Whether we like to admit it or not, a new calendar year feels like a fresh start, a new opportunity, a clean slate. We may deny its significance because it is kind of cliche, after all. New gym memberships skyrocket, new diets are researched, new apps for budget planning are downloaded with high hopes of change and permanent improvements. But most of us start and stop, experience frustration and shame and spiral down to a whole new “screw it” attitude that has us feeling stuck and powerless. How do we change that? How do we stick to these well anticipated changes and not slip and slide back to the unhealthy habits but rather continue to grow toward the person we want to be? Here are three helpful hints I’ve come up with if you’re feeling the new year, new you thing.
Brains can only act on the data and information we feed it. Data and information are fed mostly through our thoughts and our thoughts are based on how we perceive what’s going on around us. Perception, thought, action. Here’s an example of how that can hurt you if left to roam free without conscious awareness.
Perception: Viewing life as a competition, drawing comparisons to those around you, everyone is better off.
Thought: I will never be as successful as these people, I am not as intelligent, nothing goes my way, I fail at everything.
Action: Nothing. Or never applying for that promotion, giving up easily, starting at the gym but becoming easily frustrated and quitting.
1) Become an expert in your own thoughts. I can not emphasize enough the power of positive thinking from a brain changing perspective! What are you telling yourself? Collaborate and communicate with your mind using specific details. For example, instead of saying, “Ugh, I do not want to go to my mother-in-laws for the holidays, what a nightmare!” Say, “I’m choosing to have a great holiday and I look forward to doing my best to preserve my mental space!” Add the emotion that goes with having a great day, feel the happiness.
Increase your awareness and pay attention to what you’re saying because our brains are listening. I’ve been known to give clients the assignment of repeating, “I am happy, I am filled with happiness, I am sooooo happy!” the entire car ride to their next destination. 10 out of 10 times they have reported it made a huge difference. It takes a lot of practice to become aware of what you’re thinking. To help, write it down. Keep an inventory of all the things you are telling yourself throughout the day. You may be shocked at your negative perspective. It’s important to understand this negative thinking is what’s keeping you stuck. Once you write it down, go through the list and counter each thought with it’s positive. Here are some of my favorite broad ones that actually may work.
Old: I messed up/made a mistake/ruined something.
New: This is just important data. I’m collecting data so I can learn what to do differently.
Old: What if I go to the gym and I get really red faced and am the sweatiest, most out of shape person there? How embarrassing.
New: I will cross that bridge when I get there because somehow in the moment I’m always able to hold it together. Anticipated anxiety is the WORST! It will stop you dead in your tracks. In the moment, it is rarely as bad as we predicted so pushing your thoughts and worry to deal with it later could work.
Here is a whole list of examples
2) Goals, goals goals. We MUST give our brains something specific to move toward. Otherwise we are like ships bouncing around the harbor without a captain. These days, I’m all about index cards. Writing the goal out implants it in the brain in a more solid way than just thinking about it. Write the goal on one side and on the other write two or three strategies that would help you accomplish that goal. Adding a time frame increases your chances even more of sticking to your goal.
For example, Goal: Go on 2 runs a week for at least 30 minutes
1) Block the time out in my calendar
2) Get in my running clothes right when I wake up
3) Start really slow and walk if you need to
Time frame: By end of the month I will have gone on 8 runs.
I have clients who carry these cards around with them and they find it very helpful to read them through out the day. Go buy index cards for your kids stocking and steal them.
Making realistic goals is important of course and being really kind to yourself is key. Don’t call yourself a fat ass on those first few steps out of the door, be proud of yourself and feed yourself positive thoughts. I promise, it helps.
3) Expect the ups and downs as a part of the new habit forming process. I think most of us have two ways of thinking that sabotage our own goals. One, the expectation that we need to be perfect and two, needing immediate gratification and the proof of the reward. We get so impatient and disappointed and have completely unrealistic expectations. Change that to looking at the process with more flow with ups, downs and all arounds. Change is not a straight line. According to Loretta Breuning PhD, our brains are designed to reward realistic progress. Happy brain chemicals are not designed to be on all of the time. Her example from a mammal brain perspective is if we go for food and don’t get it we feel disappointed. Disappointment is normal and actually motivates us to keep trying. We are designed to have ups and downs but we need to learn to moderate the downs so we don’t spiral into giving up completely. Expect the “mess-ups” and know that they are actually there for a reason to help motivate you to try again. I think it’s really helpful to expect some disappointment in the new habit forming process. Using the thoughts above to not spiral, use the disappointment as data, watch your thinking by making sure you’re telling your brain you can and will do it and create a new goal with strategies to help keep you focused.
Please don’t be discouraged when I say this, but it takes 70-90 times of doing something to create a new neural pathway. You can break it up into smaller bits to focus on, 30 days is a great start.
2019 is going to be a great year. Say it, write it, think it, feel it, know it.