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 they 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, which 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 by 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!” or “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?
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