4 ways to jump-start a change in your life {stop an old habit or start a new one}

behavior-change-habit Making changes as a human is not easy. I often tell my clients it's like trying to swim against the current, because we truly are creatures of habit, and the more we do something one way, the deeper the neural pathway grooves are, and the more difficult it is to make lasting change. Our brains love autopilot, and stubbornly resist when we try to switch to manual control.

On the upside, we do know that it's certainly possible to end old habits and form new ones; and when a new behavior becomes a habit, the amount of required willpower and decision-making to do it decreases, and your new habit can become more a part of your autopilot setting. (But of course, continuing to be intentional about living your desired values and actions day-to-day is the best recipe for long-term success.)

In this post, I'll share 4 strategies that could apply to a variety of different behavior changes, offering you some tools that can help you jump-start a change you want to make in your life.

1 // Make an impact inventory. 

How is your current behavior -- the one you want to change -- really impacting your life? Often, we know that something is hurting us (or taking us further from our goals or the life we want), but we can be really good about keeping our heads in the sand about the details. Take a cue from the 12-step fellowships by making an inventory of all the ways that behavior is impacting every area of your life: physical health, emotional and mental health, financial, family, intimate relationships, career/education, spirituality, and legal/ethical. Don't just do this in your head -- write it down in as much detail as you can. I've seen over and over again how powerful and motivational this kind of inventory (part of step 1 of the 12 steps) can be for my clients.

2 // Get to the root of the function of your behavior, and how that function will be served when your behavior changes. 

This one is critical. I'll illustrate with an example from my own life: I sometimes go through periods where I waste a couple hours out of the week window-shopping online and aimlessly wandering into Target on my way home from work. I've gotten better than I used to be about actually buying stuff I don't need, but the temptation is huge, and I end up regretting the time spent that I could have used much more productively. When I notice this starting to happen, I have to take a step back and ask myself: what is going on with me? Usually, that behavior serves a couple of functions*: it allows me to procrastinate things I really need to do, and it allows me to live in a fantasy world where I look "totally put together" and everyone loves and accepts (and maybe even envies) me. So underneath that are two needs: to organize my tasks so I don't feel as overwhelmed by them, and to have meaningful connections with the people in my life who already love and accept me without all the fancy clothes or decor. Once I can identify those needs, I can take responsibility for meeting them instead of using shopping as a decoy/quick fix solution.

*The focus on function rather than "form" that a particular behavior may take is one of the reasons why Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one of my favorite therapy philosophies/models; the geeky scientific underpinnings are all about "functional contextualism."

3 // You need an accountability partner. 

I'm sure there are people out there who have made lasting change totally on their own, and kudos to them -- I bet they are the same ones whose morning breath smells like roses. I don't use the word "need" here lightly. Again, in the 12-step fellowship -- arguably the largest model for behavior change in the world -- one of the things that makes it so successful is the use of sponsorship. Having a sponsor as a key accountability partner is life-saving for a person newly in recovery, especially anytime they face a particularly stressful or triggering situation. Therapists, coaches, or friends who really "get" your goals and desired changes can also be great accountability partners. Having a group of cheerleaders online can be great, too, as I've discovered via a Facebook group for the online streaming barre workout service I use. I credit interaction with the group, which involves publicly committing to my goals, and a sense of accountability to other group members, as one of the major reasons I have worked out more consistently in the past few months than I have in years.

4 // Just START. 

Don't wait for the "perfect" time or to feel "ready" to make a behavior change. One of my work colleagues calls people who use this rationale "Monday people." ("I'm gonna quit smoking! I'm really gonna do it. I'll start the patch Monday." Does Monday ever come?) Ambivalence fuels more ambivalence-- but once you just get started, the power of inertia will work in your favor. You can get a rush of energy from feeling excited that you're moving in the right direction, and you can prove your mind wrong that you're incapable of doing anything different until all the stars and planets are aligned in your favor.

These are just a few ways to get you energized and motivated to make a change you've considered for a while, but needed an extra nudge to put into action.

What has helped you make lasting behavior change in the past? What mental traps get in your way? 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.

recommitting is not sexy... but it is beautifully human.

recommitting As humans, we like to go big or go home. Even when it comes to basic behavior change, we want to make a splash.

We'll wait for the “right time" before we decide to really commit (or recommit) to something.

Here’s how it often sounds:

  • I’ll start eating better on Monday. (My colleague endearingly refers to this common phrasing as “Monday people”)
  • I’ll start sleeping better next week after this project.
  • I’ll stop smoking at the end of this pack/ the end of this month.
  • I’ll start saving money when I get a raise.
  • I’ll start exercising as a New Year’s Resolution.
  • I’ll clean out clutter when the next neighborhood garage sale rolls around.

And the list goes on.

I, for one, have made some pretty kickass changes in the past year. I started waking up earlier (and usually going to bed earlier), blogging consistently, working out more regularly than ever before, meditating daily, and switching to a pescetarian style of eating (can you tell I hate the word “diet”?). I’ve taken on oodles of new interests and hobbies, like learning about and experimenting with essential oils and flower essences, tarot and oracle cards, crystals (okay, yeah, I’m a total hippie), getting ready to cut a band demo, gearing up for yoga teacher training this fall, writing and releasing an eBook, and getting more involved with my UU church.

And all in all, I’ve done a pretty damn good job at sticking with the habit/behavior changes and digging into the learning and exploration. But make no mistake — I am so NOT immune to the gravitational pull that is AUTOPILOT.

In the past several weeks, I’ve been slowly but surely taking an inventory of my life and noticing where I need to make some mini-adjustments: I had been slacking recently on blogging once/week. I had started snoozing my phone alarm multiple times, or lying in bed surfing email and Facebook for 20 minutes before getting up. I’ve been hot-and-cold with journaling. I’d find myself tethered to a computer most of the day on a Saturday, when I should be out adventuring. I’d nervously chew at my nails and compulsively check my phone for lord-knows-what. I’d stress myself out searching through different yoga videos for 10 minutes trying choose “just the right one” to do (counterproductive, much?)

Gradually, I’ve been recommitting. I’ve been making little adjustments bit by bit, not as a dramatic changes and not all at once. In her new book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin dives deep into the study of habits and all the factors that contribute to successful habit formation. I haven’t yet read the book (may wait for the paperback to release), but I’ve listened to numerous recent podcast interviews in which Gretchen discusses the key concepts. One of the ideas she talks about is that some of us do well with making more dramatic changes/commitments (like “I don’t exercise, so I’m going to sign-up for this marathon in 4 months and train everyday!”), and some of us fare better with more gradual shifts (“Maybe I’ll sign up for Couch to 5k and plan to get in 2-3 jogs a week and a yoga class.”) It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, and you have to be honest with yourself about which way works best for YOU.

In one blog post, Rubin writes,

"Some people have better success changing a habit when they start small. A series of small but real accomplishments gives them the energy and confidence to continue. For instance, a person who wants to write a novel might resolve to write one sentence each day. Or a person who wants to start running might resolve to run for one minute. This approach is often emphasized as the best way to form a habit. But in fact … some people do better when they’re more ambitious. Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a minor change. When a habit is changing very gradually, we may lose interest, give way under stress, or dismiss the change as insignificant. A big transformation creates excitement and energy and a sense of progress, and that helps to create a habit."

I am a “big change” person. (Apparently so is Steve Jobs, because that blog post goes on to quote him as having said, “I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why.” I can be like Steve Jobs plz?) And I like that about myself. Dramatic and sudden changes are exciting…that is, until it’s time to REcommit.

Recommitting is not sexy. It’s not revolutionary or exciting. Our all-or-nothing brains don’t like the idea, either. They want to say, “meh, I tried the running thing. It went great for a while but it’s fizzled out, so time to move on to the next thing.” (By the way, it’s kind of hilarious that I’m using running as the example because I loathe running, but I figure it’s a pretty universal example. *shrug*)

But recommitting is also beautifully human. So that’s what I’m doing. And I challenge you to ask yourself right now — what is it that YOU need to recommit to? What micro-adjustments need to be made to your already-fairly-good-but-maybe-fizzling habits?

And if you’re looking for support in getting back on track with habit changes, or starting one in the first place, head on over to my coaching page to learn about working with me 1on1. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.

how to start (and actually stick with) your meditation practice

MBSGift-1.jpg

As I write this, I’ve just hit an 18-day streak and 57 total times meditating since mid-December. It’s been 70 days since I started tracking, and weirdly, I actually feel more proud of my 57 check-ins than I would if I’d had a perfect 70-day-streak. Why? Well, I can tend to get all-or-nothing with things (especially new habits), and even when I got sick or busy and missed a day or two, I got right back on the horse rather than getting discouraged and stuck in a rut. I finally feel secure in developing a habit that I’ve wanted in my life for years, and in this post I'm sharing tools and tips to help you do the same. But first, let’s rewind…

Howdy, Pot! Name's Kettle...

A few months ago, I felt like such a hypocrite. 

I had consumed seemingly infinite books, blog posts, and podcasts on the wide-ranging, evidence-based benefits of meditation and constantly talked with my clients about the value of mindfulness — yet I wasn’t meditating regularly. (Of course, there are other ways to practice mindfulness besides formal meditation, but still!) Last fall, I was at a point where I would sit to meditate once every week or so, with sporadic spikes of greater or lesser frequency. I wanted to walk my talk, but something was getting in the way.

I vividly remember writing one day in my journal (just checked and it was an entry from October) that I was frustrated with myself for not meditating regularly because I knew too much not to, and wondered how I could get past whatever was blocking me from making it a regular habit. I had been doing so well with creating other new habits in my life like waking up early and working out more regularly than ever before (in a healthy way), but the meditation habit seemed much more elusive.

Any of this sounding familiar to you yet? I've encountered so many people both in my work and online who, like me, talk about wanting to start a meditation practice, but really struggle to stay consistent with it. 

To give a little context about why this has been so difficult for me, I should tell you that I am definitely that chick who wants to roll up the yoga mat after about 30 seconds of savasana. Time to get on to the next thing! No need to lie here and get all comfortable if I’m just going to jump back into the day full-force! I’ve really been working on becoming more okay with stillness, slowing down, and being in a low-charge state, since I feel much more at-home in the high-charge state of GO-GO-GO, DO-DO-DO! Both savasana and meditation are ideal ways for me to practice this, and I’ve learned more recently about how both of these not only promote relaxation, but also integration whether it's integration of the yoga practice, or just of my overall recent experiences. 

Meditation to Integrate Mind + Body + Spirit

This idea of integration is a big part of what has sold me on the whole meditation thing (and truly softening into savasana), because one of my greatest passions is mind + body + spirit integration. So much of the pain that I see with my clients, and that I experience in my own life, occurs because the core aspects of being human become siloed. That could mean:

  • You’re up in your head and ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, overly concerned about what others think about you, etc.
  • You’re working out to look toned and fit without really considering your emotional and spiritual “fitness"
  • You’re into daydreaming and otherworldly divinity and spirituality, but feel disconnected from your own physical body

It should come as no surprise that we feel much more happy, balanced, and fulfilled when these aspects of our lives are integrated rather than fragmented. A consistent meditation practice can shed light on how you may be separating your life into these different buckets, and also gives you the tools to practice integration both during the practice and “off the cushion” in your day-to-day life (I say this in quotes because I, for one, do not meditate on a cushion. No offense, purists…I keep my spine in alignment, but I need some back support!) Generally speaking, I believe our culture lives very much Up In Our Heads, and practicing mindfulness via a body scan meditation, focusing on the breath — and simply learning to pay attention with non-judgment to body sensations, emotions, and thoughts — are all ways that we can better bridge the gaps between these facets of human existence. 

How Behavior Change Really Works

I’ve written a little about habit formation in the past, and I'll focus specifically here on how I turned this goal into a reality, and how you can do the same. Dr. BJ Fogg  founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, created a model of behavior change called the Fogg Behavior Model, which he simplifies as “BMAT,” or Behavior  = motivation X ability X trigger (all three aligning at the same moment.) He posits that when a desired behavior does not occur, at least one of these three elements is missing.

BJ Fogg's BMAT Model

In my case, I had probably moderate motivation level, moderate ability, and insufficient triggers. Here’s how I increased each of these elements enough to create a consistent meditation practice: 

Motivation: On one level, I really wanted this new habit — but I also didn’t love doing it, since I prefer to be on hyper-speed. So, my motivation probably wasn’t going to dramatically change. It was not going to carry me all the way, by any means. In that case, I really needed to focus on the latter two elements…

Ability: Where motivation flags, it’s important to make your desired behavior change easier by finding ways to increase your ability to do it. I like guided meditations, and I found that I was more likely to meditate if I had easy access to good guided meditations. I’ve tried numerous meditation tracks available on Spotify and YouTube, bought a few tracks from folks I’ve found online, and created a couple of my own, too. But I like to have a lot of variety so I can choose the best track for the time I have available and what I have going on at that point in my day. (Yeah, yeah, a bit of a guided meditation snob.) Thus, I’ve experimented with over a half-dozen meditation apps in the past few months. In the next email I’m sending out to my tribe (going out in the next couple of days), I’m including a free downloadable Meditation Apps Resource Guide that will succinctly outline all the apps I’ve tried, the pros and cons of each, and which is my overall favorite. Sign up now to make sure you’re on the list to get that one!

Triggers: Speaking of apps, if you wondered why or how I know the exact number of times I’ve meditated in the past two months, it’s because I started using a free smartphone app called Coach.me that allows you to create your own goals (or join others who are already working toward the same goal), track your progress over time, and have access to the whole community of app users for accountability and Q&A. You also have the option of hiring a coach to help you work toward your goals for $15/week, but I haven’t used that feature so I can’t speak to how it works. You can choose to set reminders for certain goals, so every morning at 7 a.m., my phone reminds me to meditate. I don’t always do it in the mornings, but there are definitely days when that reminder helps me to stop what I’m doing and practice in the morning, which sets me up to go into my day with the clearest mindset.

I actually first learned about Fogg's BMAT model recently on one of my favorite podcasts, The One You Feed, when the guest was Coach.me founder Tony Stubblebine. Tony is an expert in behavior design, and the triggers from his Coach.me app have been a critical element in making meditation a consistent practice for me. (The One You Feed host, Eric Zimmer, talks on the episode about how the same was true for him, and he’s now clocking a meditation streak of over 475 days!) Along with the triggers come the “rewards” of getting to see the days build up, the little “flame” that represents my days in a streak, and the “props” I get from other community members when I complete a check-in. By increasing both my Ability and my Triggers, my so-so motivation level is no longer a barrier preventing me from making meditation a consistent habit. If you want to start meditating, or get more consistent with your existing practice, I highly recommend downloading the Coach.me app to track your goals and improve your success. (If you do get the app, search for me so we can connect!)

I also encourage you to sign up for my bi-weekly emails before I send out the next email this week, where I’ll include a freebie Meditation Apps Resource Guide, exclusive for my email tribe. And when you sign up, you’ll get a free download of my brand new Mind + Body + Spirit Guided Meditation (13 minutes),  which you also can't get anywhere else.

Happy meditating, friends! 

things helping me kick my ass into high gear: waking up earlier

goodmorningcoffeeOkay, bear with me. I know that practically every blog in the therapy/self-development universe has already beaten in the fact that waking up earlier ultimately improves quality of life (that is, if you’re at least sleeping a somewhat reasonable amount.)  There are entire books about this simple idea. And actually, until skimming one of those books, I thoroughly bought into my belief that I would never, EVER, EVER!! be a morning person.

So I want to share a little with you about what I’ve changed so far about my morning routine and how it’s helping me overall. And to offer a little inspiration that even if you're like me, there's still hope that you can become more of a morning person.

A little about me: I have a 2-hour commute everyday that contributes to fatigue that I sometimes struggle with. My fiancé is a teacher and, during the school year (I’m only a teeeeensy weensy resentful that his summer break has just started), he gets up around 5:30-5:45 to make it to school on time.

Even with my hour commute, I don’t really have to be in until about 9, so I set my alarm later and snooze several times before finally dragging my ass out of bed. And that is the most accurate way to phrase that. At that point, I resent the fact that I even have to get out of bed at all (“why can’t I just work for myself already? Waaaah”), which – as you can imagine – sets my day up just swimmingly!

I love sleep, and I was actually starting to get a little concerned that sleeping in had become one of my greatest joys in life. I thought, “What is wrong with me that I l love sleep so much that I look forward to it more than actual things in life that make me feel alive? Isn’t this what my depressed clients say? Oh shit, am I depressed?” And although I’m certainly not clinically depressed, my whole attitude toward sleep – that of scarcity and never feeling that there is enough – was really screwing with my general attitude.

I had thought about trying to make changes to my morning before, but was thoroughly convinced that mornings were just not for me. So, when I finally got desperate enough browsing the Self-Development titles on Audible and saw a book called Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod*, I figured, what the hell – I have 3 Audible credits just sitting here. So I started listening, and immediately something shifted in me. I think a lot of it was that I was ready to make the decision and intention, and I just needed a little push to get there, along with a few logistical tips.

The book didn’t really have tons of ideas that I hadn’t heard before. Wake up earlier! Say affirmations! Exercise, read, meditate! The one thing that was so helpful for me, though, was his advice about how to get said ass out of said bed and stay out. For those of us who feel like pop tarts in a broken toaster, a play-by-play is sometimes necessary. Here’s what I have changed about the way I wake up in the mornings:

First, I put the alarm on the other side of the room.

I’ve heard this tip numerous times, but I was so damn attached to my iPhone that I assumed it only really applied to actual old-school alarm clocks. But I knew this part would be crucial, and it keeps me from Facebooking/emailing right before sleep, too.

Then, I broke up with the snooze button.

I quit cold turkey, and it has been so liberating. All you have to do is Google “snooze button” to come up with dozens of articles about why it’s terrible for you. Again, I knew this, but just didn’t think that I could really do it, and just plain didn’t want to. Since I am already out of bed, it makes the temptation much less powerful.

When I get out of bed, I immediately brush my teeth, down a glass of water, and change into my yoga/barre clothes.

I also wear overnight contacts so I drop in some saline right away to wake my eyes up quicker. Hal talks about how we need to hydrate immediately because dehydration is a cause of fatigue and you haven’t drank anything all night. If you’re a morning shower person, this is the point that you’d shower and then dress for the day, unless you planned on working out in the morning first. By the time I’ve done all these things, I actually do not even want to crawl back in bed. I was shocked!

Finally, I do the things that I know will set my day up with the right tone.

Also, things I won’t be able to fit in that evening if I have plans after work. If that’s the case, I may squeeze in my full workout; otherwise, I’ll start off with about 10 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of yoga and stretching, read/write as time permits, and then make breakfast and get dressed. I’m still figuring out exactly which activities are best or not great to involve in my extra time in the morning. Email = not good. Journaling = okay if I feel like I have anything to say. Catching up on blog posts via Feedly = not sure yet. Can be inspirational and I may not get to it later if I don't do it then, but possibly too scattered? It's a work in progress.

Whatever you choose to do in #4 will be highly individualized. I’m still working on what my goals are and what tasks I should prioritize in the mornings to work toward those goals, and I’ll share more about that later.

But for now, I am impressed that making such small changes has led to having a much more peaceful, intentional, and productive start to my days. What are the things that help you wake up in the mornings, or to set yourself up for a productive and peaceful day? Please share in the comments!  

*30-second straight-up book review: The author Hal seems like a pretty awesome dude, and he also admits he’s not really a writer. I have mad respect for him both knowing this about himself AND getting his message out there regardless because he believes in it so much. But yeah, the writing is pretty saccharine. If you can tolerate that and want a deep dive into his "Miracle Morning", check it out, but if that's not your style, you should probably stay away. I ended up skimming most of the book, but it was enough to help me get started redesigning my morning, so I'm grateful!

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.