Many of us start the year with good intentions, and in the first few days we’re genuinely committed to improving those bits of our lives where we feel we’re not reaching our full potential. We make solemn promises to ourselves and the rest of Facebook that we’re not going to eat as much, we’re not going to drink to excess and from now on, our middle name might as well be ‘gym bunny.’
It’s a story that repeats itself time and again. We recognise that something’s not how we want it to be, but it turns out to be the devil’s own job to change it and carry that change much beyond the end of January. Before we know it, we’re back to tucking into foods we vowed we wouldn’t, waking up with a hangover every Sunday and that gym membership remains predictably unused. Why is it so hard to sustain changes?
In the latter part of last year I attempted (and failed) at the No Diet, Diet. For me, it was a classic example of what happens when you start something with good intentions and two weeks later, find yourself so busy that it’s been three days since you even thought of it, let alone did anything about it. But from it I learned a salutary lesson: My habits are what keeps me doing the same old thing and as I get older, my life settles ever deeper into ruts as those habit pathways are reinforced. Sometimes habits are good. For instance, I find it difficult to break the habit of having a shower first thing in the morning or cleaning my teeth after breakfast. On the other hand, I have very detrimental habits. I find it hard not to finish a bottle of wine once I’ve opened it or to leave one item in the packet for another occasion. I like things to be finished up and the temptation to eat the last one of anything – or leftovers at mealtimes is immense. I don’t like leftover food and find it hard to bin it. It seems almost criminal.
Hot on the heels of our New Year’s resolutions, in the way that night follows day, is the self-flagellation that goes on when we ‘fail’ at these changes; perhaps not aware of the enormous habit-web that surrounds our behaviour. You’re almost fighting against gravity to get out of your rut, so is it any wonder you have ‘failed’ in your quest to exercise five times a week? You can’t create one new flimsy habit pathway and expect it to cope against the steel mesh of your other habits, without getting out the pliers and snapping some habit strands first. If you are ‘failing’ at your desired change, take a look at what’s going on around it. Are you fighting against some deeply ingrained habits that might also need to change?
Perceived ‘failure’ is good at sapping every motivation to keep going, so starting small and building up is going to be a better way of seeing results than crashing and burning on day 4 because it’s unsustainable. Far better to have achieved one walk a week, than beating yourself up because the 5-times-a-week gym thing didn’t happen at all. So you can’t achieve all the things, but perhaps you could do one thing. And do it well.
My one thing for this year is a word: Consistency. I’m sick and fed up of starting things and stopping them, so I’ve decided not to do anything new. Instead, I’m going to be more consistent about what I already do. For example, being consistent about when I go to bed. I’m an early riser, but it’s not unheard of me to only fall into bed at half past twelve expecting to be raring to go at 5.30am. That causes all sorts of problems later in the day – tiredness, shortness of temper, inability to concentrate and usually a desire to overeat. It’s a sure-fire way of wreaking havoc on my day, so tweaking it is a good thing. I’m not changing what I do – I’m still going to bed – but I’m simply being more consistent with the hours I sleep and the importance that I place on it. I spent the best part of 10 years with self-induced sleep deprivation, so now that I can sleep properly, I need to make the most of it.
But I’m not making any grandiose plans about changing this, that, or the other. I’m just being more consistent in those areas where I have flashes of good stuff going on, but struggle to turn them into successful new habits. At the moment I’m concentrating on sleeping and writing. When I have those things working more like I’d want them to, I’ll turn my attention to some other areas. But there will be no targets, no ‘you must,’ just the quiet expectation that small changes, if done consistently, will yield something good in time.