Personal Development

How to Take Action (and change a habit)

Photo Credit: "Approximate" by Thomas Hawk

Taking action is something I’m (more or less) good at. That wasn’t always the case: I used to be a total mugwump. Mugwump is the old-fashionedy word for a flip-flopper. I would hem and haw at any major decision, ask a dozen friends what they thought I should do, put it off and generally get nothing done.

Often, when it was too late to seize the day and the opportunity was passed, it felt almost like a relief instead of a disappointment.

But despite the comfort factor, the eventual effect of not making big decisions was devastating. My life became rote: a recurring series of habits and routines, some pleasant (friends and beer! yearly vacation!) and others decidedly not. Most were somewhere in between: contenting. I was content to live my life.

Here’s something they don’t tell you in high school: being content is the ass-end of happiness.

Getting out of “that place” seems unpossible. A lot of people don’t think they can do any better, or don’t see how they can make a real change in their lives. Often this is reinforced because they’ve made attempts and failed. You can recognize this syndrome by five telltale words:

I could never do that.

“Last week I went caving. We had to crawl through spaces as narrow as our shoulders.”

“Wow, I could never do that.”

“Well, it was hard to lose weight, but not that hard. I limited myself to 1700 calories a day.”

“Oh, I could never do that.”

“I’m going without coffee or caffeine for a month to see if it reduces my anxiety levels.”

“I could never do that.”

(These are all real examples.)

These are the words that people say when they can no longer even envision breaking out of their routine. Or when the notion itself is threatening, because they’ve tried before and been burned.

So what makes the difference between taking action and seeing it work, or taking action and getting burned?

More factors than I can imagine, I’m sure, but I’ve discovered one that outweighs them all. Once you know it, it feels like you have some special secret weapon, because so many people don’t get it. At the same time it is a great universal truth, because it is equally vital in any walk of life. Whether you’re an athlete trying to improve your performance or a mother of four wishing you had more income, this single factor is the greatest key to making change.

Yet it’s deceptively simple:

You have to change your habits.

This is the special ingredient in the recipe for taking (effective) action. Change isn’t something you can just add in on top of what you’re already doing.

Your current life is awash in a myriad of habits that press you in the direction of where you’re already going. The hundred things you do everyday give your life the structure it already has, and that structure has inertia. It’s hard to shove the whole thing in a new direction, even if it’s as minor as swearing less.

This is why most people who pick up a “teach yourself German” book never learn German. The material in the book might be solid, but do you dedicate 40 minutes a day to practicing? Do you give up your normal TV time to watch shows or movies in German? Do you seek out German-speaking friends and ask to do a once a week coffee date with no English allowed?

Changing habits requires a conscious willingness to give up things, which is why it’s the last thing most people resort to. Only by giving up familiar activities will you be able to integrate new ones into your schedule. You can’t spend your Saturday morning on English-Free Coffee Date if you insist on sleeping in every Saturday.

Here are ten ways I’ve successfully changes a habit of my own:

  • Set a time of day that I have to do something, including an alarm that goes off on my phone.
  • Made a rule that I cannot eat dinner until I have done my new activity.
  • Enlisted peer pressure, by exuberantly telling all my friends what I would do. They frequently asked how it was going and I wanted to be able to show them something.
  • Left a note for myself in a place where I usually waste time—in my case, on the couch.
  • Literally got rid of the things I needed to keep up my old habit. I sold or threw away items associated with it.
  • Set a reasonable limit on the old habit, such as “no more than two glasses of wine in an evening.”
  • Found replacements for the habit, such as eating pistachios instead of chocolates.
  • Signed up for a coach who would enforce my new habit, such as a class for learning a language or a personal trainer for getting fit.
  • Made a written plan of how to reach my new goal, with all of the steps along the way (and a timetable!) outlined.
  • Sacrificed sleep for victory, staying up 1 hour later than usual three nights a week to put in time on the new activity.

The power of habits is strong. But the human mind and body are adaptable and if something is required on a daily basis, they will learn to do it with ease. The secret is to find some way to make a new habit indispensable. Your lifestyle has to rely on it in some way, or it will fall by the wayside.

This is the single greatest determining factor in the success of any life change.

So, what next? Well, I’m enforcing a new habit of my own by embarking on a three month program of healthy eating, Traditional Chinese Medicine style. I’ve decided to chronicle what it’s like going through the program, so if you want to see my challenges and victories, click on over to I Will Be That Man.

Have you ever tried to change a habit? Was it part of a larger goal or a goal in itself? Hit the comments and tell me—but first, please be a good internet citizen and tweet this post.

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13 thoughts on “How to Take Action (and change a habit)

  1. Kate says:

    Great advice! Now if you could run a ‘self discipline camp’ I may be able to achieve a goal! Really, I would pay to come to it. I almost always take ‘the easy road’, and that leads to – gosh – I can’t think of the word, I should work on my vocabulary, someday…….

    • It can be really hard to discipline yourself, but that’s the beauty of developing new habits. Instead of just laying down rules like “no more chocolate” you can build in realistic habits like “Every time I want chocolate, I can eat raisins or peanuts instead” (and be sure to have them on hand). It’s about adding a new behavior that will support what you do.

      You can try that method out on little things and, with a little trial and error, you’ll find out you don’t need someone boot-camping you to make you do stuff. It will become easier and easier to sustain change.

  2. As usual, I’m conflicted. You slam awfully hard on contentedness. Having finally *reached* contentedness, my feathers are (predictably) ruffled. I want to reply with “but content means no more striving!”

    Er, except that’s really the point, isn’t it? No more striving, no more improving … and there, I’ve just talked myself into your point of view.

    However, I do think there’s a place inside happiness that needs to exist where you bring your happiness with you. Not as an excuse to not grow or change, but simply to admit “I’m happy here, but I know I can be better, and I’ll work to get there.” And I can’t think of anything better to call that sort of inner acceptance than “content.”

    • I think that’s an amazingly good point Colleen. Even as I was writing this I was contemplating the different meanings of “content.” I think there is such a thing as an inner-peace contentedness which is supremely valuable.

      The contentedness on the ass end of happiness is a sort of resigned acceptance. A “this-is-good-enough” act of settling.

      I really believe people should spend every day being delighted. Years ago I didn’t believe that’s possible, so I settled. Turns out I was wrong :)

  3. I can’t like this post enough. And I will do as I am told and share this.

    The phrase “I could never do that!” is like nails on a chalkboard for me. I’m fine if someone doesn’t “want” to do that but typically the phrase isn’t followed by a positive action statement, just an abject dismissal of what it is that I am doing.

    Typically, I am having this conversation with someone who has asked me about a topic. Or with someone who has found my blog and commented. I wonder what is the motivation for them telling me that they could never do that? I think it is because I am doing *something* and they feel threatened or confused or maybe they are suddenly seeing that there is something, anything, that they are *not* doing. I don’t want to force someone into doing the same things that I do, but I do want to be an example that you *can* do something. If I can do it, anyone can. I’m not that special, just motivated and dedicated.

    I am not contented with content. I am very happy. In fact, the determination to do more is exactly what makes me happy. That isn’t to say I don’t get frustrated or have down days, though. I work with people all day who are’t happy or who just want to reach a level of contentedness. There are some people who just won’t ever get past that point. But I feel that your blog and some of the communities I’m involved in actually attract people who are the right people to start revolutions. The people who strive for something better or at least, something different. I kills me to see people commenting in those communities with “I could never do that.” Well, then, why are you here?

    • Ohh great comment Laura. Thank you!

      On your last point though I’ll offer a counterpoint. Many people learn best by questioning/challenging what someone is saying, so they can hear the person’s reasons.

      When someone unconvinced comes to a blog about self-development, I think it’s fair for them to lob a few doubts out there. (In fact, any doubtful lurkers reading this, go ahead and fire away.)

      • I suppose I would be better with questioners if they weren’t simply naysayers.

        How about instead of “I could never live in such a small space…” They could start the conversation with, “Why is it you are chosing to live this way?” I have always thought that starting something with a positive angle rather than a negative one will get your further in life. Glass half full kind of stuff. If you start out with “I could never do that!” you’re inviting a defensive response rather than an engaging one.

  4. I’d chose a different word to argue your point than “content”. Contentedness, to me, means that you’ve done things right and are happy with your life. What you’re arguing against is settling – settling for less, settling into a rut, settling down to conformist expectations.

    Being content with your life doesn’t mean you stop striving – it means when you move, it’s from a position with solid ground under your feet.

    Also, in my experience, people who are content aren’t awful. Someone happy with their own life is less likely to infringe on others’ happiness.

    • Definitely! You can be unhappy and still be an ethical person.

      I think you’re right that what I’m really talking about is “settling” – but the problem is that most people who settle would not call it that.

      The struggle is to find a word that okay-but-not-happy people can look at and say, “Wait, that sounds like me!”

      I’m open to suggestions :)

      • Part of what I was thinking while writing this is that, apparently, both Joseph Stalin and one of history’s great conquerors – I think Atilla the Hun but I’m not sure, I might be thinking of Tamerlane – were very happily married and content early in life… it was only after losing their spouse and contentment early that they went off on the bloody trails they followed. How many people have *not* gone out and cut great bloody swathes through history because their bed was warm and it was nice to sleep in? Don’t knock contentment too hard!

  5. Nicki says:

    Last night at the National Kidney Foundation’s fund raiser, I spoke. And the whole kidney chain came up on stage and we rocked it OUT. It was awesome. Afterward, a transplant recipient came and introduced himself. I honor him. He was going on about the chain and donation and I said to him “But *I* had the easy part. I had no emotional attachments to anyone in need, all these people in this chain have been emotionally involved for a long time before this even came about!” And he said…ready? “True. But you had no reason to GET OFF YOUR ASS AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT YOU SAW GOING ON AND YOU DID IT ANYWAY.”
    Oh. That might be the first time that someone has said it THAT way, so I could hear it. It comes in other forms, such as “It takes someone to start the chain,” or “but it’s different because you had ‘no reason’ to do it and did it anyway.” but I HEARD him that time. I said “Good enough. Thank you.” loved on him and his wife. Somehow, *I* keep receiving the gifts. Magic!

    Or—as Nike says, JUST (Nicki added: FREAKIN) DO IT. Or is that what DREW said, about How To Meditate? :)

    :D

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