Many of us will have viewed January as a month to be endured not enjoyed. The next round of dieting following the Christmas and New Year festivities. A ‘dry January’, a new exercise regime followed by pain and suffering as we deprive ourselves of things we enjoy. Trudging through each day as we try to sustain new behaviours. No wonder we tend to feel low and miserable as we plod our way through the first few weeks of the year.
Changing our old habits can feel like an uphill struggle. When we get tired or stop monitoring what we are doing we fall back into old patterns and this can be followed by a sense of failure; why bother, just give up, I always fail. A sense of despair as we hop on the scales and realise that for all our mental anguish and toil we haven’t lost any weight at all!
How can I keep this going? Why do I constantly fail? What’s the point? These are questions that I am often asked and the answer each time will be different depending on the person I am sat with. However, there are some themes that we can all reflect upon when we embark on change, at any time, in our lives.
What will this change mean for me?
Having a personal reason or purpose for the change will give it greater meaning and we are more likely to stick to it. Going on a diet because that is what everyone does in January may feel very different to reducing weight and working towards being more active and so able to play with our children or grandchildren on the beach in Summer months.
What will prove difficult or stop me achieving?
Shopping when you are hungry is not perhaps a good idea if you are dieting. Will your own headspace get in the way, a sense of never achieving or being good enough may stop you in the early stages of forming new habits? If there is minimal free time in your life and you are adding in exercise what will it be replacing, and will this be sustainable? Often, I hear that individuals have set their expectations too high and have set themselves up to fail.
Am I ready?
The mental awareness that there is a problem and you want to do something about it can be one of the most important adjustments in thought process for sustained change. Think about your current habits, are they helpful or harmful to you psychologically, physically or socially? Are there benefits to be gained by changing a behaviour in your life? Writing down what you want to achieve and why can help the shift. I like lists and a plan which is adjustable, so I have something to work towards. Not so rigid that it adds to a sense of failure but opportunity to try experimenting with small changes and see how I get on. Criticising yourself because you didn’t get to a gym class feels very different to congratulating yourself that you remembered you had a gym class!
Do something and keep it going.
Many of us will have heard that proper planning helps performance and it can be the same with behaviour change and forming new habits. Small adjustments that are easy to achieve and we can keep going can build a good foundation. Volunteering to be a marshal at a local running race may not feel that you are being very active however cheering the runners on, smiling and laughing with other marshals and club members can get you started – enjoy the experience and see that exercise can be fun. If you are socially anxious getting ready to go out with no intention of going through the front door can be a good enough start. If you suffer from awful sleep patterns turning the tv or gadgets off 45 mins before bedtime may seem like a hurdle too far, try 20 mins and then extend it further. Change is not going to be an overnight success but keep ‘doing’ something.
Expect to fail!
Mr and Mrs Perfect do not exist, and it is normal to relapse or fail. Some of our greatest learning experiences are from when we make mistakes and behaviour change is no exception to this. Feelings of disappointment, frustration and failure are not the exception they are normal and learning how to pick yourselve up and start again is part of the psychological process. Think about what the triggers may have been; did you sit mesmerised in front of the tv watching a horror film and then expect to get a good night’s sleep? Was there someone you passed in the street who reminded you of an old school teacher who said you would fail and then you find yourself eating chocolate for comfort? It is so much easier at this stage to give up but, just for a moment be kind, forgive yourself go back to the beginning and try again.
Give it another go.
It is worth spending a little time thinking about what hi-jacked your best efforts and making a note of it to better recognise it next time. Go back to the beginning and think about why you are doing this, do the same barriers apply or is the challenge too great and unrealistic? Adjust your thinking, actions and give it another go. If you remembered for the fourth time you didn’t get to that gym class perhaps set a reminder on your phone, get a friend to remind you or agree to meet someone there. Each time you go through this process of reflection and learning you grow, can become stronger and the relapse is shorter. Other benefits that people have mentioned to me is that the sense of frustration, failure and the disappointment diminishes.
Changing habits may still feel like a struggle but the steepness of the climb may not be as tough as we expected if we prepare well. If you are still feeling that these early months of the year are to be endured perhaps reflecting on your thought processes and any changes you are trying to achieve and why, may be a good place to start. If they have meaning for you and your life, if you view failing as a learning opportunity and are able to be kind to yourself when you fail, then you are more likely to keep this upward, sustainable change of habits going.