When motivation is high, taking action can be easy. Whether you want to lose weight, reduce your stress levels or learn a new skill, getting started is less of a problem for most people.
Our body and mind give us markers and triggers when we reach our heaviest weight, or when we become ill, or when our stress levels are through the roof. A change in our circumstances might remind us of our vulnerability. We might read, watch or learn something new which inspires and gives us hope, opening our eyes up to the possibility of positive change.
Whatever the trigger, we usually start our change with a high level of motivation and focus, we know what we want (or don’t want) and have the energy and drive to get started. The newness and novelty can feel interesting and exciting as we notice some initial benefits and quick pay offs which motivates and encourages us reinforce the behaviour.
For example, you feel a sense of satisfaction from attending the gym, even if you don’t enjoy it. You notice you feel more at ease or sleep better and might gain pleasure and attention from talking about your new interest or moan about your new eating plan with your friends and work colleagues. Even if you’re not enjoying it, at first you manage to keep up your new behaviours with simple determination and discipline, but why is it so hard to keep them going?
Think about the last goal you had, why did you stop working on it? Did you get bored or distracted? Many people say lack of time, maybe work or family commitments as the reason for stopping, but most of us have these challenges, so why is it so hard to stay focused? And how can we make these new behaviours sticky and habitual?
Well there are many complex reasons why new behaviours can be difficult to sustain and other times it’s about simple convenience and the new behaviours fitting in with our lifestyles and our normal routine, for instance, our work and family commitments and our social circle – where we go, who we go to these places with and what is the norm for us.
There is no doubt about it, the easier and more convenient the new behaviour, the more likely we are to make it a habit.
So, what’s the magic cure for sustaining new behaviours?
Let’s talk about habits. Habits save us time, effort and energy. If you think about your own habits, you may think of them as good or bad habits but that can be unhelpful. Think of habits in terms of whether they are serving you well right now. So, preparing your lunch for work and exercising daily you may categorise as being useful, they help you to achieve your goals – being on time, staying fit and healthy. Whereas procrastinating, comfort eating, staying up late, scanning social media may be considered unhelpful habits, or ones which are not serving you well – if they conflict with your future goals.
At some time, you created these habits intentionally or unintentionally. They served a purpose, you repeated and repeated and now they are part of your daily routine. They are neither good or bad, you just may have outgrown them or recognise they are no longer serving you well. Many of your longest standing habits may have been modelled at a young age, from those around you, or developed as a strategy to cope with a particular situation- i.e. stress or boredom. You can pick up habits from others as an adult too, think about the people you spend time with and how they influence your behaviour in particular situations.
In summary, your habits are your go-to, your default behaviour if you like. A familiar path you tend to take.
When we outgrow our habits, it can feel tough to change them, as they are so familiar and automatic, but it is 100% possible to change your habits with awareness, planning and know how.
Remember, that habits save us time, effort and energy, so aim to create behaviours which are meaningful and serve a purpose, so using the exercise habit example, be clear with yourself about why you are exercising and get specific with your goal setting.
Make sure the habit is as convenient as possible too. So, plan your exercise activity at a time when you have the most time or energy and when you’re least likely to get distracted. For instance, choose the most convenient place – i.e. at work or straight after work. You can link your new habit with another already established activity, for example – when the children are in gymnastics, it’s your time to go for a run, so it already feels like that habit is part created.
In summary, it’s great to capitalise on motivation and set off when your motivation is high, but in order to sustain long term change, think things through. Be smart and use your know how to focus on effort saving strategies which will strengthen your commitment, by creating habits which become part of your everyday routine.
As featured inside Thrive Magazine Spring 2020 issue. Emma is a behavioural change specialist with over 20 years of experience in supporting people to improve their lifestyle and maximise their performance. Find out more from Emma at www.performancecircle.co.uk