For most, January is a time for reflection. A time for promises — that we’re going to exercise more or eat better or get organized or quit smoking. For a few days (or weeks or months), we’re good at our new habit, really good. But nothing lasts forever, and sooner or later most of us will abandon our resolutions. And by the time the next December rolls around we will have forgotten what our resolutions were in the first place.
At the heart of a New Year’s resolution is the desire to change, a desire for things to be different, a promise that we won’t be the same people of our past. But science tells us that change isn’t easy. Like cars on a snowy highway, the signals of our brain follow the most commonly used path. Our habits are literally engrained into our brains.
In light of all these obstacles, how is it possible then to change? How can we make a resolution and actually keep it?
The trick, science tells us, is mindfulness. Mindfulness is most often associated with meditation — think sitting cross-legged on the floor with your eyes close and your palms resting on your knees.
When you draw all of that away, however, mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention. Watch yourself in your life, throughout your day. Pay attention to how you think, how you act, and you will gather all the information you need to make and keep positive changes.
Below, you’ll find some specific things to pay attention to in your quest to establish a new habit and change yourself for the better.
1. Notice Your Energy
One of the reasons we love our habits, is that they don’t take much energy. Smokers, for example, find it far less taxing to just have a cigarette than it is to resist a craving. Same with people who dislike exercise: sitting on the couch will always be more comfortable. When we’re tired, our habits are hard to stick to.
So, if you find that you yourself are too tired to eat healthy or too tired to maintain your daily exercise routine, it’s okay to have compassion and take a break. But don’t stop there.
During your break, take time to notice why your energy level is low. Did you spend your energy wisely today? Maybe you need to adjust your priorities or get more sleep. Paying attention to your energy level will teach you a lot about what your triggers are and how to make your habits sustainable.
Watching your energy level will teach you a lot about what obstacles to avoid and how to make your habits sustainable.
2. Notice Your Attitude
If you fail to do your habit, you might notice you have negative thoughts about yourself, but these negative feelings don’t motivate us to get back up on the horse. Instead, they do the opposite, reminding us of how lousy it feels to fail and encouraging us not to try in the first place.
Instead of avoiding these negative feelings, pay attention to them. Like farting or burping, negative feelings are a part of life. They might not be pleasant, but they’re always going to be there. Once you’ve accepted our feelings (instead of being afraid of them), you can get back to the business of establishing new habits.
3. Notice Your Fears
Change causes anxiety. So to really change, it’s important to consider what you are afraid of. For example, smokers might be afraid that they will be awkward in social situations or those embarking on an exercise plan might fear that they will be judged at the gym. In order to change, you must allow a little anxiety and uncomfortably into the process, and make the decision to go forward.
4. Notice Your Contempt
As you start to change, you might find yourself getting angry by the whole process — but don’t be tricked. Your contempt is your mind’s way of negotiating itself back into its old habits. Your brain is manipulating you to fail.
Challenge yourself to see your new habit as a new possibility instead of a limitation. Don’t think: how am I supposed to live in the morning without coffee?! Instead, think: I’m looking forward to trying all these new teas.
5. Notice Your Failures
Your failures are instructive glimpses into your old life. If you do have a cigarette, notice how it makes you feel. Does your cough come back? Does your heart start to race? Does it sap your energy? Same with exercise. What does it feel like when you don’t go on a run? Do you miss that runner’s high? Do you feel sluggish?
By noticing what it’s like to break your habit, you can do better next time.
6. Notice Your Compassion
If you hate doing something, you won’t do it. This is why you need to approach your new habit with self care and compassion. You’re never going to form a new habit if you approach it like a drill sergeant. You have to be a compassionate coach who checks in with yourself about where you’re at and what you really need. Consider using the “potty training” approach. In other words, treat yourself on your quest to quit smoking like you would a child on a quest to use the potty — with compassion, care, and the expectation that it’s going to be a few months before you do everything perfectly every time.