You tell yourself you’re just going to get one more thing done for work before you go to bed. But as soon as you power up your laptop, you remember something else that it really would be helpful to do now -and another - and another. Before you know it, 15 minutes has turned into 90, and you’ve just missed out on an hour of sleep.
You know you’ll think better if you put sleep first. You know you’ll be in a better mood, overall emotionally more stable, and just plain nicer to be around if you get a good night’s rest.
But in that moment, the deadline - or the need to prove yourself - or the desire to make your boss or your coworker happy, is a lot bigger than the need for rest. It seems like a no-brainer to deprioritize sleep, and get the work done.
It’s the same thing when you set out to eat more healthily. You know you’ll feel better if you stick with the foods that give you energy, and don’t make you bloated; but in the moment, you still reach for the brie instead of the apple.
What is it that happens in those moments? It’s like you’re possessed with an evil spirit that’s pushing you to work harder, or that’s convincing you you’ll feel better if you eat the cheese.
But you’re not actually being taken over by a malignant force. It’s all in your own mind, from start to finish.
The good news is, that means you can also turn it around. It may not be easy - it may go against the grain, against all the habits you’ve built up over the years - but you’re capable of doing what you know is good for you. The trick is to actually want it.
We don’t do what we should do. We only do what we have to do, or what we want to do.
As long as you think of going to bed early, or eating high-fiber foods, as a “should”, you just won’t do it. It’s just like when you’re trying to get your kids to do something: they won’t do it because they should, but they will if you convince them it’s worth it. They’re not going to finish those carrots unless they like them - or they know they’ll get to have dessert when they do.
It’s all about turning your own “shoulds” into “wants”. Here’s how to reframe your thoughts to help yourself start doing what you already know is good for you.
#1: Notice what you’re not doing, but think you should.
What are the healthy habits you’ve been meaning to start (or tried to start, and failed)? Is it going to bed at a certain time, or getting up early? Is it eating a particular kind of food, or not eating something? Maybe it’s launching your meditation practice at last, or starting a running habit.
For each of those habits, write down:
what it is you say you want to do
what it is you do instead
what the cost is
For example, if you want to go to bed early, but instead you stay up late working, the cost is not only that you lose sleep, but everything else that results from that: your bad mood in the morning, your lack of focus throughout the day, your short fuse...
Writing this out helps you get really clear on what’s getting in your way, and surfaces what you usually ignore: the cost of that habitual behavior.
#2: Imagine what would be different if your “should” were a reality.
For each of those health habits, play out what life would be like if you successfully changed your behavior. Write down:
what would be true in that imagined future, that isn’t true now
how it feels (in your body, and emotionally) to have that be true
If you go to bed early, maybe what’s true is that you start getting all the sleep you need every night, without having to fight with yourself over it. It becomes a given that you’ll go to bed and get up on a regular schedule. You discover you have more energy than you ever thought possible without caffeine, you have more patience with your family and your coworkers, and you get more done in less time. You kick your caffeine addiction - which you’ve been meaning to give up for years - and feel empowered by the firm boundaries you’ve created around when and how you’ll do work.
Really take the time to create a clear, specific picture of what will be different.
Writing this out transforms your “should” into a “want”.
When you’re clear on all the benefits of this new habit - not just the abstract benefits, but exactly how it will change your life for the better - you’re much more motivated to do it.
#3: Choose your next move.
Now that you’re clear on the big picture of why you want to create this new habit, get really specific and concrete about the first step you’ll take.
The biggest mistake you can make at this point is to assume that motivation will just carry you through.
It’s still totally possible for those evil spirits to talk you out of your new healthy habit! Your best defense is to plot your next move.
one piece of your routine you’ll change this week
how you’ll reward yourself when you do
If you want to go to bed earlier, you could decide you’ll stop working at 9pm each night this week, and when you do, you’ll give yourself a special pre-bedtime treat - maybe a special drink, or a warm bath, or some pleasure reading. Or maybe you do a little dance and cheer when you shut down your computer.
Creating the specific, small habit makes it do-able to start, and that little reward will reinforce you to do it again, just like rewards do for your kids.
#4: Call in reinforcements.
Whenever you’re trying to get any new habit started, it helps tremendously to have someone in your corner, cheering you on and holding you accountable. Pick a friend, or your partner, or a coach. Fill them in on what you’re aiming for, and how you plan to get there. Ask them to help keep you honest. (This is something I personally love doing. Ask me!)
Pick one healthy habit you’ve been meaning to start, and go through the steps above. What did you pick, and what did you discover when you looked at it in this way? Tell me in the comments below!