When you’re trying to find more happiness and grow, something has to change. Old habits have to fall into the trash while you pull new ones into your day.
But be honest with me here. When you start thinking about what to do differently, do you mentally jump quickly from where you’re at to where you want to be?
Most of us do. And it’s admittedly important to have a clearly identified target to aim for, so that we have something to look forward to and that motivates us to work.
But as experts remind us over and over again every new year, we don’t hit the bulk of the targets we put in front of ourselves. Some of this can be simple logistical or resource problems. But what if the biggest problem with developing better, good habits is in that initial framing?
When good goals get boxed into a dichotomous mind
When we focus too intently on the end result we want, we end up seeing a new habit in a very black and white way. Our brains, naturally wanting to classify and group and make sense of everything, try to figure out if we are “here” or “there”. We see falling off the wagon as evidence that we haven’t moved at all and are incapable of doing so. And conversely, if we take the right action, then we already have transformed and just need to maintain.
The problem with this dichotomous thinking with a habit is twofold. First, it gives you an excuse to stop trying. If you see a single failure as putting you “here” (back where you were), then you have no perceived reward for your effort. You start to ask, “Why in the world am I even doing this?!” And with no perceived reward, it’s easier to bail.
Secondly, because you don’t perceive that there is a reward for the effort you put in, you can’t celebrate. Celebrating what you’ve accomplished brings more joy into the growth experience and changes how you remember and feel about your work.
Let me offer my experience with one of the most common resolutions as an example. Like so many others during COVID-19, I’d gained a little weight. OK, OK, a lot of weight. So my goal became to shed the pounds by exercising and eating better. I prepped well, including getting new fitness apps and stuffing my pantry with healthy munchies.
But then, just a day or two into the resolution, my son decided to bake some cookies. Now, I must have had a million cookies over the course of my I’m-not-gonna-tell-you years on this planet. But in that moment, I never had smelled anything so delicious in my life. My saliva glands went on overdrive. And when my son went out of his way to put his creations on a little plate and present them to me with a plea for snuggles, I caved.
I enjoyed the treat in the moment. But afterward, I was miserable. How weak was my willpower, really? I was doomed, for sure, to always wear elastic-wasted pants. I would always take the cookies. And even though I’d eaten amazingly well up until then, it felt like none of that work even had happened. And if that good work hadn’t happened, was it such a big deal if I added some ice cream to the cookies and confirmed “reality”? That’s what I did.
Fortunately, I tried again. And although I still opt for cookies here and there, I use my trackers and scale to remind me I’m not where I was weeks ago, and I don’t choose those confections as much as I used to. I’m constantly reminding myself that forming a habit is not point-based with just a start and end point. It is an entire linear journey. Failed attempts don’t mean you haven’t worked hard or changed. They just mean you’re not done yet, and that the pull of the old way is still strong.
Think of it in terms of the old saying — two steps forward, one step back. Even if you reverse course a little, you’re not where you started, are you?
Acknowledge, forgive and press on
Our knee-jerk reaction when trying to build a habit is to think in strict boundaries, and to assume that a single failure puts us back at start. Our brain naturally wants to head in this direction, and on top of that, culture crows the message of future- or vision-centered, goal-based thinking louder than a defective alarm clock that won’t shut up.
But stumbling doesn’t mean you haven’t walked. It doesn’t mean you haven’t observed or taken in information or made important decisions. Even if you “fail” here and there, the journey is good for you. You’re moving. You’re different. The shifts might be painfully slow and small, but they are there.
So don’t be afraid to battle your black and white thinking and acknowledge them. Instead of thinking only about that final end goal, look for all of the smaller milestones that more truthfully tell where you are. Forgive yourself for the blunders, and never give up.