New Year Habit Changes

New Year’s resolutions are essentially commitments to change a habit that we realise consciously is not serving us well. It’s true that the evidence on such habit change isn’t good. We can find lots of surveys that show that the vast majority of people have broken their commitments to themselves before the end of January.

In my experience, this is incredibly important. We all live with regrets about aspects of our pasts, decisions made or not made, things achieved or not achieved. For many years in my life, starting way too young – I was a smoker. When i look back now I marvel at the mental kidology I was capable of in my 20s and 30s to convince myself that this wasn’t a problem in my life. I played rugby, went running and was very physically active. So, I used to tell myself that this meant the smoking wasn’t harming me as much as it might harm a sedentary person. Looking back now, I wonder how much better I might have been at those sports if I hadn’t been lighting up before and after training or matches.

Slowly, the health effects were creeping up on me so that by my mid thirties I knew ‘something needs to be done’ I started giving up! And I was successful – every time, sometimes for as little as a couple of hours. Maybe one of the biggest low points was when I agreed with a doctor that I needed to do something after a string of repeated chest infections. I was still in England at the time. The doctor put my name down for a hypnosis session. One session was meant to be all you needed to give up. It cost me 50 pounds. I had a nice rest – I think i actually went to sleep. 5 hours after walking out of the clinic i lit up again!

When I moved to India, I was still in the process of regularly giving up. I did bring about a fairly significant reduction in my smoking, but I still wasn’t giving up. The longer this went on, I now realise, the more my self esteem and belief in myself was wearing down.Every day I was doing something to myself that I hated, that in my conscious mind I was so clear I wanted to stop and that desire should have been enough. It ate away at me to think that I was someone who apparently had so little self-control. I felt condemned by own lack of effective willpower.

What I realise now and wish I had known then was that the more I fixated on the habit I wanted to stop, the less it was likely I would be successful. I needed to realise that willpower alone was not going to get me there. What I should have been doing was;

a) Seeking to understand the benefits that smoking gave me – the secondary gains, wrapped up in self-image of myself as a smoker, keeping my hands busy while anxious or preoccupied,
b) Figuring out a new, less harmful habit that I wanted to put in its place,
c) Enlisting accountability partners – people to whom I would give undertakings and who would call me out when I failed. I came across a great idea of promising to a friend to give money to a cause you vehemently disagree with every time you fail. That focuses the mind, because every failure hurts at a personal, visceral level.
I’d certainly have my mind focused if I was obliged to give money to Nigel Farage and UKIP every time I failed in changing my habit!
d) Maybe the biggest and most fundamental issue is how to deal with failures when they happen. Too many of us see habit change or resolutions as a zero sum game. The result is that as soon as we have a lapse of any sort we start putting ourselves down, condemning ourselves. Failing at a habit change has to be something we do, not something we are. It is not all-defining in terms of who we are and it’s rarely terminal. All too easily, we treat a failure as evidence that we were foolish to want to change the habit, to believe that we could.

We start to identify ourselves as a person who can’t change habits. Yet, if we stop and think for a moment and ask one simple question – can I think of a habit I had in the past that I don’t have today, we’ll all be able to think of at least a few. Once we do, we can understand how we have been successful at giving up past habits and believe that we can be successful again.

So, if like me, you’ve got some commitments you’d made to yourself to address a habit, to change something in your life – and so far your performance on the change has been less than stellar, it’s time we cut ourselves a bit of slack, stop beating up on ourselves and reevaluate to see whether we can get the change habit back on track.

When we are able to change a habit, however small, there’s enormous power to create momentum that we can channel to taking on bigger challenges and changes. My belief is that humans are rather like bicycles. We’re not stable when standing still and not very effective in that condition. We’re meant to be in movement, perpetually moving towards progress. When moving in a line, as straight as possible, towards meaningful goals that’s when we humans are at our most effective and powerful.


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