When I’m on social spreading the love of forming success habits, like meditation, intention setting, or morning and evening rituals, I often get response like
“I tried doing that, but I keep making excuses,” or
“For some reason I keep forgetting to do this when [life/work/screaming toddlers/etc] gets in the way!”
I hear you.
Let’s be clear: habits are not the same thing as forcefully over-extending ourselves or battling our minds upstream to self-care activities because we feel obligated to do so.
Habits are by their very definition, EFFORTLESS. Remember, a habit is anything that you do without conscious thought. It’s the thing you just find yourself doing because, you know, it’s a habit.
This is why people will be forming a new routine and will feel so frustrated and exhausted by it over time. Rather than looking at it through the lens of “what will make this become habitual” they are looking at it as “something I must do to be successful.” Self-care that is forced is not really self-care. The mental exhaustion of fitting it in can cancel out the benefits of the self-care in the first place.
Long story short, if you want to change how you are thinking about your self-care rituals so that they start occurring in your life with ease and consistency, you have to start thinking about them as habits.
And the thing that differentiates HABITS from all our other actions, is cues.
Cues are the things that our brains automatically associate with actions. These are really neurologically based impulses that mostly occur outside the realm of conscious thought. Here’s an example of a cue. When you are approaching a stoplight, and it turns red, what do you do? I mean, unless you are a maniac and are in a high speed chase with the cops, you likely do exactly what I do. You take the foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal, and slowly ease the pressure down on the brake pedal until the car comes to a stop. Do you philosophize about how much pressure to put on the brake, or when to switch from the gas to the break, or what the meaning of it all is and what the point of stopping at stoplights really is anymore?
Uh, no. You just stop at the light. It’s a habit. You just do it.
The thing is, when you first learned how to drive a car, you probably did over think a lot of this. How much time you needed to slow down. The right amount of pressure for the pedals. Or the spatial relations involved in knowing when it’s safe to head on through that yellow light, and when that’s a sure fire recipe for getting a ticket for running a red.
But over time, with repetition and clear simple easy to understand cues, your brain eventually automated all of this for you.
You can apply this same logic to LITERALLY ANYTHING.
And I’m telling you, friends, it’s the secret sauce to nailing that new routine.
So let’s take our meditation example, and look at it from a different angle.
You know you want to meditate. That it does seem to settle your brain when you’ve done it for short periods of time. But it’s so hard to fit in. You wake up early to do it, and roll around in the bed coming up with all the reasons why this can’t possibly be worth waking up for. Or you do get up but end up in a self-sabotage spiral by suddenly getting super occupied in wiping down the kitchen counters or reading a blog post (probably on meditation, because then your brain is like “eh, good enough, right?”).
It IS important to have your mindset in the right place. And to know the action steps needed for a new routine. The WHY and the HOW are always important. But once those are in place (e.g. meditation helps me feel more energetic and grounded, and I have chosen mindful breathing as my form of meditation practice and already know how to do this), the next step is not more philosophizing about why and how, but rather thinking about WHAT will cue you to move forward.
What you’d want to do is set up specific, strategically placed cues in the environment, that will prime you to engage in your habit.
Maybe it’s a mindfulness quote taped to the bathroom mirror. Or it’s a little statue or pretty stone or crystal or some other object placed in a specific place where you want to meditate every day. Maybe it’s a glass of water already strategically placed on the nightstand that reminds you to take a big sip of water and go sit on your damn cushion. It’s whatever you want it to be. These are like stoplights for your brain. Let them cue you again and again to put the steps into place to complete the action you want to complete. Eventually, you’ll find yourself “going through the motions.” Sip of water. Get up. Walk to designated place. Meditate. It becomes as effortless as putting the foot to the pedal. With time.
And that said, anyone who is a driver knows there are still, occasionally, times when we are so tired, or the stoplight is on such a weird erratic cycle that we are uncertain on whether we actually can make it through that yellow light. And we find ourselves breaking awkwardly in weird jumpy indecisive spurts. But do we then shame spiral about how we should never have started driving in the first place? Do we immediately drive our car into the desert and set it on fire? Then roam around like a angry nomad who has given up on living in the civilized world? I certainly hope not. So if your cues fail you one morning, treat it the same way. As in, “Welp, that didn’t work, gonna bring more intention to it tomorrow.”
In other words, be kind to yourself along the way.
Even the most ingrained habits have cracks in them where we can slip up. That’s okay. You aren’t a robot (and thank God for that, because being a living breathing feeling human is pretty cool).
So as you go about your day today, take a look around you. What cues will you set into place today to help automate your tomorrows? What environmental shifts can you make to take the effort and force out of your routines and turn the self-care activities you care about most into habits?