No matter how hard you try to steer things otherwise, life will come to you.
I’ve spent a long time trying to introduce change into my life. Change in how I think, how I behave, how I work, what I do, what I like, what I don’t like, what & how I eat and so on. However, this was forced change, so only temporarily did I succeed at sticking with it. After a while, I came back to my old ways, which inevitably led to feelings of remorse. All until I became aware of how change comes about.
As with everything, you can’t expect the results to show up overnight. It takes time and practice to condition your mind and your body to accept and introduce change. However, the most important thing is to desire change from the deepest of your core. This will instil in your mind the virtues of embracing the change(s) you seek to introduce in your habits. Have patience. Change will come gradually, slowly but surely. The more you wish to embrace it, the more your mind will condition itself to adopt change.
If you find yourself torn between the ambivalent nuances of your personality, oscillating between an Upholder and a Rebel (i.e. between knowing what’s good to do and doing it often and doing the exact opposite sometimes), don’t get yourself worked up over it. There is no need to fight your rebellious self. After you let your rebellious self indulge in its ways once, twice … a hundred times, its inner drive will grow tired and will soon succumb into a dormant state. That will make room for your other-half, the struggling disciplined self to win effortlessly over its antagonistic side (the rebellious self). The latter will soon get defeated by the sweet victory of its indulgence. Just like after a tumultuous explosion, nature returns to its quiet and peaceful state, your mind will naturally return to its serene state brought about by the sense of calm and self-pride derived from knowing that your disciplined self won over.
Over time, you may learn to accept the perceived bad habit that you don’t have enough willpower to change or adapt to living without the good habit that you don’t have enough motivation to adopt. However, the simple contemplation of what you or your life could be like once the sought-after change is introduced will pave the way for the desired habit-forming behaviour to emerge or the perceived self-destructive behaviour to fade away.
You just have to acknowledge the need for change, take a few baby steps in pursuing it and wait for it to settle. But make sure you take baby steps and don’t sprint yourself through change. Change will come when change needs to come. In the process of growing and evolving, people inevitably change. In order to make sure you change in the ways you want to change, surround yourself with the things or the people that will help facilitate the adoption of the change you seek to embrace and remove those that are deterring you from changing according to your goals.
This is only my own interpretation of how behavioural change comes about. I haven’t had the chance to assess my thoughts against psychological research, but they are realisations that I arrived at after becoming aware of the process that my mind goes through while adopting desired change. I will relate to 8 different examples from my life, to exemplify how the principle and mechanic of change worked for me (and how I became aware of it in this way):
1. Good diet, physical activity and weight loss
For many years, I aspired to be slimmer and fitter, yet never really did anything to change the way I looked or felt about myself. For years, I used to not touch fruits or veggies and to dine on processed meat and cheese spread on white bread.
Until one day, when I looked at the unhealthy food and drinks I was indulging in, to keep me going through the mental work I was (not) doing and said to myself: “Why am I doing this?”. As if struck by a lightning-bolt moment, I threw away all the faux-food and went shopping for healthier food at the crack of dawn the next day (I arrived at the supermarket before it even opened). Once I got in, I started reading the packaging of the food I was intending to buy. That was when I noticed that the nutritional content was on the label, which instantly made me become mindful of what and how much I was consuming. Not only did this lead me to start controlling my food intake, but also motivated me to join the gym and embrace physical exercise. This brought about another lightning-bolt moment, when I acknowledged the discipline that practicing a sport brings to one, which instantly made me to start exercising regularly.
However, even though my willingness to change my lifestyle happened instantly, the actual change in what, how much and the way I eat and exercise took years to solidify. This is because change had to go though all the incremental phases before it reached the plateau where it settled.
I still slipped many times and fell prey to what was then temptation (sweet treats, processed foods etc.), but, over time, my desire to enjoy good foods that truly nourish my body led me to not perceive bad food and drinks as temptation anymore. As I decided to change my diet and lifestyle, I discovered the true taste of natural food and got to love it so much that I even contemplated becoming vegan. Occasionally, I still craved sweet treats and comfort food and felt guilty after having them, but over time this happened less and less often.
Gradually, my keen aim to lead a healthy lifestyle subconsciously led my body to take pride in eating healthily and liking the taste and texture of nourishing food. I was first surprised when presented with a variety of delicious treats (that my rebellious-self would have been keen to devour), I did not have any interest in them. my rebellious mind asked my conscience why that was, to which the latter replied: because I simply don’t feel like having a bad food day today. And because I remember the post sugar-rush feelings of pseudo-hunger and the self-guilt that follows.
I am still amazed by how effortlessly our tastes change and evolve over time. To give you another example, I used to stay away from coffee and milk, yet when I discovered the amazing combination of the two, latte became my ultimate comfort drink. I also fell in love with hot milk and hence tried to limit my consumption of it, by replacing it with substitutes like almond or soy. The unfamiliar taste of soy or almond milk initially displeased my palate (probably as they didn’t resemble much the sought-after taste of milk). However, I gave these milk substitutes another try and each time felt quite dissatisfied with them (especially soy milk). I never understood how healthy eaters claimed to enjoy these milk substitutes more than the real thing. However, when I started working in an office where soy milk was offered alongside various types of normal milk, I decided to give it one more try. I heated it up and used it for my morning banana porridge and hot cocoa drink and, all of a sudden, I simply loved it! The slightly nutty texture, its ability to hydrate and make me full at the same time, the no-fat after-taste, the comfort of a hot drink and the association with a plant whose seeds I enjoy roasted – all of these led me to change my taste so suddenly and prefer soy to normal milk. I even became dissatisfied when we ran out of soy milk in the office. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by this sudden change in my taste and what I enjoy. This reassured me that, unhurriedly, the sought-after behavioural change in my taste and attitude to food will always find its way into my lifestyle.
2. Drinking water
Drinking enough water has always been a struggle for me. For some reason, I was never thirsty. I’ve made a few attempts to try and drink the recommended 2L a day, but each time I struggled to get through even 1L and found the frequent water drinking too much of a distraction. So, I left it there and didn’t think to try and change my ways, by creating a habit out of drinking more water. I would rather drink tea or eat fruits than consume more water and I was fine with that. Nonetheless, whenever I thought about introducing change in my lifestyle, the thought of consuming more water always came back to me.
However, one day I woke up feeling very thirsty and therefore started my day by drinking a full glass of water (which, previously, I would have had to force myself to do). Over time, I realised that nothing hydrates me as well as water, and that all the other sources of hydration (such as juices, fruits, smoothies, no-sugar fizzy drinks or hot drinks) are just comfort drinks. This realisation helped me develop a healthy “appetite” for drinking water, which enabled me to increase my water consumption, to the point where I now feel empty and can’t function properly if I don’t have enough water at my disposal.
I don’t know how this change happened in my body’s acknowledgment of the need for proper hydration, but the mornings when I wake up feeling really thirsty became more and more frequent to the point where they became a daily occurrence. So, I now go though about 1.5L of water a day, without any conscious effort, just satisfying my body’s need for proper hydration.
3. Eating mindfully
For years, I indulged in the habit of mindless eating. Eating in front of the computer (with eyes glued to the screen) always made me eat faster than I normally would and deterred me from fully enjoying my food. Whilst initially this bad habit didn’t seem to affect me much, lately I realised that I didn’t fully enjoy any meal eaten mindlessly. Even though I initially tried to ignore this, I realised that each non-fully-experienced meal left me craving some more.
This signalled to me that I had to change my habits, as my brain wouldn’t record the food eaten mindlessly and therefore would refuse to function at its full potential in the perceived absence of food. The first time I tried to return to eating mindfully, I felt really calm, peaceful, content and full, aided by the fact that I didn’t feel the need to eat fast. However, even if this was a powerful realisation, it didn’t lead me to change my habits quickly and it took many more non-fully-experienced meals to realise that I really needed to introduce this change in the way I was eating. This progressively reinforced my understanding that all it took was to discipline my energetic self into quieting down to enjoy a meal as it should be enjoyed.
Just as my intention to lose weight and get myself into good shape came about instantly, whilst struck by the consumption-driven lightning-bolt mentioned above, so did my intention to start running. For someone that used to associate happiness with watching a movie or surfing the internet whilst lounging on the sofa, the idea of running came close to a torture. However, somehow, in the deepest roots of my then dormant brain, the idea of getting to a state where I felt like I was living life to the fullest emerged. All of a sudden, in my mind, this equated to the act of running. The intensity, the energy, the tumult, the release of cortisol and endorphines (happiness-bringing hormones) in the bloodstream, the blissful sense of liberation (which can only be experienced at their peak after a run), all equated with the idea of living life to the fullest.
However, despite being “hit” by this self-awakening realisation, it took another year to actually start regular running. So, even though the first lightning-bolt moment (i.e. equating running with living life to the fullest) did not strike hard enough to make me change my behaviour, this idea of adopting the habit of running still remained ingrained in my mind.
And then, after a year, I became dissatisfied once again with the way and the amount of food I was eating. This led me to start researching expensive treadmills that wouldn’t even fit my small bedroom! So, the idea that I could run outside whenever I felt like (suggested by my boyfriend) was the second lightning-bolt moment, which built upon the first one, strengthening my intention to adopt the habit of running straightaway. Just like when the lightning strikes twice in the same spot it leaves a lasting mark, being struck by the same lightning-bolt moment twice made me adopt instantly the habit I had been contemplating for so long. And I’ve kept it for the past 3 years and hope it will stay with me for life. Running has now become such a big part of my life, that a day without a run feels incomplete. More on this here.
5. Maintaining focus
In the past few years I became hyperactive, making my overly-excited mind to give rise to roaming thoughts concomitantly, to the point where I would start something and then end up doing something completely different. Especially, when it came to doing challenging work, my mind would find millions of ways to get out of it, procrastinating by making itself busy with meaningless “work” and time-wasting pursuits (like internet research, checking email or simply snacking).
Even though I recognised this trait and felt guilty at the end of each time-wasting session in which my prone-to-leisure mind mainly passively consumed readily available content instead of putting the effort into creating something, I didn’t do anything to change this behaviour. A few times, I tried to control my habit of distracting myself by applying techniques like Pomodoro, where you time yourself to work intensely for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break and repeat the cycle throughout the entire working day. However, when this strategy and a few others in which I tried to be more time-aware failed, I admitted defeat and carried on with the bad habit of getting distracted. Anticipating that I would feel guilty afterwards, I still indulged in the empty pursuit of wasting time, distracting myself, by using up my mental resources on searching and consuming unnecessary content, cluttering my mind with useless information.
However, with no expectations of being able to change this bad behaviour, I still acknowledged it each time I got distracted, anticipated the sense of remorse and tiredness that would follow and learnt to live with it. Whilst, on the surface, I took pride in being able to multi-task, deep-down I felt unable to carry on with an activity without letting another one or a chain of thoughts to interfere.
Luckily, over time, I became weary of my inability to concentrate hard enough to be able to carry on with an activity until finishing it. Due to my mind’s self-regulatory mechanism, I started to not be able to relax fully or enjoy my downtime at the end of the workday, because of the sense of remorse resulting from not working productively enough or at full capacity throughout the work day, or not producing a meaningful output.
Furthermore, taking on unnecessary pieces of information has had the effect of overwhelming my mind over the long term and getting to a state of tiredness to the point where my mind became reluctant to take on any new piece of information unrelated to the work I was doing at a particular point in time. This further strengthened my desire to focus, by diminishing my impulse to follow the Magical Unicorns (e.g. open new emails as they landed into my inbox or to follow intrusive thoughts that would lead me to start surfing the internet).
So, with each distraction and sense of remorse derived from it, the opposite (sought-after) behaviour started to take shape. I started to pursue the comfort and sense of calm derived from doing only one thing at a time. I started to love the conservation and efficient use of energy from being able to just focus, treating each task as a project on its own. Once the project was finished, I could take a small break and move on to the next.
Over time, the sense of satisfaction emerged from having worked productively (with no distractions), even in the absence of a quantifiable or meaningful output, reinforced my mind’s intention to remain calm and clear by channelling attention on one thing at a time. This was also aided by my realisation that losing focus made me more prone to snacking, as if my mind thought I was completely off-the-hook.
Even if I proudly declare myself free from distractions, sometimes I still feel the tentacles of this past behaviour, signalling that the process of growing out of it is slow but steady. Even now as I type this article feverishly, I think that I would like to learn how Evernote works, research some holiday deals, find quirky decorations for my workspace, sign up to NaNoWriMo, buy and skim-read read Deep Works, Norwegian Wood and the Pleasure Trap (all at the same time!), check my library account, update the “About Me” section on my website and a few other tempting thoughts that I am too busy to let formalise. However, they are all just tempting thoughts, too weak to lure my strengthened focused-self.
6. Changing interests
Overtime, I’ve also noticed an unplanned and unforced change in my personal interests. Whereas a few years ago, my lazy-self would have been happily content watching a movie or going for a nice meal, now I consider them to be empty pursuits. My driven nature has become more eager to learn, grow, create, achieve, use up and generate more energy, that I can no longer find pleasure in indulging in these activities on their own. For example, if I watch TV or a movie, I now need to knit to keep my hyperactive mind occupied.
This is how I found interest in quite a few hobbies that bring me a lot of happiness and I try to engage myself in them as much as possible. Spending a free day playing the piano, learning French, reading, writing, knitting and doing some form of physical exercise brings me far greater pleasure than collapsing on the sofa and passively consuming ready-made content. And as I embraced these new hobbies I find that I am starting to lose my interest in food and cooking, which I developed a couple of years ago. This signals to me that another change in my interests and what I value is starting to take place, which I am happy about, as with this I am making more time and space for the more meaningful pursuits mentioned above. After all, the end output of cooking – food – only provides immediate gratification and not a long-term fulfillment. Not to mention that it can be a potentially dangerous pastime, as it may lead to over-consumption and weight gain.
7. Making decisions
I used to be a slow decision-maker, lingering over taking big decisions and changing my mind a few times before committing to anything. However, adulthood pushed me into taking big decisions more and more frequently. As I got used to it and realised what my mind goes through in the weighting process and that almost no decision is irreversible, I started taking decisions more effortlessly. After all, in the majority of cases, there is at least one way to turn things around if things don’t work out.
When I started earning money, I became overwhelmed by choice. When I was living at home I was never really in charge of buying anything and don’t recollect having much pocket money. Likewise, when I was a student, living on a limited budget, my purchasing decisions were easy: whatever wasn’t a necessity to my existence wasn’t on my shopping list. The decision of what and when to buy was easy.
Earning my own living made me want to change my lifestyle, go on adventures, buy nicer clothes, good quality food, pamper and treat myself. All these choices made it difficult to choose how to spend my little, hard-earned budget wisely. This led me to start spending a lot of time and energy browsing, looking at things, comparing, researching, deciding, changing my mind, calculating deal savings. This would inevitably make me feel guilty for wasting my most valuable asset – time.
Nonetheless, overtime, as I grew used to having a disposable income and became aware that I value my free time more than my possessions, I gradually learnt to be a more efficient shopper and buy the first thing I see. This realisation was strengthened by my observation that all material possessions are perishable and will inevitably be prone to wear and tear. No material purchase is everlasting (hence not worthy of much mental effort or emotional turmoil), so I started to apply my go-with-the-first-reasonable-thing-you-see logic even when it came to buying a house. I know this is risky and that the high-priced purchasing decisions should require more research and mental weighting, but I find it so liberating to free up time and mental space away from what investments I make and redirect it to how I spend my precious free time and enjoy my life.
I realised that once I took a few major decisions (such as leaving home to move to another country on my own), all the other fairly big decisions (quitting a good job, making important purchases) just fell into place. As my experience of taking important decisions expanded, I became aware that my mind realised that there is no such thing as a perfect decision. After all, in each decision, there are many conflicting variables at play. So, my mind started to create shortcuts to quickly identify the most important factors to weigh in reaching the most optimal considered outcome. Realising this has made me trust my mind, to the point where I take most of my decisions on a whim, based on a mixture of a bit of research, some thinking, intuition, impulse and learnings from past experience. I just try to make the best of the outcome, see it in the best positive light and feel a lot happier for not spending a lot of time overthinking things.
8. Attitude to self
In my bleak days, I would mentally beat myself up for any self-imposed rule that my rebel self would break. For me, these sources of self-deceit became happiness stumbling blocks in their own right.
However, after a while, I realised that the nature of these sources of dissatisfaction was quite shallow, as the majority of the time I was getting worked up about things like snacking at inappropriate times or eating unhealthy foods or not using my free time productively. In spite of this realisation, I still continued to experience the sense of remorse at not being able to abide by the rules that the Upholder side of my personality imposed. Knowing that I would feel guilty afterwards, didn’t deter me from breaking my own rules.
Nonetheless, over time, this sense of remorse experienced frequently started to fade away or be short-lived, as I acknowledge that there is no need to dwell on things past, as there are many more things that will take place in the future and if I live up to my expectations then, I will feel better. For example, instead of feeling guilty for eating bad food or overeating at one meal-time, I started to think that I will have the chance to resume my healthy eating habits at my next meal in several hours. Or, if I over-ate to the point where I wouldn’t feel hungry later on, then I will have gained more time to engage in another activity.
In the same way, changed my attitude to my consumption of free time. I realised that there is no point to get myself worked up about how much time I waste. I just need to remember that as soon as I use my time to achieve at least one thing from my planned to-do / to-enjoy list, I feel happier. In a self-generating process, achieving one thing sets the wheels in motion for doing more things and that’s all I need to feel that I am getting myself back on track. I also learnt to set myself more realistic expectations, as when I expect to achieve too much and don’t manage to accomplish enough, the sense of guilt derived from this disappointment becomes another happiness stumbling block.
Change is never easy, and when it comes down to it, there really are no quick fixes. So, what I wanted to convey by means of these personal examples is that there is no point in beating yourself up for not being able to get rid of what you consider to be old, self-defeating habits and embrace new ones. Even though we think that we must work hard at our innate selves to change our ways, there is no reason to put pressure on ourselves or get worked up when we realise that we are finding it difficult to adopt new ways.
Change doesn’t happen overnight and new behaviours need time to be processed, to be learnt and incorporated into our lifestyle. The brain has to form new neuronal paths to automatise the occurrence of new behaviours.
Once you know this, making the conscious effort to make a positive change in your life becomes much easier. If lasting change is what you truly seek, you need to be realistic. Set yourself goals, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t attain them. It is all too easy to become disheartened and fall back into old ways when this happens. However, this approach will do more harm than good and will eventually send you right back to where you started.
It’s important to acknowledge and really desire change. That’s when the need for change seeds into your mind. Like with anything, if you want it hard enough, it will come to you. Just be patient, be open and be willing to change. Even a slight willingness from your side will open an invisible door to the change you seek to embrace. It’s only when we set our minds and bodies free and stop constraining them with imposed behaviours, that they find the sure way to change to achieve the happiness and personal fulfilment they seek.
Change takes time, because it’s… change. It’s different from the ways in which you normally behave. Lasting change can only be established over time, otherwise it will not be sustainable long-term. So, think of the things you want to change in yourself and in your life, keep your mind open and positive and that’s all it takes. Just embrace the journey that the process of change takes you through and you will create the life you truly want to live. Change will come when you least expect it and it will be everlasting.