Creating better Habits in 2021
New Year inevitably brings thoughts of new starts and new resolutions. In this article, Melissa Cliffe, founder of A Meaningful Midlife, shares her perspective on how to create better habits in 2021
Creating better habits in 2021
With all the craziness of 2020 you may be hoping for a different experience in 2021. When events play out dramatically on the national and world stage things can feel overwhelming and out of control, yet when we focus on our immediate world, we can open ourselves up to new possibilities.
There is something powerful about the combination of being in midlife during a pandemic; a fusion of growing self-knowledge and life experience against a backdrop of changing rules, the unimaginable becoming reality, and new tests of resilience, faith and hope. It may be the catalyst for re-evaluation and new frontiers. What has been familiar has become unfamiliar and this invites us to create new habits and ways of living and being.
Understanding our Habits
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, 40-45% of our actions every day are habitual, as opposed to conscious decisions. Having good habits is efficient; if we had to consciously think about every action we took we would seriously slow ourselves down. Imagine if we had to focus carefully every time we brush our teeth or tie our shoelaces; we would have no attention span left for more interesting, higher pursuits.
Unfortunately, as much as our good habits support our wellbeing unhealthy habits such as workaholism, critical self-talk, procrastination, lack of exercise and minimising our needs can affect our wellbeing and undermine us to varying degrees. So often we cling to our unhealthy habits like bad friends. In order to change them we need, first, to understand how we defend and preserve our habits.
Here are some typical ways that we do this:
We label ourselves:“I’m a perfectionist, I can’t finish work until it is perfect, it’s just the way I am.”“I’m naturally disorganised, I’ll never be one of those organised people, I wish I knew how they did it.”
When we label ourselves we tell ourselves that our personality and character are fixed and beyond our control, almost as if who we are is accidental and nothing to do with our choices.
We absolve ourselves from responsibility yet go on resenting ourselves for our lack of ability to make changes.
We tell ourselves that we need our crutches: “I have to have a glass of wine after work or I can’t switch off.”“The only thing that helps me when I’m upset is junk food.”
Here we undermine our ability to cope without our crutches, we are not prepared to sit with being uncomfortable whilst we find alternative ways to soothe our needs.
We say that changing is much too hard: “I don’t have any willpower.”“I always give up on things, why should this time be any different?”
This is fatalistic and assumes you have no agency, as if willpower is won by lottery and you missed out. When we tell ourselves we can’t or won’t change we give ourselves permission to stay the same. It can deplete our energy levels and dampen self-esteem, making us even less likely to mobilise and make changes.
I’m not saying that making changes is easy, it can be uncomfortable as our habits are often creative attempts at finding short term rewards. The glass of wine after work tastes good, we do feel better, but problems arise when we rely on it and our intake becomes unhealthy. When we favour short term gains we deny ourselves longer-term rewards like better health and more satisfying ways of coping like talking about what is troubling us or finding solutions to our problems.
Neuroplasticity and Habits
Scientific research has shown that our brains have plasticity, meaning they have the ability to reorganise synaptic connections based on our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours create neural pathways and the more we repeat them the stronger those pathways become.
The pathways we don’t use fade away. It is a testament to how efficient our brains are that over time the neural pathways we use regularly become automatic, or habitual.
The good news about neural plasticity is that we can consciously create new neural pathways by changing our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Think of it like brain training. With consistency and practice over time we can change our habits and behaviours.
Eleanor Roosevelt was onto something when she said: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words, watch your words they become your actions, watch your actions they become your habits, watch your habits that become your character, watch your character that becomes your destiny.”
How to make changes
As habits are enacted automatically the first step towards change is to become aware of what you are doing. Before making any changes simply notice the habit, how it makes you feel, is there a pattern to when you do it, or any triggers?
Sometimes habits mask unmet needs or anxiety. For instance, you may procrastinate when you’re afraid of failing, or drink coffee to keep yourself going when the truth is you’d be better off taking some time to rest and recharge. Once you recognise how certain habits are keeping you stuck in unhelpful patterns you can begin thinking creatively about how to deal with the root cause in a more supportive way.
Accept you will feel uncomfortable at first
Making changes requires additional focus and effort so when we let go of a familiar habit, or introduce a new one, it will probably feel uncomfortable before it feels better. We may even feel sadness as we say goodbye to a habit that provided soothing. Know that with time and repetition it will get easier as new neural pathways strengthen and old ones fade. Accept that it is ok to feel uncomfortable, the feelings will pass.
Criticising ourselves for having bad habits only increases our sense of shame and can demotivate us. We all pick up bad habits, but if we approach change with compassion and understanding we are more likely to succeed.
If you slip up, acknowledge it and get back on your chosen path again. Be forgiving. It is common to have setbacks when changing well established habits, the important thing is that the overall direction is positive.
Make it as easy as possible
Do whatever you can to make things easy. Take small steps, and once you feel comfortable with those, take the next small steps. Focus on what is achievable.
For example, if you want to begin regular meditation and you are a beginner start with just a few minutes a day and build up incrementally to longer sessions. Congratulate yourself for showing up each time, no matter how long or short.
One you try out your new habit, repeat it, and repeat it. Through repetition it will become a habit, your neural pathways will re-wire and it will become easier as time goes by.
Find your Cheerleaders
Surround yourself with people who support you and want the best for you. Be your own inner cheerleader, cheering yourself on. Stay away from people who are negative about making changes.
Some habits can turn into addictions – substance abuse, shopping, social media, gambling, sex and more. If you are concerned that you have an addiction you can seek out additional support. Your GP should be able to point you in the right direction or you can contact organisations such as AA.
It is so important to celebrate the changes we make, even the smallest of them. This affects the reward centre of our brains, releases feel good chemicals and gives us a sense of pride. Really take in and feel what you have achieved and enjoy it. This will help to build motivation for any further changes you wish to make.
More about Melissa Cliffe
Melissa Cliffe, founder of A Meaningful Midlife, helps mid-lifers with their mental health and wellbeing via individual and couples therapy, groups and workshops, to create a meaningful midlife.