It all begins with an idea, often dressed up as a New Year’s resolution: I want to eat more healthily, exercise regularly, or write a book. More often than not, those plans remain pipe dreams.
What makes it so difficult for us to convert an idea into action, and how can we turn a one-off action into a sustainable habit?
Any new activity may feel, at first, physically and psychologically uncomfortable. Naturally, our bodies try to avoid pain and seek pleasure, so that we experience resistance to any activity that doesn’t feel immediately gratifying.
However, if we allow ourselves time to embody that experience, we may surprise ourselves.
The concept of embodiment (or embodied cognition) comes from psychology and means that all our experiences register on several different levels: in the body, the brain, and the mind. Our experiences are inevitably situated in the context of the environment we perceive around us, and actions through the senses and the motor system of the body. So, to incorporate a new habit on a deeper level it can be helpful to notice how the new activity makes us feel (physically and emotionally), and how we respond to the specific environment in which the activity takes place.
For example, let’s take this blog post. As I began writing, I experienced an initial resistance. I stopped. I began again a couple of days later, and again stopped prematurely. When I eventually managed to overcome my initial discomfort, I began to experience the writing as something quite pleasurable and rewarding.
Why such a change? Because, I argue, I allowed myself to engage with the task on both mental and bodily levels. Let me explain…
Writing requires, on the bodily level, prolonged sitting in one spot, i.e., relative physical stillness. Thus, bringing my attention to how I sit, and choosing a comfortable and quiet place allowed me to engage more with my experience.
To get through the first paragraph, I needed to concentrate, which involved the effort and application of my brain in such a way to facilitate single-minded concentration: I needed to create ‘space’ in my mind, free of distracting thoughts such as, e.g., what’s for dinner, which in turn enabled creative processes.
If we could attend to the small components that make up our chosen activity, we might be able to pinpoint the obstacle(s) interfering with our goal to keep it up. Developing awareness of our surroundings, our bodily reactions, and our thoughts and feelings in association with the task may help us adapt ourselves to that new experience. In my case, the obstacle to my writing practice was lack of focus, fed by my persistent thoughts of attending to other things. Following this realisation, I was able to dedicate a special time slot to writing this blog, which subsequently helped my focus. Had I not attended to my feelings, they would have remained undetected by my conscious mind, and stay unresolved, leaving the obstacle in place.
Ask yourself questions such as:
What else could we do to maintain our new practice long enough to embody it and turn it into a habit?
We can all relate to the times we decided to take up a new routine in the New Year, such as going to the gym, or yoga practice. We often start strong, but find ourselves dropping out around February. Feeling like a failure usually follows. And that feeling further inhibits our subsequent efforts to re-establish a healthy routine. There are certain things that have worked for me, and although we are all different, you might find some of the points below helpful to establishing a new routine:
Finally, listen to the wisdom of Buddha: “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”
Starting a new practice takes conscious effort to engage with the process on bodily and mental levels. Once this is achieved, the activity is incorporated into our body and mind, and the chances are high that it will transform into a natural and effortless habit.