I Am That Girl Now

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Meg's Guide to Building a New Habit

(Yes, I've said most of this stuff before, but now it's getting a whole post of its own.)

Many people make lifestyle changes-- beginning a diet or exercise program, in this case-- powered by a strong, immediate, focused drive. This new thing is fantastic! Why didn't I do it before? So simple! I can do this forever! I can do anything! Climb mountains! Leap over buildings! Fly to the moon! Goodbye to the old ways forever!

Before you know it, though, you're out of gas and the idea of having to engage in your new lifestyle irritates and exhausts you. Oh, hell, not again. This sucks. It's not fair that I have to do this and [fill in the blank] doesn't. I shouldn't have to do this today because I'm too tired/too sick/too hormonal/too achy/too stressed/too busy/too bothered. I'm tired of waiting for results; clearly this doesn't work. The hell with it.

People generally conclude from these sorts of short-term journeys that they lack willpower, that they're doomed to fail, that this stuff is just too hard. It gives them an overexaggerated idea of the difficulty and magnitude of the new activity, and gives them a diminished concept of their own abilities. It's a depressing phenomenon, to try and to fail; when it happens over and over and over again, the person's concept of their abilities hits bottom and they believe the task is impossible for them.

Like I went on about (at length) in my last post, what many people think of as "motivation" is better termed "impulse"-- it's strong, it doesn't depend greatly on thought, and it's immediate. It kicks ass while you're caught up in it, but it isn't meant for long-term propulsion; you get a certain distance and then run out of fuel. For lack of a better term (and because once upon a time, I was a Star Trek geek), let's call it the Impulse Drive.

The Impulse Drive is fueled like a rocket-- a short-term, high-energy push that's designed to fight inertia, to power your movement while you get the kinks worked out of your long-term power source, the Force Of Habit. Failing to engage the Force Of Habit will mean that once your Impulse Drive is out of gas, you will fall back to earth. You might manage to stay airborne out of sheer willpower, but it's a grim existance, it's nearly impossible to improve upon, and it's notoriously fragile-- when a catastrophe hits (or even threatens) and distracts you, there go go crashing down.

So how do you do it? Well, I have a few pointers. As with everything, your milage may vary.

First of all, accept the fact that you're not going to get very far on the Impulse Drive alone. I know, I know; it feels fantastic, it's exhilarating, and it certainly seems like it'll last forever. Work with me. Have a back-up plan in place, just in place. No harm in it, right?

Next, plan to get the most out of your Impulse Drive as you can. Everyone's fuel tank holds a different amount, so there's really no telling when yours will cut out... so ration carefully, just in case. By this I mean DON'T OVERLOAD YOURSELF. Don't make huge, drastic changes. You'll have a longer burst of initial enthusiasm if you start with one small, achievable change and then build on your success by adding another small, achievable change. (Also, that often will make it so that your Impulse Drive will re-charge in time for the new thing. Which is awesome.)

Take the huge change you want to make, and break it up into action segments. "Eat healthier" isn't one action, it's a million of them, and when you try to do them all at once you risk serious overload. Break it down.

For instance, let's use my favorite example of how to start exercising. Exercising consists of a lot of things besides the actual exercise portion; besides that, there's time committment, clothing change, transportation, sometimes a financial committment, stretching, and putting in the effort to study up on your exercise of choice. Not to mention the fact that you're going to need to start exercise at a much gentler level than you hope to achieve.

You start with what you can handle. If all that you can handle right now is waking up five minutes earlier so that you can put your exercise togs on and stretch for a few minutes before it's time to get on with your regular morning routine, then for God's sake, do it. Yes, I realize it's not a full-blown routine, but it's a foot in the door. Do this every day for a week and then push the alarm clock backwards two more minutes; with those two minutes, march or jog in place. (Please note: this is also a good way to train the I Need Your Attention folks in your life, such as significant others and children. Set the rules for how they behave while it is your exercise time; if they can behave for five minutes the first week, they can behave for six minutes the next week.) Eventually you'll have developed enough time to have a full exercise routine.

If you have to drive to a gym to exercise, then pack up your gear and drive there every day. Even if you can't bring yourself to get out, you're still banishing the "soooo much extra effort to go to the gym" issue that will, believe me, lurk in your brain.

As you add on layers, this gives you a new option-- dropping back a layer when you're in a mood, or too tired, or too pressed for time, or any one of the various reasons that will inevitably come up for not engaging in your new habit. If you're at Level 3, you can indulge yourself by dropping back to Level 2 on this occasion. Both sides win, and the basic habit survives intact.

You may have noticed a theme creeping into that last bit, regarding repetition, and yup, that's the next tip. People learn habits much faster if those new habits are linked to another regularly-occurring thing, and the new habit is done every time that regularly-occurring thing happens. Pavlov, people. This is not new science. What you are doing is spending the Impulse Drive energy at your disposal on mindfully, deliberately, wearing down a new rut in your brain. That way when you're out of IM energy, when you're not thinking, when you're just coasting on habit, the way that the habit goes is to push you right down that new rut.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. I know that many people do the thing where they only exercise three or four times a week, and if they can do that, and keep it up, that's cool. Me, I know myself well enough to realize that I needed a completely Pavlovian response-- morning = exercise. So far I don't have any daily routines in the evening that can possibly stack up to the magic of waking up, because the glorious thing about waking up is that there is no way I will ever not do that in the morning, except for when I die (and one assumes that I'll let myself off the hook for that one).

I've been told that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. I personally think it's more like 21 instances of if X occurs then Y. It may be a bullshit number, but I see it more like a goal-- the point at which I can add a new layer to my new activity.

These days, I'm trying to teach myself to brush my teeth after every meal. I need to buckle down and get hardcore about that for the next three weeks, I think; then we'll see some progress.


  • Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated this post. You have simplified something for me. I too must ensure my responses are Pavlovian. Mine will be 'one early morning mug of tea = wide awake enough to jump on the exercise bike for at least 20minutes.' If I do that regularly, I get what seems like a chore out of the way.

    By Blogger Fat Grump, at 8:54 PM  

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