Last time, I started to talk with you about the concept of practice and what it means when you practice something so long it becomes a habit. If you decided that what you’ve been practicing--whether an unhealthy behavior, an unhelpful way of thinking, or an absence of any healthy behaviors whatsoever--is no longer working for you and you’re ready for change, then you’ll want to read today's post. Because here, I’ll break down for you exactly what steps you need to take in order to give yourself the best possible chance to succeed at starting and then maintaining a new, healthy practice--even if you're totally scared to start or afraid to fail.
But first, a little prep for your mindset.
Do you remember learning to talk? Probably not, but these days, you probably can speak pretty well and rarely make mistakes. Did you learn to talk when you were young by thinking about talking and then just doing it perfectly one day, without being really bad at it first? No way. You tried to repeat everything that came out of an adult’s mouth, sometimes catching all the consonants, most of the time, not. The adults around you likely applauded every effort you made. They probably even repeated words again and again, encouraging you to keep trying to form those specific letters, to keep getting a feel for how your tongue worked in your little mouth, hearing how the words sounded. And you probably kept right on trying, getting closer to speaking real words. Not immediately, but getting closer nonetheless.
Or what about when you were learning how to walk? One little step and then, boom!, you hit the floor—only to get right back up and try again. Every adult in the room applauded every little step, every crash-and-burn, every second or 22nd attempt at standing on your own two feet. Eventually, you did it, wobbly and hilarious in your big baggy diaper, but standing up! Within days, you were probably running.
This is called practice, and this is the verb that infants and children perform—and get applauded for—as they grow. We average adults seem to have had the word “practice” surgically removed from our vocabulary when it comes to changing our own behaviors or adopting new ways of being. We expect to try something and get it right, right away. Which is a giant shame, because the ability to practice is the most important ability you need in order to successfully make healthy behavior changes and/or start working toward a goal that is important to you. If you expect perfection right away, or a linear path to adopting a new practice, with no mistakes or set-backs, you will certainly fail, you will surely give up, and you might not try it or anything like it again.
My challenge to you is this: Adopt that same open attitude and that same undying belief in yourself as you did when you were learning to walk and talk, choose a practice you wish to adopt, and then use my 7 tips for starting and maintaining a new practice. Here they are:
The 7 Steps to Starting & Maintaining a Practice
Step 1. Choose a practice that is aligned with your goals, dreams, or desires. This step is the most important, because if you are changing a behavior or trying a new behavior just to make someone else feel better or to meet someone else’s idea of what matters in life, you will likely give up the practice and/or not enjoy it one bit and not get anything good out of it. During this step, you might find your thoughts and beliefs clouded by all kinds of shoulds. Frankly, discovering our own values and goals can be much more difficult than letting societal and familial noise crowd out our own spirit’s needs and desires. In my coaching practice, I have found that I spend a lot of time asking all the right questions to help people get clear about their own values, desires, and goals and parsing those out from old, adopted beliefs about what they “should” be doing with their lives and their health. Even without a coach, you’ll need to spend a lot of time on this step before you start to adopt a new practice, or it simply won’t stick. You must feel and imagine (with emotion) the person you want to be or the result you want to achieve by engaging in the new practice you identify. Make sure it’s aligned with the new you, and not the old you or someone else’s value system.
Step 2. Start small. Change is hard. Our bodies and brains are built to conserve energy, and nothing conserves energy more than acting out of habit and doing the same things over and over (even when those things hurt us). So make adopting your new practice as easy as possible in order to maximize your chances of actually doing it. Follow the rules of SMART goal setting. Each one of those pieces of the acronym is important, and over the years I have come to appreciate more and more how crucial it is to start small. As we get older and busier, small changes are the only changes that seem to be possible (under normal circumstances).
Step 3. Be curious. This mindset of curiosity might just be the primary thing that can make adopting a new practice/behavior FUN. Yes, fun! How on earth can changing a habit or adopting a new, healthier practice be fun? When you’ve never done something before, you can imagine that you might like it or it might help you lead the life you want to lead, but you don’t actually know until you try it. With each new practice or behavior you attempt, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to learn: Is this right for me? Do I enjoy it? If not, what could I change that would help me enjoy it? You’re trying, and you’re doing so because you’re curious; there is NO failure! Know that if your first selected practice ends up not working for you, there are always more things to try, always more practices to approach with curiosity.
Step 4. Turn off the inner critic. Closely linked to the mindset of curiosity is the commitment to not letting negative judgments or beliefs stop you from trying. Along with Step 1, I find that in coaching, I spend a lot of time helping people turn off their inner critic or habitual negative beliefs. It often helps when you remember that attempting to start and maintain a new practice is not about being perfect, it’s about practicing something. Remember yourself learning to walk: When you know that your selected practice is aligned with your values, dreams, and goals, you will approach it with curiosity and give yourself every opportunity to succeed, not allowing naysayers (even those in your own head) to keep you from engaging in your practice.
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