Have you ever experienced an initial burst of excitement around the new habit or resolution, but soon enough, long-term change feels just too hard to maintain? If you know what I'm talking about, the worst part is that you may beat yourself up about the fact that you never followed through with your goal, and begin to believe that you are just not capable of changing. (Which is not true, by the way!)
I see the process of changing habits much like forging a new path in a forest.
Initially, you may have felt a lot of gusto as you hack away at trees and branches in your way, but depending on the nature and landscape of that new habit, it can be easy to fall back to that old path of least resistance.
However, what if you were reminded along the way (perhaps by an unassuming gnome or forest creature), that after the difficult groundwork of hacking away at those branches, it was just a matter of continuing to walk on that path, matting down the soil and grasses with each step, that would eventually make it easy and natural to follow that new pathway?
Here are three tips to help you get through the especially difficult part of habit formation. They just so happen to form an anachronism high in emotional content, making it easier to remember: NRA.
When an experience is novel, it stands out more in our minds, so we are more likely to remember it for the long haul. Is there a new and positive experience that can mark the start of this new habit and you could also use as a reward?
Let's say you are trying to carve out a new habit of exercising more often. You might think about a special spot you've never hiked to, or a dance class you've always been interested in taking that marks the beginning of your new routine. What other novel experiences can you reward yourself with when you've met certain goals after a week, two weeks, one month, three months, six months…? You'll begin to associate these fun novel experiences with the new habit, which will act as reinforcement.
While this may seem counter to "novelty," repetition is also extremely important for habit formation. Without occasional novelty, carving out a new behavior or thought pattern may just feel like drudgery, but without repetition, it never gets under your skin in such a way that it becomes automatic or natural.
In the case of exercising more, it may be more important to have shorter but frequent bursts of exercise so that the body begins to expect and enjoy that daily dose of activity rather than holding out for the longer, bigger workouts.
Recent research from the University College London showed that the time varies for something to become habitual, depending on the person and which habit they were trying to cultivate. But on average, it took about 66 days for something to become automatic and natural (longer than the previously touted 21 days), which means that if you repeat, repeat, repeat that activity for a little over two months, you can then look forward to smoother sailing down the road.
3. Associate with positive experiences.
The more we make links to all the positive associations and potential outcomes of this new habit, the more likely we'll feel motivated to follow through with our goals. Motivation is huge when it comes to making lasting change! When we internally tell ourselves that forming this new habit will be so hard or feels like drudgery, we are setting ourselves up for resistance and failure.
Instead, you can direct your attention to all the times in the past when you've had a taste of this new habit and felt so good.
Now, think of all the positive impact this new habit will have on your life once it's become fully ingrained in your daily routine. At some point, you may look back in time and think, "Wow, I'm so glad I didn't give up but forged ahead! I carved out a new pathway, that now I can see, has made all the difference."