We can keep a record of our behaviour throughout the day, noting down when and where we do the new behaviour and what the benefits are; and also when and where we do the old behaviour and what the costs are. Any diary or notebook — on paper, or on a computer screen — can serve this purpose.
When we do some form of new behaviour that involves acting on our values, hopefully that will be rewarding in its own right. However, we can help to reinforce the new behaviour with additional rewards. One form of reward is kind, encouraging self-talk, e.g. saying to yourself: ‘Well done. You did it!’
Another form of reward is sharing your success and progress with a loved one who you know will respond positively. On the other hand, you might prefer more material rewards. For example, if you sustain this new behaviour for a whole week, you buy or do something that you really like, e.g. get a massage or buy a book.
If you get up every morning at the same time to exercise or do yoga, over time that regular routine will start to come naturally. You won’t have to think so hard about doing it; it will require less ‘willpower’; it will become a part of your regular routine.
So experiment: see if you can find some way to build a regular routine or ritual around your new behaviour so it starts to become part of your way of life. For example, if you drive home from work, then every night, just before you get out of your car, you might do two minutes of dropping anchor, and reflect on what values you want to live by when you walk through the front door into your home.
It’s easier to study if you have a ‘study buddy’; easier to exercise if you have an ‘exercise buddy’. In AA programs, they team you up with a sponsor who is there to help you stay sober when the going gets tough.
So can you find a kind, caring, encouraging person who can help support you with your new behaviour? Maybe you can check in with this person on a regular basis and tell them how well you are doing, as mentioned in ‘Rewards’. Or maybe you can email your support person those records you’ve been keeping. Or maybe you can use the other person as a ‘reminder’; ask them to remind you to do the new behaviour, if and when that would be useful. For example, you might say to your partner, ‘When I raise my voice, can you please remind me to drop anchor?’
Regularly take time to reflect on how you are behaving and what effect it is having on your life. You can do this via writing it down — records — or in discussion with another person — relationships. Or you can do this as a mental exercise throughout the day, just before you go to bed, or just as you’re waking up in the morning. You simply take a few moments to reflect on questions such as: ‘How am I going?’, ‘What am I doing that’s working?’, ‘What am I doing that’s not working?’, ‘What can I do more of, or less of, or differently?’
Make sure you also reflect on the times that you fall back into the old habit. Notice what triggers those relapses and setbacks, and notice what it costs you — i.e. how do you suffer? — when that happens. This doesn’t mean beat yourself up! This means you non-judgmentally reflect on the genuine costs to your health and wellbeing of falling back into old habits — and use your awareness of the suffering this causes you to help motivate yourself to get back on track.
We can often restructure our environment to make our new behaviour easier, and therefore increase the chances we’ll sustain it. For example, if the new behaviour is ‘healthy eating’ we can restructure the kitchen to make that easier: get rid of or hide away the junk food, and stock the fridge and pantry with the healthy stuff. If we want to go to the gym in the morning, we could pack up our sports gear in our gym bag and place it beside the bed or somewhere else obvious and convenient, so it’s all ready to go as soon as we get up. (And of course, when we see our gym kit lying there, it acts as a reminder.)
So there you have it, ‘The Seven Rs’: reminders, records, rewards, routines, relationships, reflection, restructuring. Now be creative; mix and match these methods to your heart’s content, to create your own set of tools for lasting change.
Falling back into old habits
Whoever said ‘practice makes perfect’ was deluded. There’s no such thing as perfection. Practice will help you establish better life skills — but it will not permanently eliminate all your self-defeating behaviours. You (and I, and everyone else on this planet) will screw up, make mistakes, and, at times, fall back into old habits. This will happen again and again and again. Indeed, because human beings screw up so often, I like to ask my clients two questions:
- Next time you screw up, what would you ideally say or do to handle it more effectively?
- If you have hurt yourself or others, what could you do to make amends and repair the damage?
Before answering these questions for yourself, get in touch with your values and reflect on the sort of person you want to be. If you could respond mindfully, acting on your core values, then what would you say and do when you notice you’ve screwed up? Are you willing to forgive yourself, let go, and move on? Are you willing to make room for your painful feelings, unhook from unhelpful thoughts, be kind to yourself and deal with the issue constructively, in a way that allows you to carry on with your life instead of getting bogged down in self-recrimination?
Note that this doesn’t mean we’re giving up. It just means we’re being realistic. With practice, we can get much better at living by our values, engaging fully in life, practising forgiveness and self-compassion, unhooking from difficult thoughts, and making room for difficult feelings.
The bottom line is: making changes is hard. We’re all capable of doing it — and it’s not easy. So set yourself up for success: small changes, baby steps, one brick at a time. And when you fall back into old habits (as you will) drop anchor, acknowledge the hurt, and hold yourself kindly.
An edited extract from the new edition of The Reality Slap, released in 2020 in response to COVID-19. Dr Russ Harris, a psychotherapist and psychologist, also wrote The Happiness Trap, which has been translated into 22 languages.
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