Changing Habits

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine there was an interesting article about habits.  There is a study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal suggesting that it might be better to give up your bad habits all at once rather than one a time.  The subjects were college students.  Half were left to continue their lifestyle practice while the other half were subjected to a strict regiment of exercise, mindfulness, stress reduction techniques and lectures regarding sleep habits and nutrition.  After six weeks the students subjected to the lifestyle overhaul reported feeling happier and calmer, they were fitter and more flexible and brain scans indicated that they were more focused.  Following the students for another six weeks but not doing any intervention, showed that those who had the initial lifestyle overhaul were still functioning better even though they were not required to demonstrate any of the new changes.

There are many questions to this study- Is the sample size (N=31) significant to infer any generalizations? How can you control for everything when dealing with active college students (dormitory arrangements, financial stress for cost (working while attending), social relationships (dating), type of course work?  However, it does initiate an interesting dialogue. 

My experience in coaching others is that it is more sustainable to work on one thing at a time and to let that one thing become the norm so that there are less items on which to work. Kind of like laying down layers of a good habit foundation.  When a new habit is formed, developed and ingrained in one's lifestyle practice it then becomes harder to default back to the old ways. When multiple habits change at the same time, I would suggest that they are not as deeply rooted into someone's psyche and consequently would be easier to uproot. If stressors affect a person's life, the habits that are still in the seedling stage can easily be trampled. 

I think this study does raise the point that when one changes one habit it does impact another. I have heard other coaches say that when they notice someone getting their finances in order, their weight also seems to be managed better and visa versa.  The correlation among habits stems from the fact that once we decide to work on a habit, we are committing to a process of discipline.  Part of the word discipline means: "the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior.."  As in many things in life, once we see how one type of behavior is effective, we can transpose that process into other areas. 

What about you?  Have you ever learned new behavior or practiced a different lifestyle habit?  What did that look like?  Did you change by one behavior at a time or did you totally revamp your lifestyle?  If you have always wanted to change some unhealthy habits, what do you think you could do to achieve that?  Do you need more information on the best way to go about the change?  Do you first need to name and recognize the problem?  Do you need more discipline in your life?  

Ways to incorporate change into your life:

1) Evaluate how things are currently going for you.  On a scale of 1-10 (best), how would your rate your total wellness (body, mind, spirit)?

2) Identify the areas that are lower on the scale or the ones on which you want to work.

3) Set a goal for yourself.  Break that goal down into smaller doable parts. If it takes a couple of smaller goals to add up to the bigger one, so much the better.  I would certainly advise that if one was trying to lose weight (one of the most frequently stated goals for people).  It would be better to say that you wanted to lose 10 pounds in a year (approximately 1 pound a month) and keep it off for that year than to say you want to lose 5 pounds by the summer time. 

4) Find an "accountability" partner- someone who can encourage you to get back on track when you might have those stressors chipping away at your newly developing habit. 

5) Reevaluate your habit.  Once it is incorporated into your lifestyle, revisit and give yourself pats on your back for learning and sticking to something new.  Recognizing what you have accomplished in the past can help encourage you to work on some other type of habit in the future. 

(One thing that I am working on is learning  that I do not have to kill myself trying to get things done in one day.  For example, I used to almost physically cripple myself in getting our gardens mulched and cleaned for the season. I would scurry around pulling weeds, edging sides and throwing mulch down that I would never enjoy the chore much less the beauty of the garden.   It was something that needed to get done so that I could move on to something else.  Plus I would complain bitterly.

My goal is to learn to enjoy the process, the garden and to just work on it in little chunks of time.  For some that would be a no brainer, but for me, to put away the garden tools and leave the garden with items still to be done, was and is, a big learning curve.  Feeling that I had to have it "finished" was stressing me to the point that every time I would look at our backyard I would get anxious.  

So, I am giving myself only an hour or two to work on the yard and then giving myself permission to walk away until the next time.  I have reframed gardening as a process and an activity rather than a once and done project.  By doing so I am enjoying myself and the garden as it unfolds.  And, my son knows that I am trying to do smaller chunks of time in the garden and so reminds me that it is time to stop.  I am hopeful that my new habit is going to stick and that I can practice this "continuation of activity" in other areas: no longer will I have to wear myself out in trying to get everything done at once.)