“I have trouble sleeping. I think it’s stress,” a friend of a friend told me.
I rattled off my go-to suggestions in an effort to help. Exercise. Meditation. Lay down on the floor with your legs up against the wall for 20 minutes (a yoga teacher I know swears by this).
She gave me a nod and a rueful half-smile, conveyed the usual sequence of feelings; agreement, because she already knew the answers, guilt for not doing what she knew will help, and shame that she probably still won’t.
Her eyes glazed over, a reluctant acceptance of what can never be. The commitment to add one more thing to her plate, to make time and effort and a habit seemed too overwhelming.
Good habits. Every day there seems to be a new one, one that promises to be worth the reward of a better, healthier, happier life.
With little glory and no glamor, too far off in the future and for a price we don’t always want to pay.
I admit, sometimes just the thought doing more makes me tired and want to go lay down.
Truth be told, I want the reward. I want to be the kind of person who rises to the challenge, makes change when needed and pushes herself past her limits.
It’s not that habits don’t work. It’s the amount of work it takes to make good habits or break the bad ones.
In our head, we start imagining it to be BIG PAINFUL WORK THAT YOU MUST SUCCEED AT, RIGHT NOW. We forget it’s fear screaming, and that work can be broken down into small parts and be tackled one day at a time.
So when faced with the daunting task of “make this a habit every day” (and the implied undertone, “or else you’ll never succeed”), I’ve learned a few ways to go about it:
1. Ignore it
Yup. If it feels instantaneously wrong for you, feel free to say no, or not right now, with the possibility of revisiting at a later time.
When the hot trends or guarantees of super health jam my feeds with things like the latest juicer or the best exercise equipment ever, I ignore them. Not for me.
2. Postpone it
Too many new things at once overwhelm me. One thing (max two) at a time.
3. Adjust frequency
Every day is ideal but my life is not quite ideal, so I shoot for a different time frame when possible, like a week. I can aim for once, twice or three time a week and call it a success, then build up from there. Example: exercise.
4. Create boundaries
Ever since my silent meditation retreat eight months ago, I’ve learned to meditate every day (or pretty darn close). At the retreat, the ideal recommendation for a meditation habit was two hours daily, one in the morning and one in the evening. When I got home that lasted maybe a week. So I decided on 20 minutes a day and called it good.
Without boundaries, it can feel like you’re always falling behind.
5. Check your pros/cons
For a habit I aspire to be serious about, I check what I have in my favor (pros) and what possible obstacles stand in my way (cons).
Example, daily flossing. As a dentist, you’d expect me to be all over that but the truth is I wasn’t walking the walk in my younger years. It’s simple, takes only a couple of minutes and despite being IN the profession, I wasn’t doing it daily.
My obstacle: laziness. Nothing earth-shattering there, and a common one at that. My pros: My professional pride. Keeping floss front and center by my sink. And willpower. I forced myself to floss every night before brushing my teeth (which I did without any resistance) and before long, it stuck.
Other pros: support/accountability from apps, friends, like-minded groups, spouses, your kids who call you out.
6. Trial and error
This is a bit tricky. Sometimes I’ll try something new with the intention of a short time frame, let’s say a couple of weeks or a month, to see if benefits me, not just because someone I admire and respect, or a ton of people, raved about it. It may turn out to be blah, or it can turn out really well. Example: 30-day challenges.
7. Ease up on the pressure
When trying something new, we tend to look at those already successful and emulate them. When I started writing, I did the same. As I looked to successful writers and some of their habits, I was promptly and totally intimidated. Wake up at 4:30am? Write how many words each day? There was no way I could do all that, but I did what I could, with the feeling of not measuring up simmering in the background.
When we’re starting, we can’t compare ourselves to those further along in their journey. It’s too much pressure, and it hurts more than helps if you’re not careful. Habits take time to build and stick, and a relaxed state of mind will carry us further than one that’s buckling under the strain.
Crack that “should” open
When faced with the idea of doing something you “should”, the initial excitement and inspiration can quickly turn into overwhelm about the amount of work, time and commitment required for a prize far into the future.
Within the space of a couple of seconds, you can start second guessing yourself and feel discouraged.
Doing something just because it worked for someone else, to seek external validation, or without deeper thought not only keeps us from trying new things but from sticking to them.
But putting zero effort into our life, and drifting day by day doing the same thing and dealing with the same problems over and over doesn’t sound like a way to enrich life either.
“I want to start doing things for myself,” said the friend of a friend. “I bet when it starts to work, it’ll be easier to keep going.”
I said, “Give it some thought. No stress. I’d say sleep on it, but…”