How to Make a Habit Change: Start Very Very Very Small
Habit change and the science behind it is quite interesting. We are learning that we do not have to lean on will power, or make huge changes to our daily routines to become healthier. Small, actionable, and enjoyable changes are really what it is all about. Any change that feels too forced, or is dreaded or hard to accomplish will be tough to stick to in the long run. This might seem obvious, but many of us (myself included) have tried to tackle too much of a change and not stuck with it.
I have a Level-1 Certificate from Precision Nutrition (PN). They put a big emphasis on habit change in order to help clients move forward comfortably and for the long term with healthy lifestyle changes. The material on this was really helpful and tangible and I believe applicable to a lot of different elements of making change - whether it is eating a little better, improving quality of sleep or incorporating stress reducing techniques into a routine. For this post, beside my Precision Nutrition Certification Manual, I have also used some techniques on the James Clear Book, Atomic Habits. This is a fantastic book all about powerful habit change techniques.
Below are some suggestions from the referenced material with my own interpretations woven in, and because I’m a yoga therapist, I am including specifics on adding some yoga practices into your routine.
1 - Build Awareness - The first step in making change is to observe your current habits. What do you do with ease daily? What do you struggle with? What do you wish you could do differently? It helps to just spend some time paying attention to when, how, and why you do what you do first. What’s going well? What do you want to see change? First things, first, just notice.
2 - Start Very Small and Test Yourself- You might be feeling very motivated to make a particular change and want to go full-bore. Maybe this is possible, maybe it isn't….. You can ask yourself and answer as honestly as possible if you are able to commit to the habit. PN uses a 1-10 scale to measure this they call “ready, willing and able”. If you can get to a 9 out of 10 on whether you are ready, willing and able to commit, move ahead. PN also phrases it like this “On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that you could absolutely, for sure, no matter what, do this task every day?”. So if you can say that you are 90% sure you can commit to meditating 30 minutes a day, go for it. But if that seems too big a time commitment initially, adjust down to what is really, really doable. Maybe it is 5 minutes every day before bed. Start there for a few weeks and add on if you have been successful with that time commitment.
3 - Habit Stack - This is a clever concept that I have been hearing more and more about lately. The idea is to add onto habits that you are doing successfully. For example, if you already have a yoga asana practice that is consistent, add a meditation right after that practice. So you do the posture practice, and add on 5 additional minutes after savasana for meditation. Maybe you want to do more inspirational reading, therefore you commit to 5 minutes of reading after you brush your teeth right before bed. The possibilities are endless here and can work for a lot of things besides yoga. Pick a successful habit or activity you do with regularity and add something on to it.
4 - Make a Very Specific Plan of Action - According to Clear (and other researchers) the more specific the plan of action, the better. If you want to begin working on breath practices, decide exactly where and what time of day you want to do this. I do breathwork when I sit down at my computer in the morning (after I’m up, ready and have a little coffee). My cue to begin the practice is seated in front of my computer before I get going with emails and other web work I need to do. Be as specific as possible about when and where the activity will take place.
5 - Make it Easy - We are wired to take the course of action that requires the least amount of energy (most of the time). It helps to pick new habits that are easy to accomplish. This doesn’t mean we only do easy things, just that we take the path of least resistance to doing them. Identify points of friction in front of completing your task and try to remove them. If you are trying to get a yoga practice in while your kids are in the house, perhaps it is better to pick another time to do it when you aren’t faced with distraction (or time your yoga with their screen time). Also accessibility helps… keep your yoga mat somewhere handy so you can grab it without a lot of fuss. Or if there is a spiritual or inspirational book you are reading, keep it close by to grab when you have a few minutes to read. I also do most of my breathwork using apps on my phone as it is usually within reach and the apps are easy to use!
6 - Make it Rewarding - Clear says that our desire as humans for instant gratification is not something to be ashamed of, but to understand that from an evolutionary standpoint it is imprinted into us. We can acknowledge this and use it to our advantage when making a habit change. He says the cardinal rule of behavior change is “What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided”. However we cannot always do what is pleasurable in the short term and delayed gratification is necessary to be successful in many areas of life. The suggestion is to add a little bit of immediate payoff to habits that create positive results in the long run and add a little bit of immediate pain to the ones that don’t. Fortunately as far as yoga is concerned there is a good possibility of immediate benefit. It might be hard to roll out the mat and get on it, but once you do, you will likely feel better.
I believe this is one major reason why we ask our students to take a few minutes after each practice (whether it is asana, breathwork or meditation) and absorb the feeling and benefits of the practice. If you take just a minute to sit and really feel the goodness the practice brought into your body, you will be more likely to do it again. Even if it takes some time to see benefits like a stronger, more flexible body, a calmer mind, or improved overall outlook on life, there are a lot of positive benefits pretty immediately after yoga practice even on Day One. So take the time to feel into your body after you practice before running off to the next thing.
7 - Expect Failure, Adjust Accordingly (Revisit the Above) - Failure and setbacks are inevitable. I also see much more lately on exploring the upside of failure… that it is helpful and often necessary for growth. So if you have a setback, miss a few days (or longer) of practice, this is ok and to be expected. Simply revisit the steps above and start again. I posted a quote on my instagram page recently from Sharon Salzberg, “If you have to let go & begin again thousands of times, that’s fine. That’s the practice”. She may be referring to one’s spiritual journey but it applies. Just start again and adjust as you need to (and hopefully if you work in some of the habit change techniques more often than not, you will stay on track)!
If you have any questions, or want to explore these topics and ideas with me further - please reach out!