Top 10 Ways to Establish New Habits - WITHOUT Discipline - Goodlife Zen

Top 10 Ways to Establish New Habits – WITHOUT Discipline


By Mary Jaksch

“Incremental change is better than ambitious failure” ~ Tony Schwartz

All of us fear change. There is a simple reason for this: change hurts.
In his article Understanding the Science of Change, Christopher Koch explains:

Change lights up an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is like RAM memory in a PC… Like RAM, the prefrontal cortex’s capacity is finite-it can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts before bumping up against limits. That bump generates a palpable sense of discomfort and produces fatigue and even anger. That’s because the prefrontal cortex is tightly linked to the primitive emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, which controls our fight-or-flight response.

Apparently, even when someone gives us well-meaning advice, the prefrontal cortex soon threatens to become overloaded and exhausted. That’s one of the reasons we tend to get defensive.

The emotional cost of change.

All of us are resistant to change. Take a look at the following seven emotional responses that hinder change and see which ones you are prone to. (I’ve loosely followed a list compiled by psychologist A. J. Schuler)

  • The risk of change seems greater than the risk of standing still.
  • We feel connected to other people who identify with the old way.
  • We lack of role models for the new activity
  • We fear failure
  • We feel overwhelmed
  • Our self-image is threatened
  • We are reluctant to learn something new

Why discipline doesn’t work.

Discipline takes a lot of energy, because we try to bend our will away from what might be most pleasurable in the moment and towards what may be useful in the long run.

Author Tony Schwartz says :

A growing body of scientific literature suggests that people have very limited stores of will and discipline. Most of our energy is consumed by our existing habits, and by our reactions to demands in the environment. If we want to introduce new behaviors in our lives, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen.

Use positive rituals.

A great way to start and maintain new habits is through using positive rituals. Personally, I’ve come through three extensive trainings: professional music, Zen, and karate. As a musician, I had to practice at least three hours a day. At times I was tired or felt no motivation. But I had no choice: in order to perform, I had to practice.

I would drag myself to the flute and would then follow the established ritual, step by step: put the flute together, play tone studies, scales, technical exercises, then studies, and finally practice my performance pieces. This elaborate ritual led me right through my practice routine, like someone taking me by the hand. And as I followed the ritual, I would find motivation and joy on the way.

In an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, called Manage Your Energy, not Your Time , Tony Schwartz explains that positive rituals are “…behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.”

Together with Tony Schwartz, Jim Loehr wrote an inspiring and life-changing book: The Power of Full Engagement. In it they suggest using positive rituals  instead of discipline in order to change habits.

If we look at professions that demand peak performance, such as surgical teams, pilots, athletes, musicians and others, what we can observe is that they all use positive ritual to build focus and maintain safety. They don’t leave it to chance, conscious willpower, or discipline to come up with the right action.

Here then are practical ways to establish new habits without discipline:

Ten tips to change a habit by using positive rituals

1. Identify the value of the habit you want to establish.
To be truly effective, our goals must be aligned with our values. It’s not enough for someone else to say it’s a good thing to do. We ourselves must deem the goal worthy of sustained action.

2. Make your goal tangible
Let me give you an example: I’m establishing a daily physical workout at the moment. I’ve set myself a very simple goal. I want to fit into a slinky tango dress after four weeks of fitness training. I’ve taken a depressing ‘before’ shot that shows all the bulges in the wrong places, and will take another one at the end, hopefully showing a toned body. Fitting into a particular dress is a tangible goal. It works much better than saying something like: ‘I want to lose 3 kilos and have a resting pulse of 60 after four weeks of exercise’. Think of how you could make your particular goal more tangible.

3. Give yourself a clear time-frame
It’s easier to establish a habit if you give yourself a time-frame. An example would be, ‘I want to establish a daily meditation practice in the next 21 days.’ When setting a time-frame, keep in mind that new habits take at least three weeks to establish

4. Design and establish a positive ritual
Identify a flow of events that lead you to the action you want to establish as a habit. In his book The Power of Less, Leo Babauta talks of ‘triggers’. This is a similar idea. Establish a routine of events that lead, step by step, to the start of the action that is to become a habit.

5. Use your senses to make the ritual rich
Our senses are willing helpers that help us to make ritual meaningful.
Let’s take meditation as an example. The steps or early morning meditation could be as follows:
–    get out of bed and go to the bathroom
–    put on comfortable meditation clothes
–    put on some meditative music
–    make yourself your favourite tea in a little bowl
–    take your cup of tea to your meditation cushion
–    light a candle
–    turn off the music to enter silence
–    sit down in meditation posture and drink your tea – feel the heat of the bowl in your hands, smell the tea.
–    when you have finished the tea, place the cup by your side
–    start to meditate

In this example, I’ve used just about all the senses to establish a rich ritual. I’m sure you can imagine that you would be settled and disposed to meditate by the end of this ritual.

6.  Shout it from the roof top
Voicing our ideas creates activity and connectivity in the brain and creates a sense of ownership. It makes the habit ‘yours’.  Each time you explain why the new habit is important, you are convincing yourself and adding fuel to your motivation

7.    Feed you habit by reading
The more we know about our growing habit, the stronger it gets. If you are starting to exercise, reading about the experiences of others can inspire you. It’s particularly useful to read about your new habit before you go to sleep. In that way you prepare yourself for your next day’s session.

8.    Find buddies

Join with others who also want to change. If you’ve ever done physical training in a group you’ll know that we can achieve much more if there are others beside us. If we work with ‘buddies’, we utilize the synergy of all pouring energy into the same change.

9.    Report on your progress daily
This is an important piece of advice from Leo Babauta’s book. The act of reporting makes us accountable. And that is a great motivator. If you have found a buddy or have established a team, suggest that you report to each other.

10. Write a ‘Habit Journal’
This is where you document your new habit. Write down how you feel – with all the highs and lows. And also collect stats that pertain to your new habit.

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. ~Jim Ryun

These ten tips work for me, and I’m confident that they’ll work for you too.

There is one other thing that’s very important: whenever you work on your new habit, be fully engaged. In other words, you need to align all your energy: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The way to do that is to focus your whole being on your action.

Maybe you have some more tips on how to establish a habit without trying to force yourself through discipline. Or maybe you think discipline is absolutely necessary?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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