If you have ever struggled to change a habit, overcome a temptation, or stop yourself from making weak excuses then you will already know just what a challenge this can be.
Habitual thoughts have a real physical presence in your brain too. The more often you repeat a thought about something the more hardwired it becomes in your brain, literally creating new neural pathways for your most common thoughts to run along. Fortunately, it is also possible to literally re-write over any unhelpful old mental programs you have running, all it takes is focused attention and frequent repetition.
So the more often that you fire off a thought about something, the more hardwired it becomes in your brain too, until those thoughts and actions become well established neural pathways and your habits are born.
This is one of the reasons why willpower alone is seldom enough to bring about a sustainable change. Fortunately, those neural pathways or routes of least resistance can be changed and establishing new and healthy routines for yourself needn’t be a struggle. But let’s start by looking at what all this has to do with the role of temptation.
Facing temptation is entirely normal. Perhaps you have been tempted to raid the cake tin if you’re on a diet or to stay indoors curled up in front of the TV rather than taking some exercise outside if the weather happens to be bad.
One of the reasons that tempting thoughts can be so troublesome is that your beliefs and ideas tend to be experienced as real in direct proportion to the amount of attention you give to them. In other words, the more you dwell on a thought, the more powerful and real it will seem to you and the more control it will appear to have over you. This is why struggling with willpower alone usually just leaves you feeling exhausted because in the very act of fighting off a tempting thought you are giving it the attention it needs to survive.
The key here is not to struggle at all but simply to release the tempting thought by placing your attention fully and completely onto something else. Over time and if left unattended your tempting thoughts can easily turn into your bad habits, so let me give you a few pointers that may help you break that cycle of repetition and give you the freedom to chose something new and more inspiring.
RAISING YOUR AWARENESS OF WHAT NEEDS TO BE CHANGED
By now you are probably fed up of hearing me tell you that the first step in the change process is to become consciously aware of what you need to do differently. It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this step. You cannot change what you are not consciously aware of, so without beating yourself up about all the unhealthy aspects of your life, or your critical self-talk, just allow yourself to become gently aware of your more common weaknesses that spoil your good efforts or get in the way of your achievements.
PREPARE YOURSELF FOR SUCCESS
This step is all about putting structures and practices in place to help yourself be successful, such as removing as many opportunities as you can for temptation to strike. So if you want to avoid raiding the cake tin last thing at night, then make sure that you don’t buy any cake when you next go shopping. Give yourself the opportunity to do something different.
Practice or repetition of the thoughts and habits that you do want is really important because this is what will eventually help you to re-write those pathways in your brain to reflect your new and healthy choices. One way you can help yourself is to use a thought stopping technique such as saying the word ‘stop’ or ‘cancel’ when a tempting thought or habit comes to mind. It is a very simple but highly effective technique that literally breaks up the pattern of your tempting thoughts, stopping them in their tracks and giving you a much better chance of consciously choosing to move on to other things.
Think about how else you could cut across some of your more unhealthy behaviours and help yourself establish a new routine. For example, if you want to eat less you could try holding your fork or food only in your non-dominant hand. The idea here is to deliberately do something that feels a little awkward or uncomfortable to help you stop eating without really being aware of what you are doing.
In the end, much depends on how strongly you desire to change and how willing you are to practice. Remember that changing any habit has a lot to do with persistence. Some habits can be changed very quickly whilst others may take weeks or even months to change. Recent research shows us that on average we make a resolution approximately five times before we actually get around to doing anything different. Don’t be average. Make yourself some new choices today, and start looking forward to that feeling of success.
Do yourself a favour and spend a few moments thinking creatively about how you can help support yourself. For example, you could send regular and encouraging emails, voice messages or notes to yourself to remind you why you are making these changes in the first place.
Think about your own circumstances and consider what you could do to help support your success.
WHAT ARE YOUR EXCUSES?
Excuses are a great way of trying to hide behaviour that you are ashamed of and they are always harmful because they prevent you from succeeding. If you repeat your excuses often enough they will eventually become a habit and you will actually start to believe they are true. But they are not your truth, they are just inconvenient obstacles standing in your way for a while.
Here are just a few of the excuses I hear on a regular basis:
- I don’t have time.
- I’ve tried that and it didn’t work.
- I don’t know how to.
- I’ll do it when…
- It’s really not that bad.
- I just don’t have the willpower.
- I don’t think [x] would work for me anyway.
- [x] keeps me [y].
- It’s not my fault.
- The damage to my health is already done, so it doesn’t matter.
Don’t delude yourself, none of these excuses are true. They are just a way we all use from time to time to absolve ourselves from taking action. They are all ways of relinquishing your responsibility to someone else, or to something else such as your parents, your genes, your hormones or whatever. It’s much easier to make an excuse than to push through an old comfort zone.
When you make excuses it is often because you have a lack of structure around you to make the new decision easy and safe. Fear of failure or rejection are extremely common reasons for not even making the effort to begin to change so a good tip here is to break down any of the uncomfortable steps in front of you into even smaller chunks that you feel safe with.
Take the example of eating healthy meals. If it’s too much to make the change to cooking with fresh ingredients all at once, you might be able to introduce just one fresh item of fruit or vegetables at a time whilst also giving yourself a structured plan of progress to attain your goal of cooking only with fresh foods in a safe and manageable way.
If you can’t break your goal down into more manageable steps then look around for other ways that you can put some structures in place to help you succeed. So if for example, your goal is to get some exercise outdoors each day, say walking to work or the train station, but you hate being out in the wet and the cold, perhaps you could tell someone you are going to do it so that you feel honour bound to keep your word, or perhaps give yourself a healthy reward at the end of the week to celebrate your achievements. Think about this, what could you do to support yourself?
Have a go at the suggested activity below to help you become clearer about how you can change the worst of your unhealthy habits.
ACTIVITY: UNHEALTHY HABIT BUSTING
Make a note of two or three of your most unhealthy habits. It’s OK to be completely honest about this. You don’t need to show your answers to anyone else.
Now write down two or three practical ways in which you could help yourself to change. Remember baby steps are fine, just as long as you keep going.
Look back at those unhealthy habits you acknowledged a few moments ago. What excuses do you regularly give yourself for not changing?
For example, if your diet contains an unhealthy proportion of highly processed foods, your excuses for not changing may be that you were never really taught how to cook properly. Or perhaps you don’t feel that you have enough energy and enthusiasm to cook a meal from fresh ingredients when you get home from work.
Be as specific as you can. The more clearly you can identify why you stop yourself, the easier it will be to find a way to move forward.
Now, how could you get around this difficulty? Could you, for example, prepare some meals in advance, or take an interest in a new cookery book? What could you do?
Would you be willing to do these things?
Coaches are used to hearing excuses all day long, so if you are going to be successful at coaching yourself you need to be honest about your own excuses too.
These strategies work because habits and temptations always rely on you feeding the thought with your attention to give it strength. Once you pay attention to the thought, the next thing you know is that you are deluding yourself that this thing or behaviour is really not so bad after all, that you somehow deserve it, or that just this once it won’t matter. Before you know it you have given in and that would be a great shame. So next time you feel overwhelmed by those unwanted repetitive thoughts consider these suggestions and tempt yourself to a change instead
“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”