Starting a New Habit

Four Thoughts that Helped Me Start a New, Healthy Habit

This post about starting a new habit is from a previous version of the Thought Tonic blog.  I have decided to update the post and add it to this version.  Although the story is a few years old, the ideas still hold true for me.  Perhaps the thoughts will have some value for you as well!

I have been running outside for the past couple of months — three to four miles, three to four days a week — on a trail that passes close to where I live.  Although I have run before in my life, including as a member of a cross-country team in high school, more than ten years have passed since I ran as much, and as consistently, as I have lately.  Even the last time I ran on a regular basis, I don’t think that I ever ran for more than three miles at once, and I always did so inside, on a treadmill at the gym.  For whatever reason, running outside has always been more of a challenge for me, at least since my days on the cross-country team — over twenty-five years ago.

The other day, when I got home from my run, I kicked off my shoes at the door, and as one of them tumbled into a position with the sole facing up, I noticed that the deep grooves in the tread had caught and held pieces of gravel, bits of twigs, and even some dead, dry moss from all my runs in the recent weeks.  For a moment, as I stared, struck by how much was stuck in the bottom of my shoe, I got lost in my thoughts.  I found myself thinking about what else I could say I had “picked up” in my experiences of developing this new, healthy habit.  What had I learned about the thoughts, or affirmations, that helped me in this process — to the point that I was now thinking about myself as someone who runs outside.

“I can do it (even when I don’t want to do it).”

I cringed a little when I realized one of the first thoughts that had been helpful to me; articulating it explicitly would likely spoil my future ability to use a whole genre of my favorite excuses without a second-thought, without knowing I was lying to myself if I tried.  The thought that had made such a difference was this one:  I can do what I want to do even when I don’t feel like doing it.  There were plenty of days over the past two months, after all, when I would have much preferred to stay in bed, and not get up, dressed, and out the door into sometimes unpleasant weather to exert myself so strenuously.  I did not feel like running on those days, but I ran anyway.  “Yay!” for me, and “Ugh!”  Now that I knew, how could I ever again use, “I don’t feel like it!” as a reason to claim I couldn’t do anything I said I wanted (and really did want) to do?

“I set myself up for success.”

A second learning I had picked up was the value of setting my intentions, and developing these intentions into a plan.  I had thought in terms of starting with running two miles at a time and working myself up to three miles and then to four, beginning with running two days a week and working my way up to three and then to four — all in a given amount of time.  Now, I had a goal of running five miles four days a week by the end of the month, at which point I thought I would likely turn my attention to running faster.  Being clear with myself about my intentions, developing a plan in which my goals were specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound had supported me in doing what I had set out to do.  I had set myself up for success by setting myself a series of what are often called SMART goals.

“I will support myself in this process.”

I was also aware that, in the process of developing my new habit, I had implemented ways to take care of myself, to help myself stay accountable to what I said I was going to do, and to feel supported.  First, I took time to stretch before each run and to do a cool down afterwards; in my cross-country days, over twenty-five years ago, I had been plagued my shin-splints — I wanted to do now what I thought might help me avoid that trouble.  Second, I downloaded a free running app onto my cell phone to help me track my runs, and see what I had accomplished.  Third, I had someone in my life who knew what I was doing, who supported me in doing it, and to whom I sent a quick text after almost every run; this person would reply with a text of “Congratulations!,” “Great job!,” or some other celebratory response that would always put a smile on my face.  For me, this exchange of texts functioned as a source of both accountability and support.

“I choose to think about what I’m doing in ways that fuel my motivation.

The fourth thought that had been helpful to me over the past couple of months concerned the reasons I was giving myself for running.  Rather than thinking in the anxious terms of what I was running from – extra weight around my mid-section, for example — I had made a conscious choice to focus on what I was running toward, and what I felt I got out of running outside.  What I was after, and what I got, was a sense of being in better cardiovascular health; time in beautiful, natural surroundings, on the trail under the trees and with views of the river; and my experience of running as a kind of “moving meditation,” which left me feeling relaxed, centered, and grounded.  Last, but not least, I got a great sense of satisfaction when I could say to myself after running outside, “I did it!”  By thinking in these ways, I was able to generate a very different energy about running outside than I would have had otherwise; with this anabolic energy building me up, I was able to support myself in doing what I said I wanted to do, and in enjoying it.

All together, these four thoughts, or affirmations, helped me start a new, healthy habit.  What thoughts fuel you with positive, anabolic energy — and so calm your anxious thinking, stoke your courage, and foster your confidence — to support you in habits that you find helpful in your life?


Featured Image:  Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Pacing Change

Sailing Into the Wind: Pacing Change

As a young child, I once darted away from my parents and gleefully jumped into the deep end of a pool.  I had done this many times before with my water wings on to keep me afloat, but this time was different: I jumped in bare armed with no inflated support to buoy me.  Fortunately, my folly was spotted quickly, and I was fished out of the water before I could quite comprehend what had happened.  In time, with support and swimming lessons, navigating the deep end on my own became second nature.

As adults, few of us would jump into the deep end of a pool if we hadn’t learned to swim, and yet we conceptualize change as requiring that we “take the plunge,” ready or not.  We often view change as an all or nothing prospect, requiring grand gestures that lead to dramatic results.  Once we are fed up with the way things have been, we can can trick ourselves into believing that the only way forward is to dive immediately headlong into everything different.

When we approach change this way, we unintentionally set ourselves up for frustration and self-doubt.  If we try to take on too much change too quickly, we may end up thrashing about haphazardly while gasping for air, like a child in the deep end of a pool.  Once we’ve experienced that kind of unpleasantness, it becomes a lot more appealing to sit by the side of the pool than to get back in it.  We start to tell ourselves that change is too scary, or that we don’t have what it takes, or that it’s not really going to be that great after all.

That’s why it can be helpful to think about making change a little bit at a time, like dipping toes into the shallow end.  Once we get a feel for the water, we are more comfortable wading in a little deeper, and a little deeper, and a little deeper.  Perhaps we can even find a trusted teacher or friend to model strokes for us.  If we take our time, not only are the changes we are making more enjoyable, but we might even take off swimming before we are fully aware that we’ve learned the motions.

You have probably heard that change is difficult and that we have a human tendency to resist anything new; yet, some schools of thought embrace change as a natural process and view people as inherently wired for transformation.  Solution-focused therapists, for instance, believe that change is “inevitable” and “always happening” (Gehart, p. 337).  Similarly, collaborative therapists observe that “we are never at a standstill; our meanings, our bodies, and so on are always in motion” (Anderson & Gehart, p. 11).  In other words, perhaps change is already in us, and all around us — not something “out there” that we have to “make happen.”  In fact, an underlying thread throughout postmodern methods of counseling is the notion that we are likely already living into the changes we wish to make to a greater degree than we realize.

A favorite metaphor of mine for change is sailing into the wind.  When sailboats are heading in the direction that the wind is blowing, they can move quickly and easily toward a destination.  But often a sailboat needs to move against the wind.  It seems impossible, doesn’t it?  Yet experienced sailors tackle this feat regularly.  How?  The practice is called “tacking upwind,” and you can watch a quick illustration of it here.

When a captain tacks the sailboat upwind, she moves the ship forward in a gradual zigzag pattern — back and forth, back and forth, a little bit closer to her endpoint with each turn.  Click here for a diagram.  If the captain were to attempt to sail directly upwind, she wouldn’t move an inch; she would be stuck.  Sailors have a name for this experience: “caught in irons.”

Whatever the change you are wanting in your life, it may help you to make your way forward one zig or zag at a time.  Be patient with yourself and with those around you.  Take a moment to notice and celebrate even the smallest steps you make; recognizing one experience of success, however small, lays the foundation for your next move.  If you have already found yourself floundering in the deep end, or “caught in irons,” that’s okay, too.  Step back, calmly take stock of your surroundings, and look for a gentle entry point to try again.  If you don’t see a way forward immediately, allow yourself to rest and come back to your goal in a few days.

Wherever you are at right now in the process of change, congratulate yourself for being brave enough to start the journey.  You have already begun to make a change, just by deciding where you would like to go.  Keep at it, no matter which way the wind may blow — the change you are seeking is already unfolding.

Featured image credit: aragami12345 / 123RF Stock Photo

Where Do You Want to Go?

Where Do You Want to Go?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car.  In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well.  I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly.  Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road!  One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.”  The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while!  The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin the new year, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.  We’ll formulate goals, or resolutions.  If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits.  If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home.  So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do.  We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!”  And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives?  Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives.  Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”?  What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”?  Let me clarify.  From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not.  In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon).  For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement.  I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do.  “I really need to get to the gym today!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!”  I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind.  “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!”  Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don’t finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”?  How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning?  The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative?  For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation).  Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …”  For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida.  Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”).  However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym.  “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids.  Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!”  For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!”  We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism).  Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety.  While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!).  For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well.  When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go.  The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well.  These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  As we begin the new year, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals.  I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful new year!


Updated: 01/12/2019

Featured image: Photo by John Baker on Unsplash