I planned to skip writing this month to focus on my health (yay for pool therapy!) and preparing to move (nope, still don’t have a new apartment), but an article on Huffington Post about building habits contains so much balderdash that I had to write. This article may be shorter and less polished than my other articles but there are things to be said. The mechanics of building new habits were covered in the August 2013 issue, but this issue is about the mental aspects (many other articles on my site also address building better habits).

The HuffPost article talked about the now-repudiated belief that it only takes 20 days to establish a new habit. Alas, we wish it were so, however, there is much that can be done to make developing new habits much easier and these techniques all come down to consciousness.

There are at least three ways that consciousness is the key to establishing a new habit:
1. being deeply and continually aware of the need for and benefits of a new habit and reminding ourselves that we do deserve the better life that the new habit will help to achieve

2. focusing the mind on every-minute activities and not allowing negative thoughts or emotions to take over

3. celebrating and appreciating every tiny step in a positive direction.

The first element required, being clear about what you want from life, means accurately perceiving what harms and benefits you, your plans or desires for your life, and what small actions you can take each day to create the life you want. As an example, no piece of cake can be better than the joys of a healthy, slender body, but focusing on deprivation rather than on building present and future health and fitness, which is far more precious and long-lasting than any transitory treat, will cause that realization to elude you (long-term weight issues may also mean not having an adult memory of being slender so recalling childhood fitness and movement may be helpful). Another example is spending time watching TV instead of organizing your papers; most TV shows are forgotten the moment they are over but you will feel better about yourself every time you use your files after organizing them and your life will be easier to manage (TV tends to exacerbate depression and poor self-image rather than improve them).

The key here is being honest about the pain you suffer when you don't do what you need to do or do something that is harmful to your long-term interests; these pains are easily blocked out and denied, making indulgence falsely seem to be harmless. Denying real needs, feelings, and goals always does harm but we so easily tell ourselves otherwise. So it is important to carefully choose your internal language for activities you wish to increase or decrease. Describe behaviors you want to increase as helpful, positive, and desired, and those you want to decrease as harmful, painful, and not worth the suffering they will cause. Looking at the bigger picture of harms and gains will help you be more clear about your true best interests, needs, and goals. Looking at the down side of temptations will help you resist them.

Focusing on every-minute activities rather than negative emotions or thoughts feels infinitely better than allowing such demons to dominate your mind and undermine more important activities. So much time and energy can be lost to fantasizing that most people have little concept of their true capacity for accomplishment. This is not to say that you need to be driven or hyper, but simply calm and at peace while doing what needs to be done. As a famous Zen saying puts it “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” The essential activities of life need to go on regardless of your emotional state or desire for distraction or respite. By subduing your mental demons, enormous energy is freed to focus on what matters most, including how to build constructive new habits. The good news is subduing demons does not mean going to war with them, but simply to replace them with positive habits and peace.

People often drift through life without any clear aim or goal because they dare not let themselves believe that they can achieve the dream closest to their hearts. This often happens because they believe their situation or being is so hopeless that it is not worthwhile to formulate a goal. Some people think that the goal lurking in their hearts would require too much sacrifice and/or effort that they do not want to make.

Clarity about what furthers goals and best interests may mean being more aware of your daily activities than usual. Such awareness is a fair amount of work and often requires intense concentration, cutting through denial and self-deception, and perhaps, at least temporarily eliminating many unnecessary distractions (TV, telephone, Facebook) that occupy our minds. However, people often spend so much mental energy and time on fantasies, fears and other negative emotions, and/or berating or judging themselves or others that it leaves little room or spirit for more constructive activity. These mental preoccupations keep us from living in the NOW, that is actually experiencing the instant that we are living in in its fullest and perceiving what is truly important. The point is not to criticize yourself or feel down about your flaws, but to find out what they are so that they can be changed and you can protect yourself from the consequences they cause if unchecked.

Change is rarely, if ever, made in a single big leap. Rather, change happens as the cumulative result of many tiny, frequent efforts. The best way to keep these tiny improvements happening is to congratulate yourself for every small effort in the right direction. Celebrating these small victories lifts your spirits and reinforces your willingness to stay on the right track. Focusing on little steps also helps to prevent distress over how far away the overall goal may still be. It is not the goal that matters, but your efforts to get to it. Remember: compassion is more effective for creating change than punishment, and berating yourself is one of the most crippling forms of punishment.

Just as it is said, and validly so, that it only takes two repetitions of an adverse behavior for it to begin to become a bad habit, it is also true that it only takes two repetitions of a constructive activity to begin building a good habit. Being generous with internal self-praise and recognition supports taking advantage of every tiny step in the right direction. Withholding recognition until your goal or new habit is reached almost guarantees that it will never happen, but appreciating even the smallest efforts increases the likelihood that they will recur and that you will be able to build on them to get to where you want to go.

© Gloria Valoris, 2014

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