We are into the last week of February. Where in the world has all the time gone? This year is already traveling at light speed! My yoga class has dwindled back down to a tolerable amount of students, when in January all the New Year’s dreamers had us packed in like sardines, full of giggles, talking, making it anything but a relaxing, strengthening workout. While it’s sad that so many people fall off the wagon so to speak with their annual resolutions, it’s not all that surprising. In fact it’s so predictable, most classes found at a gym refuse to provide a bigger space unless the attendance is still high past the month of January.
While these statements may seem a little negative, bad-mouthing all the people who excitedly kick off January 2nd with the biggest of dreams and calling their bluff, on the contrary it has more to do with habit loops than their lack of desire. Turns out motivation can only get you so far, and if you’re not intrinsically motivated, your ship won’t just lose the wind in its sails, it may never leave the dock.
As a person that is more internally motivated, sometimes that ambition disappears and I risk not only a lack of productivity, but I then get so frustrated with myself that hands go up in the air and I dwell for days or sometimes weeks on what a failure my actions have led to. This shame spiral is incredibly common, especially when we’re constantly surrounded by commercials and other media that lead us to believe everyone else is doing so well. So how do we keep that negative self-talk at bay and our momentum going?
Believing that you’ll always hop up out of bed wanting to attack the day with all the energy and motivation that you had on day one isn’t realistic for most people, which brings me back to habits. Habits are so automatic, a lot of times we don’t even realize what we’re doing. Stumbling to the coffee maker to flip the switch every morning, checking our smart phones before hitting the pillow every night, even checking the mail the second we get home from work. Some habits are good, others may not necessarily be bad, but they certainly may not be all that helpful. Hitting the snooze button three times because it’s so automatic even when you’re not tired, your brain sees that clock, knows you technically don’t have to get up yet and with the flick of a button, you’re out of bed 30 minutes to an hour after you easily could’ve started your day.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the cues that set off our good and other times undesirable habits, also known as triggers. That noisy and annoying alarm triggers reaching for the snooze and our reward is that we get to stay underneath those snuggly warm L.L. Bean flannel sheets a few more minutes. (That’s not a paid advertisement, I just seriously love their flannel and have sworn by them for years!!) This satisfied feeling creates what’s known as a habit loop: a cue/trigger, the resulting action, then the reward. That feel good feeling, even if only for a moment, leads our brain to react in the same way the next time that trigger happens.
It’s also a difficult loop to break. In fact, researchers say that new habits can take anywhere from 14-90 days to form. So, that new habit of going to the gym first thing in the morning? You’re not only adding something new, but also breaking the old habit of getting a few more minutes of shut-eye. With all that in mind, it’s not surprising so many people only spend a week or two at their new class or gym before succumbing back into those already ingrained actions, promising themselves they’ll try again tomorrow or next week.
For those of us who aren’t satisfied with accepting that old dogs can’t learn new tricks, we need to think more about adding new positive habits than breaking negative old ones. While still a challenge, this is much easier to do. For me it started with changing the sound of my alarm. Even though it wasn’t a blaring alarm, I still associated the wind chime-like sound with getting up before dawn and going to a job that was so emotionally abusive and draining I dreaded the noise. Instead, I opted for a newer, happier sound of birds chirping and singing. It doesn’t result in a rudely abrupt waking, but a subtle and progressive alertness. Doing 10 minutes of setup before crawling into bed has also helped. Things like prepping the coffee maker, getting out the water bottle I’ll use the next day, and picking out tomorrow’s workout clothes all the way down to the pair of socks and sports bra I’ll wear. Any small thing that makes it harder to change my mind in the morning.
So, if you made a resolution that caused your heart to sing and your brain to buzz, stop all that negative self-talk about how once again, you lacked follow through. Instead, identify all the things that are making your new goal so difficult. Then figure out what simple small things you can do to set yourself up for success. Maybe it’s a new vanilla macaroon tea that calms you down and helps you get to sleep earlier or a fun new tank top from your favorite non-profit that you get to wear to your new Zumba class. Whatever it is, I have faith in your new habit loops!