How to change habits when you’re not in the mood

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We’re taught to think that changing our habits for the better is simply a case of mind over matter. All we need is self-control and determination. (I wrote about this tendency last week).

But the irony is, the more we let go of the notion that we just need to be determined to achieve what we want, the more likely we are to make changes that stick.

So how do we change our habits and behaviours, even when we’re not really in the mood?

Stop thinking Big

“Small targets lead to small victories, and small victories can often trigger a spiral of behavior” (Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard. p146)

Some of us are naturally inclined to always see the ‘big picture.’  It’s a habit that often serves us well, but it can also get in our way. The other day I was chatting with colleagues about a change we wanted to introduce at work. I immediately found myself stepping back, looking at it all from a distance to where the issues might be, and working out what we’d need to factor into our Big Plan if we wanted it to be successful.  I began to explain my thoughts, when my (very clever) colleague reminded me of something I already know, but had forgotten: “This is about changing people’s habits. And we can only change people’s habits by asking them to take small, relatively easy steps.”

Looking at the big picture is a great skill, but it can also overwhelm us when it comes to figuring out what needs to change – whether that’s shifting the way an organisation behaves, or achieving a personal goal like changing careers.  The change can feel too big and therefore unobtainable.

(BTW – our brains can confuse fantasising with doing)

There’s also evidence to suggest that for individuals, those of us who are good at creating a vivid picture of this ‘future’ better self are actually less likely to achieve it. Researchers are showing that through the simple act of imagining an idealised future for ourselves, we actually ‘trick’ our minds into thinking we’ve already got there: we experience the similar feelings of achievement and relaxation we’d get if we’d actually accomplished the goal. Ironically, this means that our motivation and energy to achieve it in reality is lessened not increased. (Kappes and Oettingen “Positive Fantasies about idealised futures sap energy”)

Lower the bar. Then lower it some more

Years ago, in my very first coaching session, I talked about how I wanted to get back to regular exercise. I knew that being so inactive was contributing to increased stress levels and bouts of insomnia.   My coach prompted me to explore options, and I quickly made a list of possible ways to exercise.

Then I worked my way through and discounted each and every one of them them….

  • Group aerobics/step classes. Because I only really like exercising socially.
    • [No. Too busy. I have a full time job and 2 young kids, and taking time out in the evenings right now is really not fair. I don’t see them enough as it is. Guilt.]
  • Lunch-time trips to the gym. Because there’s a gym just across the road from my office.
    • [No. It would mean carrying all my gear with me on a packed train to work. Plus hair-drying issues. No.];
  • Running at convenient times in my local neighbourhood. 
    • [No. Because, god, I really hate running. Plus I only really like to exercise socially.]

My coach didn’t push me to really examine if those blockages were real or something I could overcome with a bit of planning and dedication – the temptation many of us would have (Hair-drying issues? Really?)  She simply asked me to keep naming alternative options and to lower the bar: “If not that, then what? If not that then what?”

Eventually I arrived at an agreed action to walk for 20-30 minutes twice a week.  The bar was set so low, I knew could commit. And while it wasn’t going to give me that cardio burn, it was better than nothing.

Two months later, I had run my first 5K race, and 4 months later I’d run a 10K. (I tell no lie). Plus I’d found a few friends to join me.  I’d not started out with running a 5K as my goal at all, and would have strongly resisted it if it had come up as a suggestion. But once I got going (and realised that although I might not particularly ‘like running,’ I liked ‘having run’) I was on a roll. Walking turned into a bit of light sporadic jogging, I looked into the couch-to-5K plan, which told me I only needed to start out by running a minute at a time – a low enough bar to get me started.

Years later, I’ve had to take a break from running due to an injury. At first I rather liked having a nice legitimate excuse to not to have to run.  But now I find I miss it. Running is now ingrained as a habit, even if I do hate it sometimes.

Get specific (when? where?)

In a 1999 study, researchers worked with 3 groups of subjects. The first group was simply asked to exercise 20 minutes a day- of this group 29% complied.  The second group was asked the same, but were also told to write a short essay on the benefits of exercise – this boosted the compliance rate to 39%. The final group was asked to commit to exercising on a specific time, on a specific day, at a designated location – and according to this study, 91% complied.  It seems that just the act of getting specific about time and place was enough to get those people committed.

This is what psychologists might refer to as an ‘implementation intention,’ and this was fundamental to my success too. Not only did my coach help me to limit the goal so it felt easily in reach, she then made me be very specific about when and where I would carry it out.  I knew that on Monday night I’d lay out my exercise clothes, I’d set the alarm clock for a half hour earlier (6.15am) and I’d be ready to go out for my walk on the Tuesday morning at 6.30am, taking a route in my neighbourhood.

The power to change depends far less from our ability to “keep those eyes on the prize,” but in identifying the smallest feasible step, then scheduling it in in concrete terms.

And finally – you can’t change what you don’t notice

You can’t change what you don’t notice. Or as Gretchen Rubin would put it “you can’t manage what you don’t monitor.”  And again, this is about getting specific.  So not: ‘I know I am drinking a lot.’  But instead: ‘I had 4 large glasses of wine last night.’

It’s clear that the act of simply monitoring our actions can have a major impact on our behaviours, especially with weight loss and fitness. People asked to track calories, but not to limit them, become more aware of the calories they’re taking in without even noticing (or enjoying) them, and so start to adapt behaviour and become more moderate. Studies are showing that the very act of tracking food can shift us out of mindless over-eating, and that just using a pedometer to count our steps increases our likelihood of walking more than we used to.

(But noticing is not the same as keeping constant surveillance)

I prefer the term ‘notice’ to monitoring because it suggests a sense of detachment – by ‘noticing’ we’re just objectively observing, without judgement. Monitoring suggests ‘surveillance’ and the idea that someone is watching to see if we slip up. And this is where we get ourselves back into that cycle of self-criticism.

It’s a tough one for most of us – learning how to use these tools to help us, and not just simply as another way to berate or pressure ourselves is not easy at all. As any of us who have pathologically avoided the scales, or fudged a food diary entry will tell you, often it feels like these tools have control over us and not the other way around. A wrong number of a scale can often affect your entire day one way or another.

There’s no quick fix to changing this kind of emotional response. But we can learn to be kinder, constantly and gently reminding ourselves that while these tools make great servants they make very poor masters – there to help us to notice and to take more control, but not to tell us how worthy we are.

One thought on “How to change habits when you’re not in the mood

    Four ways to cope with uncertainty « Joy Palmer said:
    November 27, 2015 at 9:37 am

    […] I wrote here, when we get hung up on outcomes  – especially ones that are very important to us – we […]

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