Starting a new behavior is a challenge for everyone. Why? Because new behaviors take consistent repetition to become encoded in your brain as an everyday behavior. Think about the behaviors that you do every day without even thinking about it. Brushing your teeth. Combing your hair. Taking a shower.
Well, you weren’t born doing them, were you? It took constant reminders and repetition for your brain to build up the neural pathways that now allow you to do these activities without much thought or effort. Theoretically, any behavior can be trained in that same way. But as adults, we no longer have our parents reminding us every day to develop this new behavior, like we did when we were learning to care for ourselves. We are the ones that have to remind and encourage ourselves to keep engaging in this new behavior until it becomes a habit. Not only that, but we also have competing behaviors that are already well entrenched in our brains. For example, if you want to be more active, but your nightly routine includes sitting in front of the television (but that’s the time you have to exercise); your new behavior which is not yet wired into your brain is competing with an old behavior that is fully entrenched. You are simultaneously trying to extinguish a well-worn neural pathway, while creating a brand new one. This is serious work on the part of you and your brain. It takes practice, practice, practice. And no wonder that you will often find yourself fighting that urge to just do what your used to doing; this is brain chemistry not just will power.
The best way to solidify your new behavior is to have a daily practice that supports this behavior. This will allow you to build up bigger, deeper, neural pathways faster in order to support your efforts. Think small, if you want to grow big. Create a small, manageable, consistent daily practice and then when that is fully entrenched, grow from there. So, if exercise is your goal set a small daily goal like 10 minutes of walking each day. Make it something that is easily attainable and that will encourage you to keep going. In Sean Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he talks about the 20% rule. Just make it 20% easier to accomplish. Sleep in your running clothes. Keep your sneakers by the bed. Put up post it notes. Set up a reminder on your phone. Schedule your daily practice and stick to it.
How do you stick to your practice? Try an accountability buddy. What’s an accountability buddy? It could be a friend, a coach, a spouse, even your mother, but someone that you check in with to report that you’ve kept to your daily practice. Maybe you shoot an email off or a text after you’ve completed your new behavior for the day. Choose someone who can support and encourage you; hopefully someone who will also make a commitment to you to work on a new behavior of his/her own. Steer clear of those that are judgmental or that you have a complicated relationship with. Trying on new behaviors is a challenging endeavor and you want to be supported in the process. This does not mean that your accountability buddy shouldn’t challenge you, but in the words of my teacher, Tal Ben Shahar, they should be “a beautiful enemy.” Someone who can hold you steadfast to your goals by being honest, direct, compassionate, and encouraging.
Finally, just as it takes practice, practice, practice to create your new behavior; it also takes patience, patience, patience. Think of all that your brain is doing for you to create this behavior and think of all the long ago wired behaviors you might be fighting against. This is not about doing it perfectly. Whenever possible, consciously choose each day the habits that represent the person you want to be in the world. And celebrate yourself each time that you do. Don’t punish yourself if you miss your practice, but be honest with yourself why it happened and keep moving forward. Keep the focus on the person you are becoming. Because as John Dryden said, ““We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”