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Changing habits, this is getting harder

 As Corinne Settle, Senior Education Lead at SSAT, continues her improving mental health journey she explains why changing the big habits feels like and is the hardest step yet.

Another three months has passed since my last blog where I decided to put normal in the bin. As time passes with the changes to our lives due to Covid-19 I come to realise that life is just different now and my normal is my choice.

We now live in a relentlessly changing world where looking after ourselves needs to be our top priority. But dealing with uncertainty is hard for many of us. Uncertainty is here to stay.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Can I change it?
Can I fix it?
Is it even broken, or perhaps just not perfect?
Is it good enough for now? Better doesn’t have to come today.
Step back and listen to yourself: Is what your brain is currently telling you, actually reality?
Step back and listen to what others are saying.

Stop worrying, accept it. I have heard the phrase ‘embrace uncertainty’ but that would break social distancing guidelines, so I am most definitely not ready for that.

I could start to mention the external sources of much of our uncertainty… the continual change and late publication of guidelines etc. but this will take me down a path of frustration and anger. I don’t have the time, or spare energy for that.  I would like to change it, but I don’t think the DfE would give me a job!

So, moving towards the things I can change.  I am ready to move forward and am doing this day by day, but my word its tough.  I am asking myself to behave and think differently, change habits that have in many ways served me well, as I am still here, still alive and am mostly successful at what I do.

So, it’s not the I am impatient… that’s a complete lie, I am!  If I am ‘good’ for a day, week, month, or six weeks then surely that’s enough? I should see the change in the mirror, on the scales or in my outlook.  Erm, no, sadly, annoyingly this isn’t enough.

Researcher Phillipa Lally et al. (2009) wanted to better understand how long it took for a group of ninety-six people to form a new habit in their life, for example a daily run or eating a piece of fruit each day. Here is a summary of what they found:

  • The average time was 66 days
  • The range of results was from 18 to 254 days
  • Missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit
  • A sub-group took much longer than others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are ‘habit resistant’
  • Other habits may well take much longer

The simple headline is habits take time to form. Give yourself three months, at least to form a habit.

Now, don’t jump on the “I am habit resistant” excuse. This may have been my first thought too, and that I am a 254-day person. Start with your why, be really clear on why you want what you want.  Our brain often wants us to be safe, comfortable and expend as little energy as possible. Therefore, your why needs to be strong, it’s easy to go back to the comfortable place.

What I have learnt is important, is the third bullet point. Breaking a new habit for just a day isn’t the end. It has been for me in the past, so easy for a ‘bad’ day to turn into months and undo everything I had achieved. Whatever new habit you are trying to form, remember your why, draw a line and move forward. I have been working to and have formed a few new better habits over the last six months; I now always have water to hand, I get up and exercise most days of the week and I take the supplements that have been recommended. I have to say that I am not sure the supplements make much difference, but they are very symbolic of me looking after myself.

There are other habits though that are much harder and more complex. New habits do not stop the old habits from existing; they just have to become stronger influences on behaviour. The tough stuff, this takes me back to my perfectionism, there was either 100 percent success or complete avoidance it as failure seemed inevitable. This also of course reinforces my not good enough belief.

Well, you know what, doing something mostly, is actually pretty awesome. It is good enough.

Chip and Dan Heaths’ book Switch: How to change things when change is hard (2010) has really got me thinking about change. The authors explain that we have two parts:

  • The Elephant – the emotional side
  • The Rider – rational side

Most of us think that the Rider always controls the Elephant, but in most cases it’s the other way around. The Elephant ends up controlling the Rider.  My Rider wants to look slimmer and eat healthier, but my Elephant side loves food. The Rider and Elephant both need to be on the same page to be able to work together but usually this isn’t the case. Your heart may want one thing, but your mind may want another. It takes a huge amount of energy to control both of these when they aren’t working together. When you are exhausted and tired, having had that tough day at school it’s likely the elephant will be in charge of ordering a takeaway, rationalised by the rider as you should treat yourself, its deserved, and saves your more work by not cooking.

So how do we make the switch?

Direct my Rider

Follow the bright spots – identify the successes you have already have, replicate them. For me these are the small changes I have already made.
I know why I need to change, knowledge is not enough.

Motivate my Elephant

Shrink the change. Feeling that I can’t eat everything I love for the rest of my life leads me to give up. This comes back to starting with one small change at a time. It’s not all or nothing.

Shape the Path

Build new habits, practice each day. Every small step is a success, everything else is a bump in the road. Keep moving forward, change the path if you need to, find your way.

Naturally, I have also been thinking about how this translates into the context of teaching. It makes the fact that most professional development is often ineffective not remotely surprising.  But that I have to say is another blog in the making.

So where am I now?  I keep motivating my hippo. Yes, mine is a hippo, it’s always been my favourite animal, so I am keeping this positive. Suppressing my emotions leads to the dark side.

If you quit now… you will end up right back where you first began. And when you first began, you were desperate to be right where you are now. Keep going.

I can’t go back to where I was last August, it just isn’t an option.

You have got this too, keep moving forward.

References:

Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts & Jane Wardle. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674

Chip Heath & Dan Heath (2010). Switch: How to change things when things are hard. Random House Business Books.

If you are short on time to read this book, have a look at https://bit.ly/2EHQJes – 3 mins

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