"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle
I used to put myself on these restrictive self-induced “bad things” fasts to change my behavior and jump-start my life onto the path that I wanted to travel. I would binge on the good and starve myself of the bad. For instance, I’d totally and completely give up alcohol, give up sweets, give up going out to the bars with my friends. Or conversely, schedule my time down to the minute, packed full of demanding tasks, and force myself to study, or work or workout in an attempt to live a healthier and more productive lifestyle. I’d go hard, I’m talking HAM sandwich hard, and have every box checked and every bad habit kicked.
And then, two weeks into it, I’d quit. It’d be too much. I’d get burnt out so fast because I was forcing myself miserably into a life of all work and no fun, and not only that, but I was trying to achieve everything simultaneously and instantaneously with no room for mistakes or forgiveness. And then I realized: maybe there’s a better way. I started to research and experiment with what works for me. And after decades of trial and error here’s what I know about making things happen:
Make changes one at a time
It’s been scientifically proven that the human brain has a limited amount of willpower. Every day that we wake up we do things that we want to do, which take little or no willpower at all, and we do things that we don’t really want to do, which subtract from our daily supply of willpower. In order to effectively make changes to your daily habits, you must have the willpower to follow through with the changes you have decided on. If, like I did, you try to change everything at once, you will soon run out of the energy it takes to convince yourself to continue those good habits or stop those bad ones, and you’ll end up failing every time.
Everyone and their aunt has a theory on how long it takes to start a habit—some say 21 days, some say a month, and it may be different for different people. A good way to know when a habit has been engrained is when you notice that it is taking less willpower to overcome. For example, last year for Lent I gave up drinking coffee. On day one I almost fell asleep driving, on day two I was going through full-fledged withdrawals—foaming at the mouth at the mere thought of Starbucks. But by the third week, I woke up, didn’t even think about coffee, poured myself a cup of black tea and went off to work. My habit was broken; I was no longer addicted to the tempting aroma and delicious flavors of coffee.
Figure out the length of time it takes for you to break a habit, and then don’t start breaking/starting your second habit until you’re finished using your willpower on habit number one.
Everything in moderation
Not all bad habits are all bad, and not all good habits are good to the last drop. Even when I gave up my coffee, I still needed a little kick in the morning to get me going on a motivated start. Just because you want to eat healthier, doesn’t mean you can never eat a doughnut again. The biggest mistake I see perpetual habit-breakers make is restricting themselves totally and completely from something, or conversely, jumping into a habit at 100 miles per hour, and then crashing.
Start small. If your goal is to lose weight, give up sweets and soda, start going to the gym, and live more actively. But if your family tradition is to go to the ice-cream parlor every Easter Sunday after church, don’t tell yourself you can’t participate. Make small exceptions, have cheat days, or have things that you’re allowed to do in moderation so that you don’t feel like you’re living in a Nazi prison camp every time you make a change.
Going overboard will make you want to quit, so avoid that by creating a habit for three or four weeks, and then modifying your self-imposed restriction to allow for a small feeling of satisfaction. Black tea isn’t coffee, but it satisfied my habit of having a warm drink in the car on my morning commute and gave me a small dose of caffeine, and I still benefited by sticking to my goal and drinking a lot less sugar and caffeine than I was previously ingesting.
Allow yourself to fail
I know, it’s hard to admit, but you are not a god. Nor are you Super Man, Super Woman, or a mythical magician. You are human, and you cannot possibly go through life without making mistakes. Realize that every time you fail at something, you are learning ways that don’t work, so that you can do them differently and better the next time. It is better to try something that is worthy of your time and effort and to fail at it, then to live a wasted life of regret. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly until you learn how to do it right!
The only person who never failed at anything was the man who never lived. You’re going to be on day 27 of your study plan, get an invitation to a happy hour, and ditch your books for beer. You’re going to be on day 19 of your healthy eating binge when someone in the office has a birthday and you can’t resist the cake. It will happen. Not it can, it will. And that’s okay. Every day is new, and after you lick that icing off your lips, you can realize that you messed up, you can find ways to avoid it in the future (maybe cake is your cheat food!) and you can do better tomorrow. No sweat. If changing a habit were easy, it wouldn’t be worthy of changing.
Believe in yourself. Before you can accomplish anything you have to know that you have what it takes inside to make it happen. You don’t have all that it takes right now, but you will build on today’s experience, you’ll learn and grow, and you will make it happen. Stay committed and push through. Every day is a learning experience, and every day is an opportunity to be the best you can be. Have faith in yourself that the mind is a powerful tool and that you can train yours to accomplish any task put before you. If you’re having doubts or fears, seek counsel from others that have done what you are trying to do, read books, listen to testimonies. You’ll see that people who have achieved the things you wish to achieve used to be just like you. And if they can do it, you can too!