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Reasons why New Year’s resolutions (or any new habits) fail
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Do you ever ask yourself “what am I doing with my life? Is this it?”
It’s natural and normal to reflect on your life. Hopefully you feel content and happy with where you are, and where you’re going. But sometimes, darker feelings arise. Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions? How did I end up here? What am I doing with my life? Is this it? I’ve been coaching since 2007. Since then, every single one of my clients has said at least one of these sentences to me in our very first meeting. They usually come to see me thinking that they need a new career. A milestone birthday has been and gone and they are dissatisfied. Something is not right. They presume their career is the culprit, but then we start talking and they realise it’s not the job that is to blame for their case of the blues. It’s their whole life. Why am I so unsatisfied? I am feeling bored with myself and my life If you’re feeling like my clients have done; bored, unfulfilled and dissatisfied, it may be that you’re experiencing “individuation”; the beginning of the process of self-actualisation coined by Carl Jung. If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear a tiny voice inside you which is trying very hard to get your attention. It’s this voice which is grumbling in your head as you stack the dishwasher, jump on the Tube or write yet another report for your boss. This tiny voice is your true self. Your true self has been buried for a while. In the course of growing up, maybe raising a family and climbing the career ladder you’ve been able to silence it with the added pounds on your pay check, or the soft feel of your toddler’s arms around your neck. But the pile of pounds has become meaningless, and the sweet toddler is a stroppy teen or has left home. Now that dissatisfied voice – your true self – is shouting at you louder and louder; whenever you’ll listen. Listen to it and you can feel truly fulfilled and satisfied. You can discover your true potential, feel happy and live a more fulfilled and meaningful life. But how? How do I change my life? I’ve got a well-paid job, a mortgage and bills to pay. I can’t just jack it all in! Don’t worry. I’m not going to suggest that you trek to faraway lands and while away your years in a yoga pose atop a verdant valley. But you can ask yourself some searching questions and you can start your journey towards a happier life. Here’s how:
Tip 1: Get clarity
OK, let’s get started:
- Put aside 5 minutes. Set a timer on your phone.
- Sit in a comfy position and daydream. Ask yourself the question “if I wasn’t scared and if I knew I couldn’t fail, who would I be? What would I be doing? What would my life actually look like?
- Visualise your ideal life. What would you do day to day? Who would you spend time with? What would your life look like? This is not a time to be practical, or be scared to dream. Imagine you could not fail. What would you do? Faces, places and activities will spring to mind. Write them down.
Next, think about the themes and identify the core values that are most important to you in your vision.
- Are you connected to nature; with your family, friend or clients?
- Are you free to make your own decisions or are you employed and in your office?
- Are you dreaming about being creative, making a difference in the world?
Think, if you could take over a billboard, thousands of people would read it every day. What would it say? This is the beginnings of your life purpose. Lastly, and this is a very exciting exercise, imagine you are meeting your future self at a party.
- What are you like?
- How are you different?
- What’s stayed the same?
But I have such a fear of change
You’ve imagined a life you’d love and your rational brain can’t accept it. Sadly that’s just part of being human. When you dare to dream; to imagine a life you really want, up pops your old friend the saboteur telling you all sorts of negative things:
- That’s not possible
- How can you do that?
- Why do you think that?
- Wow, if you tell anyone that they’ll think you’re stupid
- You can’t have that!
In short, you’re not enough. You’re not good enough. There’s no point imagining that you can change your life. This is called conditioning; and describes the situation where the way you were bought up to think, feel and behave is raising its ugly head to keep your behaviour aligned with what was seen to be right in your family, culture or religion. Conditioning speaks to you in the ‘voice of the saboteur’ and identifying (and ignoring!) this voice is the single best thing you can do for yourself so you can stay on track to a happier, more fulfilled and meaningful life. I’ve been feeling like this for a long time now– I feel stuck in a rut and can’t see a way out
Tip 3: Change your mind change your life
So that’s it. Game over. Life over. This is all you can expect. If you think that you can’t change who you are, you’re probably feeling quite miserable right now. In which case, you may like to know that neuroscience research and evidence says we can all change how we think, behave and even feel about anything in our life. Yes, even you. Our ability to do this is called neuroplasticity and it means that all of these things can be altered as they are malleable even into old age:
- Your thought patterns
- The way you behave
- Ingrained ways that you respond in certain situations
This completely discredits dusty old scientific thinking that the brain develops mainly in childhood and then remains fixed. It turns out that you can teach old dogs new tricks! Isn’t that amazing? It’s been scientifically proven that you can change your perspective on anything you turn your mind to. If you can change your perspective and think that anything is possible, then it is! So, you have a choice. You can design the life you want. You can achieve your dreams even if you’re not sure what they are right now. I feel so overwhelmed just thinking about all of this
Tip 4: Plan & Act
Dreaming without planning and actions can be overwhelming. But remember: this is your life we’re talking about. If you really want to change things; how you feel on a daily basis and, say, the next forty years you have on this planet, then please do something about it. As the poet Mary Oliver once wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?” Here’s how to start turning your vision in to reality:
- Create a vision board. If you’re not sure how to make one, look online there are loads of good ones these days, or my preferred is good old cardboard and images (again plenty now online).
- Create atimeline complete with the targets and goals you know you need to hit. Make sure you have deadlines. I do this with all my clients, as when you’ve broken tasks down they seem much more achievable.
Thinking about all of this makes me feel even more anxious and stressed out
Tip 5: Fill up your tank
Changing your life can be a stressful business and it is hard work. However, it’s so much more rewarding than living an unfulfilled life (and you’re probably stressed and anxious now aren’t you?). To move from boredom, stress and anxiety to living the life you want, you need to make sure you are looking after yourself and that your self-care tank is always full. If your saboteur is already saying “but I don’t have the time / I need to look after my kids / partner / everyone else / I have a full time job” then here’s a famous saying for you… Make sure that tank of yours is more full than empty; and get your oxygen mask on before you put it on others…. Here’s how:
- Meditation and exerciseare the best things you can do for yourself to fight anxiety and stress and nurture your mind, body and soul.
- Take time outand do something that makes you feel better; whether it be reading a good book, phoning a friend or walking in the woods.
- Get up earlier and create a morning routinethat will have you actively working on changing your life on a daily basis before your usual morning routine kicks in.
When you’re on your deathbed looking back at your life, what do you want to be able to say about it? What will you be glad about? What will make you smile? Do you really want to be one of those people who looks back and has so many deathbed regrets? Please share if this has been useful or inspiring.
Are you sick of making and breaking the same old new year’s resolutions (or any new habit) year after year?
If you finally want to make that change, or kick that habit that makes you feel bad – read on for my top four neuroscience-backed reasons as to why you are finding this all so difficult.
My follow-on blog and video detailing how to implement this information will be released in two week’s time, so sign up to receive that, or if you’re reading/watching this in the future, it will appear immediately after this.
Reason 1 – forming any new habit takes a lot of energy and headspace
When you are creating or breaking any new habit you are creating a brand new neural pathway in your brain. I see it like a woodland pathway – in order for that pathway to become a well trodden route through the woods, we need to walk down it again and again. Like that, when we are creating any new habit (for example getting up early to run in the morning), we are not only creating a brand new pathway, but we are also having to resist the urge to go down the already well-trodden, easier pathway (ie. Staying in our nice warm bed as we have done for years). This all takes a lot of brain energy and effort!
- It’s in the Pre Frontal Cortex (the red part of the picture) that this all happens. This is the part of the brain that is concerned with conscious thought, strategizing, goal setting and motivation. But when we are tired or stressed or just have too much on, there is not enough energy left over for creating any new habits.
- This is when we revert to the older ‘mammal’ part of the brain (aka limbic system) – which can run on automatic – using much less energy – and again, in this state, we have absolutely no chance of making the best decisions or create new habits
**Change requires a lot of energy, attention and consistency, so when we don’t create that, we have no hope of creating, let alone sustaining any new year’s resolutions or habits
Reason 2 – You have to be very clear on the benefits of the new habit and drawbacks of not doing it
- As human beings we naturally avoid situations where we experience pain, and seek out the ones where we experience pleasure – this is just an old survival mechanism of the brain which is, at it’s most basic functioning level, designed to keep you safe and alive.
- So if you really want to get your brain to make all of that extra effort to create an entirely new neural pathway, then you really need to focus on the benefits, the good, the pleasures you will gain from, say that early morning run. You will also need to avoid focusing on the bad, the pain, the difficulties of doing it.
Reason 3 Any new habit needs to feel as easy and familiar as possible
- Most of my clients, when they’re ready to commit to their new behaviour or habit – go all out, saying something like “right I will go to the gym five days a week for an hour – at 6 am every morning”. Every single time I have to reel them back in (often with a lot of resistance) to something smaller, more manageable. The reason is this – any ‘novelty’ or change activates the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain – the Amygdala.
Remember that survival instinct of the brain?
When we do anything that is too new or too ‘scary’, the Amygdala is activated – pushing us back to our old ‘safe’, known way of operating. It literally deactivates large chunks of the PFC – so we can’t actually evaluate the situation rationally – or in that moment make the best decisions for our lives.
All the Amygdala is concerned with is keeping us alive. It doesn’t care about our dreams, plans, hopes, values and purpose (let alone the fact we want to lose some weight or change a bad habit).
Reason 4 – It takes time!
- Depending on what else your brain is dealing with, and level of difficulty or complexity of your new resolution or habit, you will need to allow plenty of time for it to ‘embed’ or become your ‘new normal’
- Creating any new habit takes time for those neural pathways to become solid (remember that woodland pathway) and to replace the old behaviour or habit you currently have.
- There are many theories about how much time this all takes, but it really does depend on the habit itself, how much else you are managing in that brain of yours, and how easy or difficult this new habit is. My very rough estimation, for any new behaviour, is to allow at least three months of consistent effort.
- And remember, during that time you will need to keep your stress levels down, stay focused on the benefits, and have it be as easy and familiar as possible.
If you’ve found this information useful and want to put it into action, sign up for my next blog & video How to set and Keep New Year’s Resolutions (or any new habits) coming up in two weeks’ time. Or if you’re reading this in the future it will appear after this on my site.
Please share – thank you!
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