I’m so excited about sharing with you today, because I have finally found some things that are working for me with practice-based goals. In other words, I’ve found ways to change my habits. I know that feeling of frustration when you feel like you’re failing yet again at a changing a habit or implementing a new practice – it’s crushing. I’m here to say that that feeling is not the end of the road – I so hope that some of these tips will help some of you see a glimmer of hope for real, long-term success with practice-based goals!
Now practice-based goals are a little weird, because fairly often they involve doing the same thing over and over again. For some personalities, this gets boring and de-motivating pretty quickly. You have to remember to actually do the new thing, and then when you do remember, you have to find a way to convince yourself to do it even when your instincts are telling you not to.
Now I’ll be honest. I’m no pro at forming new habits. I have, however, been listening to pros and been experimenting with this a lot recently, because as a doctoral student, a lot of my work is both high pressure and totally unstructured – a situation in which good practices become important for keeping one’s sanity and achieving one’s goals. Here are some of the things that I’ve found have helped.
Tip 1: I have found I need to schedule time for most new practices. I think this is often overlooked with practice-based goals, because, after all, the change is meant to be becoming part of your lifestyle, rather than being something that you sit down and do. The temptation with new practices is therefore to just “fit them in.” However, practices do take time. My brain sometimes tricks me into weird time-bending mind games in which I can of course cook a meal whilst simultaneously running and still be finished with both around the same time that I currently stop working. Except that in real life (I know, real life is so annoying), cooking takes time, running takes time, and I’m not going to do either if I plan to eat around the time I get in from work.
So, the first thing I’ve had to do is learn to schedule my new practices, and to do so with enough buffer around them, so that when (not if, when) one thing runs over, it doesn’t totally obliterate the other.
Now, I know that some practice-based goals don’t take time in the same way. For example, changing our attitude doesn’t take a set amount of time in a day that you can buffer in. However, I still think scheduling in time is important for these kinds of goals, for two reasons. The first reason is that to change a mindset or a “heart-set” you need to engage with your heart, mind and spirit, and that takes time. So, sure, if your goal is based on the fact that you want to become less critical of your kids, then you can’t schedule in time for when they are going to irritate you, but don’t you think it would make a difference if you scheduled in five minutes to pray for them in the morning before you woke them up, scheduled another five minutes in your lunch break to send them a silly video telling them you love them, and scheduled in a final five minutes for sitting outside your house before you walk through the door to remember how much you love your family and how grateful you are for them? I think that would make an enormous difference.
The second reason for scheduling more time in for changing attitudes is that I think a lot of our negative mindsets and heart-sets are exacerbated by exhaustion, busyness, choas and stress, so scheduling in time to rest, reflect and de-stress makes a big indirect difference.
Tip 2: Triggers are amazing for practice-based goals. There’s a great video all about habit-forming and triggers, with examples, here, so I won’t repeat the basics. I will say that you might need to experiment a bit to figure out what kind of triggers work for you – at least, I did. Personally, setting an alarm that goes off and tells me to pray or meditate or reflect at random times of day has never really worked for me. It always seems to go off at totally inappropriate times, and then I cancel it, and forget all about praying/meditating anyway.
I do have some phone-based triggers, though. These are based on the start and finish of simple blocks of time, like work and sleep, and they pop up automatically from my ‘routines’ calendar with comments like “finish work” or “head to bed,” preventing me from getting so engrossed in something that I lose all track of the time and get wildly out of sync with my plan. I don’t immediately stop what I’m doing when a phone trigger goes off, but it reminds me to start winding down and shifting into the next gear.
My favourite kind of trigger, though, and the one that has transformed practice-based goal setting for me, is the kind where I always do one thing immediately before or after I do another. This works like brushing your teeth. I’ve never needed to make brushing my teeth a goal. I just do it, because when I was young my parents created a “trigger” that when I wake up, and before I go to bed, I brush my teeth. That trigger means that now I just do it without even really thinking about it, and I feel weird and sort of gross when I don’t. The cool thing is that we can still build those triggers, by doing the same thing, right after something else, every day, until it becomes subconscious. This is working really well for me, especially with building those kind of triggers around events that happen every day in the same way, like waking up, or finishing work.
For example, writing in my journal is something that helps me a lot, and so its a practice I want to become a habit. To aid this, I’ve made waking up into a “trigger.” As soon as I sit up in bed in the morning, I reach for my journal and start writing. I’ve done this enough times consciously now, that it has started to become something I do subconsciously. Eventually, it will become as much part of my life as brushing my teeth and I’ll be able to reap all the benefits without even thinking about doing it.
Tip 3. I think one of the reasons that triggers work so well for practice-based goals is that they bypass conscious thinking. You can set yourself up to succeed with practice-based goals by following this principle through beyond triggers, and eliminating as much conscious thinking and decision making from the goal that you can.
How frequently do you think you would brush your teeth if every time you went to do it, you had to choose a ‘routine’ from a set of teeth-brushing systems? Imagine you also had to choose which toothbrush and toothpaste to use every day. Imagine that there was conflicting advice on which toothbrush was best for each routine, and that toothpaste only further complicated the debates.
It’s a silly example, but we do this to ourselves all the time. People who say “I’m going to stop eating meat” but continue buying all the same groceries and don’t set themselves up with filling, nutritious veggie recipes are not going to stop eating meat. I’m not saying “plan your whole year’s diet,” I’m just saying “if you’re not going to eat meat, what are you going to eat tomorrow evening and is that thing in your house?”
I did this exact thing to myself this week. “I’m going to cut down on how much sugar I eat,” I said, whilst also planning an enormous, chocolate, buttercream-iced birthday cake for a friend, the leftovers of which sat in our fridge all week taking up the empty space provided by the lunches I had not planned. I did not eat less sugar this week. Surprise, surprise.
There’s nothing noble about overcoming an unnecessary temptation. So don’t say “I’m not going to eat cake,” say “I’m going to eat this delicious hummus with crudites that I have put right at the front of the fridge.” Don’t say “I’m going to exercise” – say “I’m going to walk around this park, on these days, with these people with whom I have already arranged it.” Don’t say “I’m going to start composting,” say “I’m going to put food waste that is on this printed list in this bin which is visible and in front of my eyes.”
When I make the thing I want to do easier than the thing I don’t want to do, and by easier I mean “involving less thinking and fewer decisions” then I am about 382 times more likely to do it. (Approximately.)
Set yourself up to succeed!
Tip 4: Sometimes, though, even when you remember to do something and you’re all set up to do it, you simply don’t want to do it. This is a killer when it comes to forming a new habit. Scheduling the time, so there’s really no temptation to give way to a competing priority, helps. Bypassing conscious thought by triggering the new habit helps. Some days, though, we just have to motivate ourselves.
That is where all the background, preparation work we have done so far really helps me out – I can draw on all the reasons for why I’m doing this, and why it matters, to motivate myself. If I know that doing this repetitive, counter-intuitive thing yet again is going to transform my life and make a difference to other people (even if it feels like it makes no difference right now), then I am a lot more motivated to do it, and sometimes that’s enough to get me going.
If not, the other thing that really helps with my motivation is focusing on immediate results, namely how I will feel while I am doing it, or after I have done it. For example, I’m trying to get into the habit of making time for exercise outdoors because my work is currently so sedentary and indoors, and I really miss the way exercising and being outdoors makes me feel. So, I’ve scheduled the time to do it, and I’ve scheduled more days than I need, since some days always go wrong. I’ve also created a trigger – the first thing I do once I shut down my computer is grab my phone with the pre-downloaded podcast, my headphones and my trainers. I’ve done it so many times consciously now that it’s starting to become subconscious. Half the time, since this involves so little thinking, I’m out the door before I know it and I feel amazing.
On some days, though, I feel so lethargic from sitting in front of a screen all day that I catch myself wandering around the house half-heartedly mulling reasons not to go. When this happens, I choose to remember that clear-minded feeling I’ll have when I get home. I think about how much better my mood will be, and how it will really feel like the evening has started and work is done. I think about how amazing it will feel to come home pumped and sweaty and clear-minded, and while I’m thinking, I grab my keys and lace my trainers, and before I know it I’m out the door.
So there you have it – a four-step process for implementing practice-based goals:
- Schedule time for your new practices
- Set up triggers
- Eliminate thinking and decision-making
- Motivate yourself by remembering why you’re doing this, why it matters, and how amazing you feel when it’s done.
I hope these tips help you as much as they have helped me. Practice-based goals can be hard work, but they are so worth it because they change who we are and how we live in this world, and that, of course, changes everything.
Featured Image by David Marcu via Unsplash