Summer seems to be a much better time of the year for a new start than on January 1st where the average temperatures range between -17 and -27 degrees Celsius in Fort Chipewyan and between 1 and -10 degrees Celsius in Waterton and across Alberta we are lucky to get 8 hours of sunlight. While New Year’s resolutions are great for business if you own a fitness club, it is a hard time of the year to get new things started.
There appears to be two kinds of resolutions – starting a new habit or breaking a bad habit. Why so many people fail at breaking bad habits is they simply try to stop doing something: drinking, smoking, snacking, binge watching television, etc. Our behaviours (habits) good or bad are generally there for a reason. If we simply quit something that is not good or desirable for us to do it leaves a void which can feel like punishment. We then rationalize “well maybe if I did it just a little it would be ok”, and soon the habit is back full force.
To stop a negative habit the best success comes from replacing it with something positive, or at least something less negative. Smokers may have success at stopping to smoke by just replacing the habit of putting something into their mouth with plain gum, or require gum plus a nicotine replacement. People who do not want to snack after supper, may start brushing their teeth right after they eat, or at least having a good variety of healthy snack alternatives instead of junk food.
To start a new, positive habit, the mistake people often make is to set their goals too high. While every long journey begins with a single step (or an on-line search of vacation properties for rent); new habits need to find a way to fit into our lives instead of being a chore or an inconvenience. If you can imagine a staircase with 24 steps to the top, those of us blessed to not have mobility challenges, could probably climb those stairs. If we took away half the steps, to only have 12 large steps, many of us might still be able to make the climb, while some could not. Even fewer could make the climb if there were only 8 steps for the same height. However, if we had to climb the same height with no steps, we no longer have steps; we have a wall.
The Running Room Ltd. Website tells the success story of the store’s founder, John Stanton, and his steps to success. The website starts “A three-kilometre fun run with his sons in 1981 was the catalyst for the then-out-of-shape, overweight John Stanton to realize he had to change his lifestyle. A food industry executive who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, he began running secretly before dawn because he felt self-conscious about having his neighbours see ‘this chubby little guy’ who could only run from lamp post to lamp post before having to take a walk break.
John went on to run over 60 marathons, hundreds of road races and numerous triathlons, including the Hawaiian World Championship Ironman competition.”
A fun exercise to do is to take time to dream about how life will be when things are “perfect” (keeping in mind that “perfect is largely a myth as life has many ups and downs). Rather than thinking abut of all the things we need to do to reach imaginary perfect, what is the smallest thing you can start doing? This can range from saving your coins in your daily change in a container to build up a holiday fund to leaving for work a bit early to start your day with a coffee break.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson speculated it takes someone 10,000 hours to become an expert, fortunately it takes much less time to start a new positive behaviour. What is does take is consistency and accepting that as humans we are fallible. A small goal I have is to use the stairs at work everyday instead of the elevator to get up the two floors to my office. However, some days I have too much to carry or other meaningful excuses, and I skip a day. Instead of thinking “I give up because I missed a day, I use that as motivation to succeed the next day and take a moment the next day to be happy with my small success of doing the climb yet again. We always are talking to ourselves and whatever we talk about tends to be what we become – deliberately take time each day to compliment yourself on all the small successes.
Finally, be aware that the world is full of coaches to help us ranging from the learning a second language app on our phones, to our friend or neighbour who is a great gardener, to more formal coaches such as a skydiving instructor to a psychologist who is a professional who specializes in helping people make changes.
Dr. Stephen Carter, Registered Psychologist