Simplify Habits: Get to the True Heart of Change
By Leo Babauta
Creating a new habit like meditation, journaling or exercise isn’t incredibly complicated — at the most basic level, you tie the habit to a trigger that’s already in your life, start small, and find ways to encourage yourself to remember it and actually do it.
But it becomes a much more complicated and much messier ordeal because:
- We have resistance;
- We give in to the resistance;
- We feel bad about ourselves as a result; and
- We make that meaningful, get discouraged, and let that derail us.
This is an almost universal thing, in my experience. No one escapes this trap.
So how do we work with it? We can make things really simple (that’s not to say easy) by getting to the heart of this: the resistance.
In addition, it helps to have a way to deal with feeling bad about ourselves when we give in to the resistance. I’ll talk about that after I talk about getting to the heart of resistance.
The Heart of Habit Change: Resistance
Let’s say you decide to do a morning habit like writing, meditation, yoga, or journaling …
You commit yourself to doing it every morning when you wake up (after coffee of course). You set a reminder. You wake up. Then …
Suddenly, you really need to check your email and messages. That leads to a bunch of other things that need to be done. Then you decide it’s time to check the news, or social media. Now you have to get ready. You’ll do that habit later.
What I didn’t describe above — and what most people don’t even acknowledge or notice — is the most important part. The resistance. If you can deal with the resistance, you can form a new habit. If you aren’t even aware of it, you’ll think there’s something wrong with you, or you’ll keep looking for better answers to fix this problem you have.
No amount of systems, books, answers will fix the problem of resistance. It’s something we can work with, but it doesn’t go away when you find the right answer. It’s simply fear and uncertainty.
If we can learn to work with that resistance, new habits will form.
Incidentally, it’s the same thing when you want to change an old “bad” habit — like quitting smoking or chewing your nails or eating too many chips. We have the urge to do the old habit (smoke a cigarette), and we have resistance to just letting the urge arise and fall. It’s like checking the email instead of meditating — we think we have no choice but to give in to the resistance.
Working with Our Resistance
So what if we didn’t need to give in to the resistance? What if it could be a place to embrace?
Here’s a way you might work with the resistance:
- Make a commitment to do a new habit (or stop an old one, like smoking). Make the commitment small so your resistance isn’t high — meditate for 5 minutes, not an hour. Set a reminder if it’s a new habit. For quitting, try a small commitment like no smoking after 7pm.
- When the time comes, and you resist doing the habit … pause. Don’t go to your emails or give in to the urge to smoke a cigarette. Just pause.
- Breathe. Feel the resistance / urge, and stay with it.
- Keep doing that. Give yourself love / compassion. Stay with the resistance / urge.
- See if you can create some new way of working with the resistance / urge. Do you want to do it with someone else? Step up accountability or consequences? Find a way to bring play, joy, creativity to the activity? See the moment of resistance as sacred and full of wonder? Get creative.
There isn’t a right answer here. Play with it. Keep working with it. Our desire for it to be over and to not have resistance is our greatest stumbling block. Keep creating something new, each time the resistance / urge happens. Eventually, you’ll discover something that works. And along the way, you’ll discover something new about yourself.
Dealing with Failure
You hope that this will go perfectly. You’ll work with the resistance and you’ll crush this new habit. Yep! That’s exactly how it will go!
Except that part of it going perfectly is that it will include failure. That’s just a part of the growth process. You fail, you struggle, and you find something new in that.
The difficulty is that people take the failure to mean something meaningful about themselves. It becomes such a big deal. I failed! I must suck. Or I can’t do this. Or I’ll never be able to do this. Or What the hell is wrong with me?
Isn’t it interesting that a simple thing like failure carries such huge emotional significance? We feel bad about ourselves, we get discouraged, and we quit.
What if failure (and feeling bad about ourselves) was simply a part of the growth process? Not a big deal, but something to learn from? How would you approach it then?
I won’t give you the “answer” (because there’s not just one) … but I invite you to get creative. What can you try that will help with this part of the growth process? How can failure be embraced, loved, and be a place for curiosity and discovery?
If you can work with this, you will be liberated.