It’s that time of year. The January crowds are already out of the gyms, smokers are sneaking out for smoke breaks, and workaholics are powering through 12 hour days again. The enthusiasm of New Year’s resolutions fades away, and you can’t stick with a new habit. Why does this happen? And, more importantly, what do you need to stop doing in order to form new, healthy habits?
1. You believe in “no pain, no gain.”
Many people swear by this old saying. And, while it may work like a charm for some folks, it actually discourages most people. We convince ourselves that we have to struggle and suffer in order to be who we want to be. The most common example of this is in the dieting world. For example, a woman will relentlessly tire herself out at the gym, hoping to fit into a smaller dress for an upcoming event. But, she creates such stress in doing this that all she wants to do is chow down on donuts. The change becomes something that she dreads, and the escape is that safe old habit of overeating. If you incorporate change in a negative, torturous way, it is simply human nature to give up on it.
Lesson: Do everything you can to ensure a new habit is enjoyable and empowering.
2. You hold yourself to another person's standards.
Another classic and well-intentioned mistake: we try to emulate people we look up to when introducing new habits. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but if taken too far, it can sabotage you. For example, your brainiac coworker reads a new book every week. You decide that you want to be as well-read and intellectual as she is, so you try to force this same habit upon yourself. A week later, you fail to finish your first book, you don’t even like the book, and you feel like a failure. What went wrong? Basically, you failed at being another person. You tried to reach a goal through someone else’s process – what works for them. This invalidates any other techniques that may have worked for you. In addition, it places other people on a pedestal and tricks you into believing that external validation will fulfill you. While having a partner in change can help you stay motivated, don’t forget to do what actually works for you.
Lesson: Don’t compete with others; compete with your old limitations.
3. You think mistakes are a reason to quit.
Any successful person will tell you they fail on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many of us see small setbacks as justification to quit, which blocks us from the actual work of habit formation. Instead of letting our brains and bodies move through the challenging process of change, we look at any mistake and use it as a reason to slip back into old habits and give up. However, mistakes are one of the most critical aspects of habit formation. They give us insight into why we do things (e.g. you realize that stress makes you avoid cleaning your house), while teaching us resilience and patience. In addition, mistakes desensitize us from the fear of failure – something that everyone must overcome to achieve great things.
Lesson: Mistakes are part of the learning curve, and the learning curve lasts a lifetime.
4. Your identity is rooted in failure.
One of the most devious mental health issues that plagues humanity is a negative self-perception, which will quietly undermine any progress you make. We’ve heard dozens of stories about lottery winners who lost it all, squandering fortunes in a short period of time. And stories of those who lost hundreds of pounds, only to gain back even more once their diets ended. What is this odd phenomenon? Many people chalk it up to human stupidity or laziness, but it’s much deeper and more sophisticated than that. In these situations, we’re dealing with subconscious self-sabotage. Whether you obtain money, fame, fitness, or anything else, you can’t maintain it if your identity is rooted in its opposite. This is a major reason why people can't stick to a new habit - They don't truly identify with it.
For example, if you hit the lottery but still possess a belief that poverty and scarcity surround you, your decisions will reflect that belief. You’ll be broke again in no time (this really happens to many lottery winners). The same goes for the guy who loses 100 pounds – if he still views himself as an unhealthy, unmotivated junk food eater at heart, that is what he will lapse back into.
Lesson: See yourself as your greatest potential – no matter your circumstances.
If you just can't stick with a new habit, there's probably some cognitive dissonance going on. So rather than beating yourself up, stop and REALLY observe what you're doing and why. If you revert back to an old habit, there is something in that habit that benefits you.