A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Last year my resolution was to meditate. It seemed so simple. I wanted a consistent, daily, meditation practice. Yet the only real practice I had was telling everyone I wished I had a meditation practice (hey, at least I was honest!).
After a conversation with one of my Teleos colleagues, I was given two pieces of advice: tie my new meditation practice to something I do everyday (like brushing your teeth or driving to work) and do it for five minutes a day. I had doubts that this would make a difference, I mean, what could I possibly accomplish in five minutes? But who doesn’t have five minutes a day to spare…so, I decided to give it a try.
After a month, I was amazed at how successful I was and how much I looked forward to the five minutes of mindfulness each night before bed. And, even more surprisingly, how much of a difference it was making. That five minutes made me a calmer person in ways that showed up throughout my life including the checkout line, waiting at the doctor’s office and while driving – it even helped me fall asleep. Imagine the kind of person I could be after 10 or 15 minutes a day!
So Why Does This Work?
A car uses more gas when it’s accelerating than it does once it’s in motion. We’re the same way. Very often beginning is the hardest part, so we fail before we start. One of the reasons this happens is because our brain thinks it’s going to be worse than it is. Therefore, by limiting our action to five minutes, we actually trick our brain into thinking it won’t be that bad and we are able to follow through.
When financial advisor, Dave Ramsey, works with people having money problems he tells them to pay off their smallest debts first so they build momentum and get small wins. Using this rationale, if you’re cleaning your house, he would say to finish the smallest room first so you feel a sense of accomplishment. Doing something for five minutes a day does this for habit-building. After a few days of succeeding at this small goal, your brain experiences you’re making progress and you continue to stay engaged, which leads to habit formation.
So, with this as the foundation, here are some tips for building habits:
The simpler and more specific you make your goal, the more likely you will succeed. Often people fall into a trap called decision paralysis described in the book, “Switch.” When we give ourselves too many options, this ambiguity actually paralyzes us and we wind up doing nothing. In contrast, when things are transparent and actionable, we have little room for question and we do them.
For example, rather than saying, “I will eat healthier,” decide on three to four healthier choices you will make each day, such as eating two servings of fresh or cooked vegetables as part of your lunch, drinking 8 glasses of water, eating smaller meals more often, or eating meals at home rather than at restaurants. Or similarly, rather than saying that you are going to exercise more, state that you will walk for 30 minutes every morning before work
Be Intentional and Be Positive
If you don’t have a resolution yet, it might be a good time to explore the Intentional Change Model from research done by Richard Boyatzis and presented in the book co-authored with Teleos co-founders Annie McKee and Fran Johnston, Becoming a Resonant Leader. This model suggests you imagine your ideal self – the self you want to become – and create a vision for how you see yourself in the future. Then, using this future self as a motivator, you can work on actions that take you in that direction.
An important element of the intentional change model is that you frame your goal in a positive way, rather than stating your goal as a negation of an existing habit – e.g., I will not waste time, I will not smoke, I will not overeat, etc. Instead try: I will be productive with my time, I will feel strong when I’m not smoking, I will eat things I love until I am full and then stop. Stating things with a positive intention and positive emotions actually creates energy for our actions and makes us feel good, and that is what ultimately leads to lasting change.
Use Your Self-Control Wisely
Research by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University suggests that our self-control is a limited resource – we only have so much of it for a given day – and therefore it can become depleted. This means it’s important to reduce your temptations throughout the day and use your energy for self-control in ways that support your goals rather than wasting it. Two ways he says it can be replenished are sleep and through positive emotional experiences. This is why we may have more self-control in the morning and less when we’re under stress. It also suggests that emotional regulation in the form of mindfulness may help.
The following finding by Emmons and McCullough really amazed me. People who write down five things they’re grateful for each week “reported more progress on their goals, fewer physical complaints, more frequent physical exercise, more optimism and higher overall well-being,” as compared to groups that recorded only stressors or major events in their week. Wow, all that from practicing gratitude! So if you don’t have any other goals you want to work on, why not give gratitude a try?
My resolution for 2012? I will do five minutes of yoga before lunch four days a week. Is there something that you could start doing for five minutes a day that would improve the quality of your life? Remember, be specific, be positive, be intentional, be clear, be grateful and take a moment to acknowledge your progress each time you complete your goal.