Entry for January 2020 Taboo Words contents
|For the last 45 years, I’ve had this practice that I would do, usually on December 31st, or during the days following Christmas. I started this when I was in my mid-teens. Even then, I had this drive to improve myself in some way. Usually, what I wanted most was to eliminate an undesirable habit. As I grew older, these desires included developing benefcial habits, achieving a specific goal, completing some project or gaining an additional skill. What has changed in the past decade isn’t so much the thing I want to change, gain or achieve, it is the way I speak to myself about it.
I’ve learned through painful and repeated experience what does not work. I would say to myself: “You will do “x” every day.” Implicit in this was the castigation I would heap on myself the first day that I neglected or forgot to do “x”. No matter how determined and committed I thought I was to do “x” each day, inevitably the day would come when I didn’t for any number of reasons. The result was an ever-decreasing self-confidence and an ever-deteriorating sense of self-worth. I realized that it made no sense to repeat this process that not only failed to build the habit of doing “x” every day, but was causing me harm and making it highly unlikely that I would end up doing “x” with any regularity.
The significant change I made in this past decade concerns the language I engage in when I talk to myself about things I want to start or to stop doing. I used to say things like: “I will floss every day.” On the first day I neglected to floss, I would say something harsh to myself and abandon any effort to build a habit of flossing—at least until my next dental appointment!
Using this habit of daily flossing as an example, I now would say to myself something like: “It would be a good idea to floss every night while you soak your feet while listening to a podcast or to an audiobook just before bed.” (Since I am already soaking my feet every night before bed while reading, it wouldn’t take much effort to switch the paperback or ebook for the podcast or audiobook.) I would then say: “Since we know that it’s easy to forget to floss a day here or there, let’s aim for 4 to 5 days each week. Even if you don’t floss for a week, that’s OK. Just do it tonight. One day at a time. Just don’t quit altogether and this will work for us.”
For a habit that I want to start, I take the following approach:
I give myself specific reasons to do it that emphasize the positive results if I follow through and the negative results if I make no effort at all.
I allow myself some flexibility as to when or how often I’ll engage in the unaccustomed behaviour.
I remind myself that it’s OK to slip up as long as I begin again at the first opportunity and refrain from any self-criticism.
I join it to other habits to the extent this is possible.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of using an “all at once” approach when we feel the need for self-improvement, especially when we’ve hit some kind of bottom in our lives. Because we’re suffering from the consequences of one or more negative habits, we want to change as much as possible as quickly as possible. Our culture strongly influences us to expect immediate maximum rewards for minimum effort. Any product or habit that is built to last requires regular, diligent effort and persistence mixed with a copious dose of patience with oneself and with the process of change.