 5 evidence-based strategies I have been unconsciously using to reach my goals to help you in reaching yours.
Plan to do what is important first
The first principle is that we have a set amount of energy or self-control when we wake up in the morning and as the day goes on the decisions that we make deplete our energy. So if there is something important you want to do that day, plan to do it first thing. Limit your choicesThe second principle is that the more choices you have, the harder it will be to make a decision. In other words, the day I researched all the class times and all the possible studios in the city, comparing the teachers and class times, it takes took too much work to narrow it down to one class so I gave up. Having rules to live by reduces decision-making saving your will power for other tasks. I understand Obama had only two suits so that he didn’t have to worry about what to wear!
Eat breakfast and get your sleep
The third principle is that you can replete your energy or will power in a number of ways. You have probably experienced this one perhaps without realizing it. Sleeping or a nap is one way. Research suggests, laughter and positive emotions also help. Have you ever noticed a child losing it and realizing that they are hungry? Ok that is me. It turns out food impacts more than children and myself. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that judges determining if a criminal received parole or not. While common sense suggests it would be related to the significance of the crime or time served, the researchers found it was most closely linked to time of day and a food break. First thing in the morning and just after recesses, the rate of release was 65%, and it declined steeply afterwards in every case to almost zero. This study suggests that decision fatigue and being repleated are important factors in life for everyone.
In Change your Brain, Change your Body; Dr. Daniel Amen argues that adequate sleep and frequent, and healthy meals are key to keeping your will power strong. So get your sleep and feed your body well.
Set yourself small goals
Another easy to implement principle is to break a task into smaller action steps – as they say, “How do you eat an elephant – one bite at a time”. Make a plan and break it into small steps. Ideally, identifying when you will complete the step and where. The research around changing health behaviours has specifically identified these details in increasing the likelihood for follow through.
Replace a habit rather than start a new one
The final principle is that it is difficult to make a new habit but you can much more easily replace an old one – people who suffer from addictions often use this one to their advantage. Instead of smoking, they sometimes start to vape or chew gum or drinking club soda instead of having a glass of wine. This phenomenon is related to neuroplasticity. When we repeat a pattern over and over again, it actually strengthens the neural network in our brain. It is almost as if a footpath becomes a highway with increasing use. For more on this interesting phenomena consult the book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself. This explains partly why it was easier for me to do another class at the regular time – it was already programmed in my habits.
Next time you are looking to incorporate a new habit in your life, think about how you can set your self up for success. Plan ahead, do it early in the day, break it into small steps, limit your choices, reduce your decisions, and replace a current habit with a new one. Learning from my past mistakes, I have a plan for tomorrow that replaces my usual routine with a similar class at a different location. I will let you know how it goes!
P.S. I am looking forward to hearing your stories. How did you use the evidence to help you reach an important goal?