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Changing habits is hard: 5 ways to make changes stick

Ever tried to make a change in your life that intellectually you knew you needed to make? Did you commit to getting more exercise, eating healthier, or quitting smoking? Did you succeed? Even when we know that a change can be good for us, we often struggle to commit and stick to it. We fall back in old habits easily. 

Creating different habits does take time and commitment. For this, we need motivation. But the way we motivate ourselves is critical. If we are motivated because we think we ‘should’ and are ‘weak’ when we do not succeed we are less likely to succeed in making a change. 

There are other ways to motivate yourself. We will explore five elements of motivation that support long lasting change and will give you some tips on how to go about this. 

The five elements of motivation we will explore are: 

  1. Get real about the consequences of not changing
  2. Live your values 
  3. Be curious about your habits
  4. Feel the small (and bigger) changes 
  5. Make a plan

#1 Get real about the consequences

You don’t have to change your habits. I am serious. Why make changes if you don’t want to, or if you feel it will take too much effort? We can actively choose not to change, and that is perfectly ok. 

However, many of us feel a constant level of dissatisfaction, small or large. We often wish things were different from how they are. We feel busy and rushed in life, or feel that we are missing out . We have a distinct feeling that things could be better. If this is the case for you, then maybe not changing is not a great option. 

Do a short life satisfaction questionnaire and see how your life satisfaction is right now.

Exercise

How satisfied are you with your life

For each statement below, enter the number from the scale that best corresponds with how you are feeling right now.

Strongly disagree Moderately disagree Slightly disagree Neither agree nor disagree Slightly agree Moderately agree Strongly agree
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
  1. I like how my life is going.
  2. If I could live my life over, I would not change many things.
  3. I am content with my life.
  4. Those around me are not living better lives than my own.
  5. I am satisfied with where I am in life right now.
  6. I do not want to change the path my life is on.

Your Score:

37-42: Extremely Satisfied
36-31: Satisfied
30-25: Slightly Satisfied
24-19: Neither dissatisfied nor satisfied
18-13: Slightly dissatisfied
12-7: dissatisfied
Below 7: Extremely dissatisfied

Be Kind:

If you are not very satisfied with your life right now, do not worry. This is just a snapshot of a moment; it is always good to get real about where you are right now. From here there is a lot you can do to increase satisfaction – training your mind is one important thing. Chat with us if you have questions!

Think about your test results for a bit. Does the result reflect how you want to tell your grandchildren you spent your life? 

If your reality right now is that you are not very satisfied, then without changes, it is likely that this will be your reality in a month, six months or even six years from now. 

This may sound harsh, but the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The aim is not to depress you; the aim is to get real. Whatever score you got in the test; however you feel, this is your reality right now. It is powerful to know that. From here we can take constructive action by training your mind and making changes, if you want to.

#2 Live your values

In recent years a lot of research has been done on the role of living your values in feeling satisfied with life. The theory is that if you are living your values you feel more satisfied and happier and will be able to tolerate and manage inevitable setbacks and difficulties in life in a more constructive way. 

Instinctively this might feel right, but in practice it can be quite easy to forget our values or not live them. When our values move to the background and we are living our life almost automatically, moving from one day to the next, without really feeling that the day had anything to do with our values.  This can add to the sense of dissatisfaction that we feel in our life. 

Values are our judgements of what is important in life, which behaviours and standards we want to live to. They are not goals – like getting a degree, or a specific job, or being wealthy – they are much more focussed on how you want to be in life. 

When your values are clear and understand how closely (or not) you are currently living them, you can make a plan for concrete action to change the habits that need changing as to live more closely to your values. This can be very motivational, because our values are intrinsic to us, that means that living them makes us feel good and happy. 

You can do a value-setting exercise to (re-)discover your values.

Exercise

(Re) Discovering your Values

Values are incredibly powerful to have clear and use in your daily life. The clearer you are on them the easier it is to ensure you connect to them in the way you make choices, interact and build relationships with people and pursue your goals.

So what are values?

  • How we want to be
  • What we want to stand for
  • What kind of relationships we want to build
  • Where you want to spend your time and energy

Values are not goals. Values are our heart’s deepest desires for the way we want to interact with and relate to the world, other people, and ourselves. Values are a life long journey, whereas goals are set in time and can be achieved. Values is the way you want to live life and give direction to your passions.

Connecting to our values makes our hard work, and the things we have to deal with, worth our while. We can take a lot, and show a lot of persistence, if we are connected to our values.

Values are not the same as goals. Values involve ongoing action; they are like directions we keep moving in, whereas goals are what we want to achieve along the way. A value is like heading West; a goal is like the river or mountain or valley we aim to cross whilst traveling in that direction. Goals can be achieved or ‘crossed off’, whereas values are ongoing. (No matter how far West you go, you never reach it!) For example, if you want to be a loving, caring, supportive partner, that is a value: it involves ongoing action. In contrast, if you want to get married, that’s a goal – it can be ‘crossed off’ or achieved. If you want a better job, that’s a goal. Once you’ve got it – goal achieved. But if you want to fully apply yourself at work, contribute your best, and engage fully in what you’re doing, that’s a value: it involves ongoing action

the bull’s eye

To begin with, please write down your values in these 4 areas of life. Not everyone has the same values, and this is not a test to see whether you have the “correct” ones. Think in terms of general life directions, rather than in terms of specific goals.

Bullseye is fully living your values, outer rings reflect not living by your values. Make a work of art out of it J.

  • Relationships:
    • What sort of relationships do you want to build?
    • How do you want to behave in these relationships
    • what kind of relationship do you want with yourself?
  • Work/Education
    • What personal qualities would you like to bring to the workspace?
    • What sort of relationships do you want to develop with your colleagues?
    • What skills, knowledge, personal qualities do you want to develop?
  • Personal growth/health:
    • What lifestyle changes do you want to make?
    • How do you want to take care of your health?
    • What activities that you did in the past would you like to do again?
  • Leisure
    • What kind of hobbies/interests/sports activities do you want to participate in
    • on an ongoing basis, how would you like to relax/unwind and have fun?

Once you have drawn out your bullseye think:

  • Which of the above values are most important to me?
  • Which of them am i actively living?
  • Which of them am i neglecting?
  • Which is the most important to start working on right now?

#3 Be curious about your habits

No doubt there have been moments in your life where you have tried, and failed, to change your habits. New Year’s resolutions go unfulfilled after an initial burst of dedication, diets go south after a while, and the gym membership goes unused. This is very human; we want to change something in our lives, and we find that our habits and comforts are hard to change. This is a fact, so no need to be hard on yourself for not achieving a change you wanted. 

When you set out to implement a change, it is likely that you used a strategy of willpower and goal setting. Our society and educational system often tell us that this is the best way to go.  While it can be very useful, using willpower and goalsetting is also a strategy that burns our motivation out quickly, because we are only using one part of our brain – the pre-frontal cortex. We are using our ability to think and behave rationally to change our behaviour, and we all know what happens to our ability to think and behave rationally when we feel stressed out, or tired, or hungry for that matter. 

A more effective way to embed change in your life is to really be present and curious about your habits. Experience how your mind and body feel when you engage with the habit, and when you do not. You might start to notice when a habit actually feels good and when it does not. You may start to notice that habit might feel good for a moment, but in the long run does not feel very satisfying. You might also notice that the second or third piece of cake tastes less good than the first one. For more details about this watch thisTED talk.

To become aware and curious about our habits does not happen automatically, we have to learn the skill of Mindfulness – which we learn, among other things, in MindStrength. During the process you can use goals and willpower. An effective goal and use of willpower might be to ride out the urge to fall back into habits, be curious about this– but not actually engage in the behaviour of the old habit. 

We often associate willpower with never giving up, but we can actually get much more out of our willpower if we bring some kindness to it – if sometimes we fall back into an hold habit you can be kind to yourself, not judge, and just start again the next moment. 

#4 Feel the change

Another element of motivation is really feeling the effects of change. It can be very motivational to feel positive effects of changing your habits, and you will! But there will be moments where you question and doubt everything, and where old habits will feel easy and tempting.  

You can pre-empt these thoughts and feelings by knowing that they are part of the process and letting them just be. Also, it can help to not set your expectations too high. Be realistic in your ambitions and expectations for change. 

Changing habits, and feeling different, is a process that takes time. It is not quick and easy, and there might not be a single moment when you will feel like the change has happened. More likely it will be a lot of small moments, and it is good to catch those, to be aware of them, and savour them. When we do that, we embed change into our system.

#5 Make a plan

A critical part of motivation is making a plan. For when you want to start training your mind, the following things you can be very helpful:

  1. Write down your motivation for change. Use your values and the consequences of no change. Put it somewhere you can see it at least once a day – but not too often as you will stop paying attention to it. 
  2. Set a time aside in your day to train your mind, and stick to it as best you can
  3. Tell other people, especially the ones who live in the same household as you, about your plan – get them to help you, or at least, not hinder you.
  4. Set reminders on your phone
  5. Be kind to yourself when things do not go according to the plan. Start again. 
  6. Plan a chat with us