Photo by Criss!
At the beginning of 2008, I posted my New Year’s resolution on this blog:
I will sit still for five minutes every day.
The aim of the resolution was to establish a regular habit of sitting meditation first thing in the morning.
The result? During 2008 I practised meditation every day … except two.
Oh well, nobody’s perfect.
If you’re going to be strict, I guess you could say that counts as a technical failure. But as a recovering perfectionist, I’m happy to take a 99.45% hit rate as a success. Especially as it meant I achieved my goal of establishing the habit — which I’ve continued to this day.
I’m now sitting for 20 minutes every morning, sometimes 30 minutes at weekends. It feels like a normal part of my everyday routine, as automatic as cleaning my teeth.
The real test of the habit came a few days after New Year’s Day 2009. For a couple of days, I thought ‘Well, I’m on holiday and I managed to keep the resolution last year — I’ll give myself a day off today’. And the funny thing was, I missed it. It felt like there was something absent from my day. When I sat down to practice the next day, it was with a sense of relief — not at fulfilling an obligation, but just for the sheer pleasure of sitting down, letting things go and enjoying being present in the moment.
So how did I get to this stage? Last year I posted 3 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail and 6 Tips for Keeping Your New Year’s Resolution. Now, I’ll pick out the four factors that made it easier for me to keep my resolution than to break it.
1. Focus on What Makes the Activity Rewarding
Any truly worthwhile activity will be difficult enough to arouse resistance, but rewarding enough to repay persistence.
It’s up to you which one you focus on.
Let’s face it, meditation isn’t the most exciting pursuit in the world. It can be incredibly boring. After a while, sitting still can be painful. And once you tune into your thoughts and feelings, you can experience all kinds of unpleasant states of mind — anxiety, impatience, frustration, sadness, irritation, anger and so on.
The same applies to any challenging activity — whether training for a marathon, learning French or the piano, or improving your golf swing, there will be plenty of times when you wonder why you’re bothering.
If you focus on the resistance, you can have as many excuses as you want for not following through: being too busy, getting bored, questioning whether it’s really worthwhile, taking up another habit as an alternative — the list is endless. And more you focus on the resistance, the harder it becomes to continue.
But if you focus on what makes the activity rewarding, the whole thing becomes a little easier. For many, the bottom line is I know I have a better quality of life when I practise meditation versus when I don’t. So when I found myself thinking of excuses not to practice, I kept returning to that thought.
Sometimes changing a habit can be intrinsically rewarding – like an exercise routine that becomes enjoyable once your fitness level starts to rise. Other changes are not rewarding in themselves – but they are worth persisting with because of the extrinsic rewards they bring. E.g. Stopping smoking is often difficult or unpleasant, but the rewards of health, self-respect, sense of achievement etc. make it work persisting.
Takeaway: before you establish a new habit, ask yourself ‘ What makes this rewarding?’. If you can’t think of a good reason, don’t bother even starting! But if you can, write it down and look at it every time you’re struggling and asking yourself ‘Why am I doing this?’.
2. Set Mini-Goals to Overcome Resistance
My ‘big picture’ goal was to establish a regular habit and make meditation part of my everyday life. In order to achieve this, I deliberately set myself a ridiculously easy ‘mini-goal’ — just five minutes every day — in order to get myself over the biggest hurdle of all, which was sitting down to practice.
If I’d only done five minutes a day then the resolution would have been pretty worthless, so beware of setting yourself goals that are so low that achieving them won’t give you any satisfaction. But I knew that the first five minutes of practice are always the hardest — once I’ve sat for five minutes, the initial restlessness has gone and it’s much easier to sit for the rest of the session.
The result was that I sat for at least 15 minutes most days. There were only a handful of days when I was rushing around on such a tight schedule that I only had time for 5 minutes. The value of the 5 minute goal was getting me over the threshold of resistance and eliminating the temptation to skip a session.
Takeaway: Where are you likely to encounter a ‘threshold of resistance’ to doing your new activity? What’s the minimum goal you can set yourself, to get over this threshold? 5 minutes on the treadmill? 50 words of your novel?
3. Make It Part of Your Daily Routine
Any time you have to decide when you should be practising your new activity, you open the door to procrastination and resistance. But if you allocate a set time of day to it, there’s no argument — when the time comes, you either do it or you don’t.
After a while, Pavlovian conditioning takes over. When I walk into my living room first thing in the morning, my reflex action is to slide out the meditation mat and unfold it. Once I’ve done that, there’s no going back …
There is a flip side to routines however. Remember the two days I missed in 2008? Both times, exactly the same thing happened: I was staying at a friend’s house, woke up, had breakfast in unfamiliar surroundings, and had to get going quickly to catch a train. And because none of the usual triggers were in place, I completely forgot about meditation until the next day. D’oh!
Takeaway: When will be the easiest time of day for you to remember and practice your new habit? If possible, include a physical reminder in the appropriate place. E.g. attach a note to your toothbrush, or put your running shoes at the side of your bed, instead of your slippers.
4. Make a Public Commitment
Why do you think I announced my resolution on this blog? Because it increased my investment in success.
How would I have felt as a coach and agent of change if I’d had to write this post as How I Screwed up My New Year’s Resolution?. Now, I’m sure that post could have been full of valuable learnings — for me as well as you — but frankly I’m glad I’m writing this one instead.
I’ll be honest and say there were a few occasions when I really, really didn’t feel like sitting down to practise, and the main thing that got me to do it was the thought ‘Well, you told your readers you would do it — what are you going to say to them?’.
Takeaway: tell the world what you’re going to do — whether ‘the world’ means your blog audience, MySpace friends, or just your partner or best friend. When you’re tempted to quit, imagine what you have to say to them.
Edit January 2011: If you want some help keeping your New Year’s Resolution this year, check out my new coaching program The New Year’s Resolutionizer – available only until 31 January 2011.
What Have You Learned from Changing a Habit?
If you made a resolution in the last couple of years – how did it go?
What have you learned from attempts to establish a new habit – or to break an old one?