By Mary Jaksch
Starting a habit can be a struggle. It can feel like pushing water uphill. Because there is an inbuilt inertia within all of us that resists change – even if we know it’s good for us.
But it’s not only inertia we struggle with when we develop new habits – we often secretly sabotage our attempts to implement new, healthy habits. The sabotage is secret because it’s often subconscious. The good news is that once you bring the sabotage out into the open, you can let go of unskillful thoughts, and start supporting your new habits.
The way we tend to sabotage new habits is through habitual thought-patterns that disrupt our efforts. Here are five kind of unskillful thoughts that tend to sabotage creating new habits – as well as ways to re-frame thoughts so that they support change.
1. “It won’t work …”
Whenever we attempt something new there is doubt in the mind. We wonder, “Can I do it?” And not only do we experience doubt, fear also creeps in. Fear makes the mind think in terms of black and white, so we tend to think of winning or failing, and don’t consider incremental change. “It won’t work …” is a message that closes off all possibility of change.
Re-frame the thought to: “I’ll learn something new…”
2. “It’s too late …”
There are a lot of variations of this thought. It could be “I’m too old”, or “I’m too weak”, or “I’m too sick”, or “I’ve missed my chance”, and so on. For example, quite a few people emailed me to ask if it’s now too late to take part in the 8-Week Fitness Challenge. Of course it’s not too late! You can join at any time and just make it a 7-week, 5-week, or 1-week challenge! It’s never too late to change. Every moment is a new opportunity to live life differently.
Re-frame the thought: “I’ll give it a try…”
3. “I’m a … so I just can’t do it …”
This is a thought pattern we all fall into – often without noticing it. It has to do with ingrained judgments about ourselves. For example, in the comments to Want to Be Fit – or Even Ultra-Fit? one person called himself a ‘couch potato’. That kind of negative labeling undercuts all efforts to change.
I fall into this trap too. I recently noticed that I tend to say to people, “I’m not really a runner…”, despite the fact that I’ve done three uphill runs this week. Actually, a runner is someone who runs – even it its only for 30 seconds at a time.
Reframe the thought: “I can learn to do it …”
4. “I’ll do it another time …”
I’m sure we all know this one! It’s a great way to evade a challenge. “I’m too busy right now …”, or “I’ll do it next year…” these are ways our mind sabotages the opportunity to change. In fact, there is only right now.
Reframe the thought: “Now would be a good time to start …”
5. I’ve failed, so I’ll give up now …”
In every attempt to engender a new habit, there are moments when we fail. For example, if you want to get fitter or lose weight, at some stage you’ll succumb to a slice of chocolate cake, or watch TV instead of going for an evening walk.
The key is to get back on track – without a backward glance. Because what really saps energy is if you beat yourself up about a moment of weakness.
Reframe the thought: “To get back on track, my next step is …”
How to train the mind
- Become aware of your thoughts: Remember that you are in charge of your mind. You have the choice to use unskillful -, or skillful thoughts. A simple way to train the mind is to wear a rubber band or elastic bracelet on your wrist. Every time you notice an unskillful thought, change the elastic band over to the other wrist.
- Be kind to yourself : You will fare best if you are kind but firm with yourself. It’s like being your own loving parent. Encourage yourself when the going gets tough with: “You can do it!” or “Just a little bit more!”
- Treat change as an experiment: If you treat the development of new habits as an experiment, everything is of interest – including your little failures, or your unskillful thoughts.
- Start a ‘change journal’ that documents your path: Include your thoughts, emotions, insights, and observations. The process of journaling will help you to see the big picture of your journey of change.
- Use the spirit of adventure: An adventure is a journey into the unknown. If you remind yourself that change is an adventure, you’ll be more likely to ride difficulties, and still stay on track.
- Join a group of like-minded people: The 8-week Fitness Challenge has taught me the value of being accountable not only to myself, but also to others who have the same aspiration. I think everyone who has joined the Challenge (and has posted on the forum) feels inspired and strengthened by the supportive presence of others. If you would like to join, write a comment on Want to be Fit – or Even Ultra-Fit?and then join the Forum (the link is up in the navigation bar).
When you start noticing your mind’s attempt to sabotage the change you long for, you’ll find that negative thoughts crumble away once they are bathed in the clear light of awareness. In time, you’ll be able to re-train your mind in order to support and enhance change. The more you use skillful -, instead of unskillful thoughts, the more you’ll forge new positive pathways in your brain.
Please use the suggestions above in a spirit of experiment. What happens when you notice and change a thought? What kind of thoughts work best for you? Have you noticed other ways that you tend to sabotage change? Do you have some tips? Please share in the comments.
Together with Leo Babauta, Mary runs the A-List Blogger Club, an ongoing training for bloggers that members rave about:
6 months ago my blog and writing was nowhere. Enter the A-List Blogger Club. Since then I’ve gotten guest posts on big sites (including on Zen Habits), totally rebranded and simplified my site, have begun making money from affiliate sales, launched an ebook, and today my subscriber numbers are over 1,500! When I joined I was at 120. So thank you. You are making dreams come true. – Scott Dinsmore: ‘Reading For Your Success’.