How to Change Your Habits
Here is a video of the original workshop on 3rd January 2021
Hi! I’m Hinny Wass. I teach Forrest Yoga and I also teach the violin. I’m a fairly recent addition to Low Carbon East Oxford.
This blog post originated as an online workshop, part of LCEO’s month of inspiration to take part in Veganuary, so a lot of my examples will be to do with reducing consumption of meat and dairy, and other low carbon goals. However, you’ll find the techniques equally applicable to any other new habit you might be keen to acquire.
This workshop is born partly out of my own experiences of changing my habits, particularly these three:
About a year ago our household started having meat only once a week, having previously eaten it most days. About ten years ago I gave up refined sugar Recently I began cycling again, but this time with my small son on the back of the bike. I stopped cycling when I was pregnant, and when my son was old enough to ride pillion I was equal parts really keen and really nervous to start again, but for the past year we’ve been really enjoying using the bike for most short trips within the city.
I bring you the results of a lot of trial and error, many slip-ups, many failed attempts, and a lot of reading and learning! I’m not at the end of my journey, but I have found these things to be effective. I hope you will too!
So, grab your writing implement and let’s make a start!
What do you want to do?
I want you to write down, at the top of a clean page, the thing that you want to do which you’re not already doing, and I want you to do this in a specific way. First, start your sentence with ‘I want to …’. This is because ‘I want’ is very much more motivating than ‘I ought’ or ‘I should’. Second, I want you to frame it as an action that you want to take, rather than something you want to be.
If you have more than one idea then just pick one to focus on for now. You can repeat the process as many times as you like.
Why do you want to do it?
Next, I want you to write down a question, and your answer to it. The question is:
Why do you want to make this change?
Try to frame your answer in a positive way. For example, rather than ‘I’m terrified climate change will wipe out the human race’, try ‘I want a better world for future generations’. What do you hope will improve if you make this change? Optimism is another great source of motivation.
Even when we’re really motivated to make a change, it can still be really hard. Why is that? Tonight I’m going to talk about four common reasons:
- Conflict between long-term and short-term desires
- The emotions which drive our actions
- Unrealistic expectations and/or no detailed plan
And I’ll give you tools to approach each of these hurdles.
1. Conflict between long-term and short-term desires
We humans are capable of simultaneously desiring two (or more!) mutually exclusive things. For example I want to be 5lb lighter AND I want to eat a fifth ginger biscuit. I think of us as having two types of wanting: one is based in long term satisfaction, and the other in short term satisfaction. The second is more shouty and much harder to ignore. They are often in conflict, and this conflict can feel pretty uncomfortable because our long term goals are often deeply rooted in who we want to be, how we want others to see us, how we imagine our best life.
Yet the voice of our desire for short term satisfaction so often drowns out everything else, and we suddenly find ourselves halfway through the sixth ginger biscuit that we swore we wouldn’t eat, or the car trip we had so wanted to make by bike instead, or the steak we said we’d never touch again, or turning the heating on an hour earlier than we’d meant to. We end up feeling guilty, and ready to give up on our resolutions, but unable to change our behaviour.
So how can we stand up to this beguiling voice that demands immediate satisfaction? The Formula for Change!
The Formula for Change was created by Ana Forrest, who invented the form of yoga which I teach: Forrest Yoga. Ana has an amazing life story - even as a young child she faced abuse and addiction, but she has done an astonishing amount of healing, and has created a beautiful life for herself and a yoga discipline which has improved a lot of lives.
Write this down:
Formula for Change
1. Notice when you’re doing the thing you want to stop doing.
2. Congratulate yourself on having noticed. (Do this heartily, sincerely and joyfully! Shush your habitual self-mutilation and name calling.)
3. Take a full deep breath, and feel your feet on the ground. (Breathe through your nose, filling up your belly, your back and your side ribs.) Practise doing this now.
This process will stand you in better stead to act as your wiser self. How?
So you’ve caught yourself picking up your 7th ginger biscuit, you’ve celebrated the win of having noticed by doing your elaborate victory dance, and then you’ve taken a full breath and felt your feet on the ground. What next? How are you going to persuade yourself to put the biscuit down and back away slowly?
Remembering your reasons for making the change!
The more reminders you have of your reasons littered around your life, the better. And if you don’t want them to be public, then maybe choose a picture instead of the words. Put it on your fridge, just inside your front door, in your wallet, as your computer desktop, by the loo, and anywhere else that you’ll see it regularly. Keep your reasons for wanting this change as present in your mind as possible. That way, when you use the formula for change it’ll be easy to remember them!
2. The emotions which drive our actions
Life is so much sweeter when we are living in accordance with what we believe to be right. There is a deep peace to be found in it. Conversely, though, if you believe that, say, driving cars and eating meat are bad for the environment and every day you spend an hour driving to work and back in heavy traffic and eat a bacon sandwich at your desk then that cognitive dissonance will leave you feeling uncomfortable, tired and disconnected.
So if it feels so uncomfortable, why do we keep doing it? You are not stupid. You are not evil. Your actions are driven by emotions. Real, valid, normal, but perhaps quite uncomfortable emotions.
Here is our second reason that it can be hard to change your habits.
All human beings experience all emotions, but society tells us that some emotions, like rage, shame, fear, desire, neediness, jealousy, are inappropriate. So we often suppress, ignore and deny these feelings.
But if we want to change our habits then we need to understand exactly what is driving us to do what we’re doing. Only then can we create lasting and positive change. When we are in the grip of big emotions, our rational brain - the prefrontal cortex - pretty much goes offline. We are left with the oldest most lizardy part of our brain, the amygdala, in the driving seat. This is the part which will urgently protect us from any potential harm (emotional or physical) it perceives, and damn the consequences.
That means, though, that if we can recognise our fears, our shadows, then we are better equipped to avoid being slaves to them and decide to act in a wiser, more conscious way.
So I want you all to write down a new life rule. Grab your pens:
All feelings can be accepted. (Some actions must be limited.)
I have adopted this wording from the brilliant book ‘How to talk so little kids will listen’ by Joanna Faber and Julie King.
Read this a few times and try to really absorb this message. Contrary to what your parents, teachers, and media outlets may have led you to believe, none of your emotions are wrong or bad or shameful. All emotions are useful signposts to the life you desire. You don’t need to act on all of them - in fact it’s important that you don’t! But it is ok to acknowledge all of your feelings as they drift through the sky of your mind.
Now, in the loving embrace of these words - all feelings can be accepted - let’s look at how feelings can trip us up when we’re trying to change our habits.
When we fall off a wagon that part of us really wants to be on, or when we fail to get on the wagon at all, the most useful thing we can do, instead of berating ourselves as most of us do (more on this later), is to try and figure out exactly what we got stuck on.
For example perhaps I didn’t cycle to pick up my son from nursery because I was afraid of exhaustion, or maybe it was raining and I wanted to stay dry. Maybe I bought sausages because I’m afraid my 2 year old won’t get enough protein, or I’m afraid of my lunch guests’ reaction to plant based food (ie desire to belong and be loved), or perhaps I feel comforted by eating sausages (ie I feel in need of comfort).
Some of the feelings you discover in this process can be hard to acknowledge, and if feelings bubble up try not to stifle them. Tears, laughter and shaking are all part of your amazing body’s innate healing mechanisms.
Especially if you’re thinking about habits relating to diet, you might find you come across feelings about cultural belonging or self identifying. For example:‘Proper’ Christmas dinner is meat. / In the UK we eat this on Christmas day. Or perhaps ‘I’m not a picky eater’.
So now it’s your turn. Grab your pens.
Think of the last time or last few times that you did the thing that you want to stop doing, and write down the emotions you think were driving you at the time. Why did you do it? What were you afraid of, or what unpleasant thing were you trying to avoid?
Be honest. No one will read what you write - this is as private as you want it to be. And remember - all feelings are normal and acceptable.
Now that you’ve written down a few of the emotional blocks you’ve encountered, let’s figure out what these amazing, valuable signposts are pointing us to.
You might find that simply acknowledging and accepting your feelings is enough to melt them away. For example, you might just be grieving for what you’re leaving behind. Maybe you won’t ever eat steak frites in France again. You are allowed to fully feel the sadness of that - it’s not trivial, and the more you try to deny that feeling exists, the more it will haunt your feelings about your intention to stop eating meat and trip you up. So feel that grief and let it move on through.
Sometimes the feelings you discover signpost a better path. For example, looking back at my earlier list: If I’m afraid of exhaustion then perhaps I could go to bed earlier. Or if I want to stay dry then perhaps I need to buy some waterproof trousers for cycling in the rain. Maybe I could do some research to find out exactly how much protein a two year old needs. Perhaps I need to think about how to find comfort without eating sausages, or maybe I need to have some important conversations with my loved ones, or do some healing work with a therapist to address my worries about belonging and being loved.
Have a look back at the things you just wrote down - your sticking points, tripwires and Stucknesses. Consider, is it enough just to feel these feelings and maybe have a cry, or a laugh, or a scream into a cushion to move them out? Or are they showing you a way to do things differently?
Write down any insights that come to you.
This process gets better with practice, so don’t worry if it’s not easy straight away. Keep trying!
Occasionally you will decide, in the moment, that your reasons are valid and you will still drive/eat meat/turn the heating on. This, then, becomes a wonderful opportunity to practise self-forgiveness. Question the voice that says you must be perfect or you have failed. Question the shame that most of us carry all the time - that conviction that you are not good enough as a human being, and that this “weakness” is evidence of that.
This brings us to the third reason changing habits can be hard: shame.
(By the way, if you’re interested in shame and how to shift it, look up the work of Brené Brown. I highly recommend her!)
Shame is often at the heart of people giving up on a goal after they slip up, even if it’s not a big slip. They take their mistake as evidence that the task is too hard, they are too weak, they’re doomed to fail, and so on. In other words, it convinces them further of their assumed fundamental inadequacy or unloveableness, when anyone else would say ‘It was just a piece of cheese, for goodness sake!’
Being able to forgive yourself for being a learner, for making mistakes, is your key to success in changing your habits.
So here is a mantra, a talisman to protect you from shame whenever you fall off the wagon. Repeat it five times every morning! And write it down now.
I will slip up, and that’s ok!
Mistakes are not a sign that you’ve failed and should give up! When you slip, use the formula for change. Celebrate that you noticed, take a breath and feel your feet. You are now equipped to take the next step as your wiser self. Don’t waste time or energy being mean to yourself - you are still brilliant! You can still succeed!
4. Unrealistic expectations and/or no detailed plan
If you decide that, having eaten meat every day of your life, you’re going to go completely vegan overnight and post a beautiful picture of every single meal to Instagram, then you will probably fail. However motivated you are to begin with, you have set yourself an incredibly difficult task. Doing new things takes time and energy, and sometimes life gets in the way. There will inevitably come a day when you are tired, or hangry, or cooking for a friend, or in a rush, and you need the comfort or convenience of something familiar. For me, as for all sleep deprived parents, this is every day!
Or in another common scenario, perhaps you’ve decided to make a modest and achievable change (like going for a 20 minute run twice a week) but you don’t schedule your new thing in. You’ll almost certainly get to the end of the week having done no running but with a firm intention to fit it in tomorrow (though tomorrow, of course, rarely comes).
So to help you avoid both of these pitfalls, you are now going to create your personalised plan! Your very own route to success!
Just to reiterate, most of my examples here will be to do with eating less meat and dairy, but this will work with whatever habit it is that you want to create.
Making Your Plan
So grab a pen, write a heading: The Plan!
Step one: The What. Make it Easy!
Write down this question and then answer it:
What are you already doing / have you already done towards your goal?
For example: This workshop!
Now write this question down and then answer it:
What small change(s) can I make
For example: Eat plant-based food every Wednesday evening
Your small change might not get you all the way to your eventual goal in one step, but it will make a difference, and will create a stepping stone towards what you desire. If you do something small and stick to it, that is much more effective than attempting a huge thing and giving up after a short while!
Step Two: The How.
In the words of Andy McNab: The 7 Ps (please excuse his language!) Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss-Poor Performance.
Decision fatigue is the cause of many a resolution scuppered. I thoroughly recommend making a rule (like vegan wednesdays, or only meat at the weekend) or a meal-plan for yourself - anything which means you have no on-the-spot decision-making to do. Maybe you have seven vegan recipes you already know and like, from which you could make a fixed weekly meal plan. It’s probably enough variety that you wouldn’t get bored, even if it’s a bit Shirley Valentine. It’d certainly last you a month of veganuary, and it would make food shopping very easy too.
Over the years of making innumerable changes to my diet, I have come to strongly believe that all diet decisions are made at the shopping stage. This is why only buying one portion of meat each week works so well for us - that’s the only meat in the house so we can’t eat any more than that. Watch out for the temptation to stock the freezer with any food you’re trying to limit - if it’s there and your short-term desire voice is asking for it, unless you’re a stronger person than I, you don’t stand a chance!
So get ready to make your detailed plan!
Grab your pens and write down these questions, leaving spaces between for you to write your answers:
1. What exactly am I going to do?
2. When am I going to do it?
3. What preparation do I need to do? 4. When can I do that prep?
5. What might prevent me and how can I avoid that?
6. Do I need help?
7. Where/how can I get that help?
Answer all of the questions which apply, referring to what you wrote in step one. Not all questions will be relevant - skip any which aren’t helpful.
Step Three: Adjust as necessary!
This will likely be an ongoing process. You have your first version of your plan, but there will probably be others, and that’s great!
Each week or so: List your wins and enjoy them What’s not working? How can you change it to make it more doable? What feelings are you getting stuck on? Are any practical things getting in the way?
Continually, as needed, use the Formula for Change!
Don’t forget to enjoy your achievements, however small!
You now have your own personal map to changing your habits! Congratulations!
This is what we covered:
- “I want to [do this action]”
- Your reasons - your motivation - the thing you hope will improve
- Possible hurdles and things to help get past them:
- Long term vs short term desires - Formula for Change (notice, celebrate, breathe!)
- Emotional blocks - All emotions can be accepted. Emotional signposts.
- Shame - I will slip up, and that’s ok!
- Unrealistic expectations/not enough of a plan - Your Plan!
- Your plan: What, how and when. Adjust it regularly!
So every day, begin with your mantra - I will slip up, and that’s ok! Follow your plan. When you slip up - don’t worry, and don’t give up! Use it as a sign that you can make your plan even better. Whenever you catch yourself about to deviate from your plan, use the Formula for Change and then remind yourself of your reasons. Every week or so, make any adjustments to your plan that you need to.
Above all, celebrate your wins and look for enjoyment in the process!