The Last Habit-Forming Article You'll Need
The Daily, Weekly, Monthly Method to create change in your life
I must admit, I am exactly the type of content consumer that click-bait titles like “The last habit-forming article you’ll need” was made for. I am especially likely to click on the ones that are written to consumers interested in becoming more efficient, productive, happier...you name it, if it’s about change, I’m in. Well, at least I’m interested. This is a personal and professional interest for me. However, the more I consume the more disappointed I am with them. Each article seems to spew tips that are a one-size fits all approach to changing your life. People are just so much more complex and unique than that. Not everyone should be waking up at 5 am. Not everyone needs to journal or meditate every day. Don’t get me wrong, I still read them, and I do think they have something to offer. I love to see what new trends are out there and reading efficiency tips happens to be very motivating for me. As a therapist, I’m always looking to keep current in what I like to casually call the “change business” but what I have not found is a template for creating change that the reader can use over and over with different problems - a template that is flexible enough to adapt to the complex and unique person that you are. I work with clients who are interested in changing their lives for many different reasons. My approach to therapy is to think about my clients’ relationships, more specifically, to think about changing their relationships. Sounds one-size, right? Let me explain.
First, when I talk about relationships most people assume the term refers to relationships between two or more people. I have a slightly different take. When I talk about relationships, I may be referring to relationships between two or more people, but I could be talking about a person’s relationship with themselves, or I may be talking about their relationship between the person and some inanimate object in their life - usually an idea or community of sorts. We all think and feel different ways about the events and things in our lives - work, groups of people, certain events, religion, traffic...the list could be endless. If we think or feel something about anything, we are in a relationship with it. And why do people come to therapy? Because they feel. They feel lots of ways about lots of things - so the relationship lens from which I view problems and clients is fairly one dimensional, but the problems, goals, and conversations we have are as unique as the person who sits in front of me.
So, in the change business, it is helpful to think about our relationships in terms of habits and patterns of habits. If you are not satisfied with something in your life and sitting in my office, you are likely going to tell me a few stories to exemplify this dissatisfaction. You are less likely to consider what these examples have in common, except for how they make you feel. While talking with a client about the examples of their dissatisfaction, I’m thinking about what patterns and relationships I find in their stories. Once we’ve determined what patterns are present, the next logical step would be to consider what alternative patterns can be put in place that may be more satisfying. Sometimes, just this new understanding is enough to jumpstart a client to create change for themselves. More often, clients need some assistance developing their goals and motivating themselves to create and maintain change. Maintaining change isn’t just about keeping up with the new habits you’ve started but includes continually reflecting upon and evaluating your goals and patterns to ensure these two things stay in alignment. Most people will need to tweak their habits as their lives and circumstances change. This doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable statement, but how many of you readers have tried a crash diet and been disappointed weeks or months later when you’ve put some or all the weight back on? You keep trying and trying but end up frustrated and feeling like you can’t win. These days it’s not uncommon to hear that weight loss/health/fitness is a lifestyle. You must consistently make good choices with food and stay active to lose weight and keep it off*. The lifestyle approach is true for weight loss, and it’s true for other life changes too. I will keep referencing the diet example throughout this article, but only for the sake of consistency and relatability. (*I’m not trained in medicine or dietetics, and you should always consult your healthcare providers before starting a new diet or exercise program.)
So how do you do this? Create new habits.
1. Identify the problem pattern. What in your life is dissatisfying right now? What parts of your life do you find yourself avoiding, putting off, frustrated by, or complaining about? Try to be as specific as possible with this. “I’m unhappy,” describes how you feel, but not what contributes to feeling this way. “I don’t feel respected by my boss,” or, “I can’t get myself out of bed in the morning,” or, “I’m unhappy with how I manage stress,” all address feeling unhappy and the contexts in which you feel unhappy. Write each problem pattern down at the top of a sheet of paper. While I fit into the ‘millennial’ age group, I personally prefer the old-school version of writing notes. There is something about physically writing things down that helps me remember information as well as provide a significance to it. However, there is nothing wrong with doing this on a digital device. My mantra is, “The only method that works is the one you will use.” I think I made this up, but I may have seen it in passing somewhere before. If you are going to lose the papers or never look at them again, don’t bother with this. If you type it out and never open the file again, what’s the point? Maybe you do better recording voice notes to play back. The point is: pick what works for you.
2. Choose an area to focus on. Many people get bogged down by focusing on all their problems together or trying to change everything all at once. This really isn’t necessary. Don’t multitask when trying to live your best life. Your happiness deserves your full attention. So, pick a problem area that you’d like to start with. Take one of a couple of different approaches to choose where to start. You can start with the area that seems easiest to change or you can start with the area that feels most important to change. The “easiest to change” approach is a good method if you’ve been feeling very frustrated or trying to make things better for a long time to no avail since you are more likely to have some quick success. The “most important to change” approach is a good method if you are feeling overwhelmed by a big area of your life such as work, family, or some other impactful aspect. Another important factor to choosing one area to focus on goes back to the idea of relationships. You’ve probably noticed that when you’re having a good day, the bad stuff is a little more tolerable. If you’re like me, you often fall victim to the opposite of this too. When something goes wrong in one aspect you bring that with you to other areas of your life. The reason for this is because our relationships influence each other, and we influence our relationships. I’ll come back to this later.
3. Reflect on the problem pattern. Consider your relationship with the problem to understand the problem pattern. Are there specific aspects of the problem that are more troubling than others? Are there certain times that you feel better or worse about the problem? Are there certain people who can influence the problem? These are all clues to tell you the nature of your relationship with the problem. So, to put this in perspective, let’s go back to the example of crash dieting. Since I’ve been a crash dieter in the past I’m sure that a large percentage of crash dieters have, like me, gone right back to a crash diet at some point since you know it provides quick results and if you try a little harder this time, you can keep the weight off. This is part of your relationship with food, dieting, yourself, and with a socially influenced idea of weight. For example, do you get annoyed that you can’t follow through with a simple plan or become tempted by delicious treats? Do you feel pretty good about your body and only feel self-doubt when you go out in crowds? Thinking about the different experiences of the problem will help you identify what the problem pattern is. So, some dieters need to work on consistency, while other may need to work on confidence. On your sheet of paper or notes file, write a few brief notes about the problem patterns, then draw a line beneath that.
4. Set your goals. Thinking about your problem patterns, explore the ways you’d like them to be different. You will find thousands of articles on goal setting, but for right now just re-write your problem pattern in reverse. Keeping going with the weight loss example, if you worked through the first three steps, the typical complaint, “I want to lose x number of pounds,” should have turned into another form of this problem that you can’t really measure on the scale or by your pant size. In fact, it is very likely that your new perspective on the problem frames things in a way that your weight is a symptom of the problem instead of the problem itself. Examples might be, “I’d like to feel more confident,” or, “I’d like to be more in control of my food and activity choices,” or another, “I want to feel more energized.” Notice these goals aren’t written as pass/fail goals like, “Be confident.” In this form you either are confident or you aren’t, but that doesn’t leave you much room to be confident in some ways but not others. Maybe you were able to feel more confident at work, but at a dinner party you didn’t feel quite the same. If you weren’t confident all day, the pass/fail version of the goal will leave you feeling disappointed in yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to recognize that you are different in different settings. This will help you first in being able to have some small wins early on, give you smaller pieces of the problem pattern to digest and work on, and flexibility to change your approach when necessary. Write your flexible goal statements beneath the line leaving some space in between each.
5. Create your plan for solution patterns. Take a few minutes to hallucinate that you’ve successfully achieved your goal. I love to ask my clients to hallucinate. Partly because of the quizzical look I get moments after, but truthfully, I love to play with language. Word choice is powerful. Using specific words to describe your meaning provides the connotation and imagery that helps ensure understanding. When you hallucinate, your mind creates an experience that seems much like reality. I’m not asking my clients to hallucinate pharmacologically, but I don’t want my clients to just consider, reflect, or think about their goals. I want them to fully immerse themselves in what it will be like when they’ve been successful. What is different about their surroundings? What is different about how they feel? How have their relationships changed? Who is going to notice those changes? What do they do differently now that they’ve met this goal? The purpose for intentional hallucination is to get motivated and to define what changes they’d like to take place. It helps a person visualize the important people, places, and behaviors that will be different using a positive perspective. Now think about what things you can do differently in service of your goal on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. These are your solution patterns. Under each goal write your daily, weekly, and monthly solution patterns. Put them on your calendar, set a reminder, do whatever you need do to set yourself up for success. Caution: don’t overdo it on this step. To keep a clean house, you probably don’t need to wash your windows every day, but you may need to sweep or wash dishes. Take care in planning tasks that aren’t just realistic but that make sense for your life. We are multi-faceted individuals and our lives and habits should reflect that. You won’t spend every moment of the rest of your life on this goal, so give it the time it deserves but no more. The idea is not to completely achieve your goal at the end of the first month but to make gradual progress towards success. This is the lifestyle approach to creating change. You don’t need to change your entire life overnight - this is as difficult as asking you to change your personality by sheer force of will. Besides, it’s entirely possible that the total overhaul you’re imagining is not necessary to make a difference in how you feel. Take your time. If you’re changing your lifestyle, you have the rest of your life to do it anyway.
6. Go public. Share your plan with others but be selective. Share your plan with people who will be supportive and helpful to your change process. This does not mean they always need to be your cheerleader. You may need to get some constructive criticism from someone who knows you well, but they should be able to deliver it in a positive manner. You also need to be ready and open to hearing it. Going public can give you a sense of accountability. You might choose people who are also invested in you achieving your goals. If you want to be more productive at work, a supportive colleague or supervisor may be helpful to you. You can go very public by sharing your plan on social media or a blog, but you really don’t need to do this. Social media crowds can be fickle, and while you might get crowd sourced encouragement you can also get crowd sourced critique. If you are ready for that, go for it. I like to know my audience, and social media doesn’t always allow you to do that.
7. Get started and review your progress. Decide when you want to start. Being mentally prepared is as important as any other aspect of change. Why do we love to set New Year’s resolutions? A fresh calendar feels like a fresh start and anything seems possible. I like to start things on Mondays because I use the weekend to spend time on planning and preparing, and because Mondays feel like a fresh start to the week...a mini New Year’s that comes around 52 times a year. Your specific reasoning for your starting point doesn’t really matter. Just like using paper over a device, if your reasoning works or makes sense to you, you are more likely to stick to it. Be ready that your start date is not just for starting your new tasks, but also to start reviewing your progress. If you are trying to do something new or different every day, it helps to check in with yourself every day on how you did. You’ll remember in greater detail what you were able to do along with how and why you were able to do it. Set aside a few minutes in the morning to review your plan for the day and a few minutes in the evening to review your progress. Take notice every day of what helped you be successful. What would you like to repeat when you try again tomorrow? Take notice of things that got in your way. What would you like to avoid when you try again tomorrow? As much as possible, avoid judging yourself and others as simply good or bad. Rather, focus on each aspect as bits of information to be incorporated into an ongoing experiment. Remembering that your goals are not pass/fail, try to view your tasks the same way. Sometimes it helps to review your progress on a scale of 1-10. If you had a really hard time you might find yourself closer to a 1, but if you found it to work pretty well, you’ll be closer to a 10. Don’t worry too much about the actual number - just be honest with yourself. If you find yourself at a 2, don’t expect yourself to be at a 10 tomorrow. It might be more helpful to ask yourself what the difference is between a 2 and a 3 and go for that. Maybe you skipped your morning coffee and a little jolt in the morning would have helped. The answers can be simple because, at the risk of repeating myself, you aren’t trying to change your entire life overnight. Make mental notes about what your plan for the next day will be or use your calendar/agenda/reminder list to help you with this. Keep this up with your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks until you feel you’ve made the change you are looking for.
8. Tweak if necessary. At some point, you may realize the tasks and patterns need to be tweaked. Maybe the task isn’t working the way you expected, or maybe it’s become a habit and you’re ready for more. Either way that’s okay. Good even. If it works or doesn’t work, it is information that informs your next action. Cross it out, revise, and keep working at it. You will find the right combination that works for you because every edit and effort will be informed by your daily life. Periodically, check in with how you feel about your original problem pattern. How has it changed over time? Are you still feeling this is the best or most important area of focus for you? Do you need to switch gears and focus on a new or different problem pattern? Hopefully, you’ve reached a point where “problem pattern” stops being a useful description and you want to focus on furthering your accomplishments in other ways. In any of the above cases, you can apply this template and live your best life.