I’m publishing this just about a week before New Year’s, so you might think this is about not quitting your New Year’s Resolution. I’m thinking bigger than that. While many of us set new dreams and goals during this time, how many other times throughout the year have you thought:
- I want to lose 10 pounds
- I’d love to work on my business idea
- I can’t wait to master this new skill
New Year’s Resolutions are great, don’t get me wrong, but all too often people half-heartedly try them for a few weeks or months at most before giving up. Trying and starting is half the battle, but continuing even when things get boring is the other half (and arguably even more important).
Today I’m going to pinpoint that pain right there: giving up. All too often our brains are sending us give up signals because what we’re trying is new and hard. What we should be doing is replacing that with go-to messages.
I’m going to talk about why starting anything new is often painful (and yes, I mean physically along with mentally), replacing your give up thoughts, and also the transtheoretical model of change.
Let’s walk down this path together.
Why are New Activities Painful?
If you’ve ever tried something new, then there was probably some form of pain, tension, or discomfort. Some experience this as physical pain, likely in the head or areas that are being used (such as hands for painting or legs for soccer), or it might be a blocking sensation like someone is stopping you from the inside. It might also feel uncomfortable and your stomach might hurt, even if you’re the only one observing the new activity.
Why is it hard to start new things? Why is it painful to start something new? It’s because your brain is desperately fighting against you.
The brain functions in a user-dependent fashion. For example, if you commonly pick up a donut and coffee before work, then your brain is routed to master this task. You probably had to think about it at first (where to go, what coffee flavor, how to order, what type of donut, etc), but now your brain requires very little input to achieve the task. In fact, you’ll feel weird if you don’t perform the task.
Don’t believe me? Find a task that you do daily or at least routinely, such as something on the weekend, and don’t do it. Fight the impulse in your body to do the task. Not only will it feel odd, but your whole day might feel weird as a result.
This is what eventually leads to routines, habits, and at worst it can lead to addiction (but we’re not walking down that road today).
Pain and Discomfort
With that being said, let’s say there is something you want to do that’s completely new and against the grain. Weight loss is very common here. If your family isn’t very athletic, you work in an office, and the idea of walking more than a few minutes is scary, then exercise is going to be painful.
I don’t mean physically painful (though it will be), we’re here for the brain side of things. I mean mentally painful.
In this example you need to spend time looking up exercises, figuring out how you want to work out (Bodyweight? Strength training? Cardio?), where you’re going to exercise, how much weight to lift or reps to do, and ensuring proper form. You also need to figure out how to rearrange your busy day because it’s already jam packed with stuff.
We’re not even on the social discomfort yet. If you exercise at home and have roommates or family living with you, then they’re going to ask what you’re doing, why are you working out so weird, why are you doing something new, and so on. If you go to the gym, then you’re going to feel everyone’s eyes on you (though chances are they aren’t looking at you at all).
Growth is only achieved by doing the uncomfortable, but wow does it hurt!
If your head doesn’t hurt from this, then you’ve either mastered altering your behavior or you haven’t tried enough yet. My head hurts just writing about this cause it’s what I went through to lose about 100 pounds.
Bundle of Busyness and Habits
What is it to be human?
There are lots of answers of course. It really depends on what side you’re looking at. Right now I’m looking for the automatic selves. The person we are when we aren’t thinking. This side of ourselves operates most of the time and only really stops if something entirely new crosses our desk, or we notice something missing in our lives (see more with the change model below).
Automatic us is a bundle of busyness and habits. Our habits define us. We started them usually because they benefited us in some way (that morning coffee and donut are much easier than meal prepping something healthy and doing all the associated cooking), and now we have mastered them so much that the habits can be done in our sleep.
We are also always busy. Have you noticed that shoving anything new in your schedule always seems impossible? You probably have time to play video games, watch shows and movies, and typically find yourself bored at least once or twice a week, and yet it’s nearly impossible to add to our schedule.
It’s not that our schedule is packed (there is usually some wiggle room there), it’s more that the pain of disrupting our schedule is so high that we don’t want to do it.
Do you really want to give up enjoyable activities and relaxation to try something new, scary, and painful? That’s what your brain is telling you. Sure, exercise feels great, releases a host of mood-boosting neurochemicals, and improves nearly all aspects of your life. But not when it’s new. When it’s new, then it’s scary and difficult.
Again, we are focusing on fitness here as an example. The same can be said for starting a new business. Do you really want to risk your financial future and reputation for trying something new that you might fail at? Or a new skill. Do you really want to make time for something that you might never be good at and that you might put down after a few attempts?
Saying Yes for So Many Days
You need to say yes to the new and no to the familiar and comfortable for many days until a habit is formed. This process is honestly agonizing, especially if it’s something painful, uncomfortable, and out of your comfort zone.
So, how many days do you need to keep saying yes until your brain finally accepts this new part of you and stops begging you to stop? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that clear. Some say that it only takes about 18 days to form a new habit, but that’s not entirely true. Things might be easier after 18 days, but it’s still easy to drop the new activity without a second thought.
Another average is around 66 days, and I think this is a better estimate. However, please keep in mind that it’s 66 consistent days. Sure, you may need a day off here and there, but it needs to be consistent effort to make it stick.
A third estimate is up to 254 days, and I would agree with this too. This makes sense for very difficult habits, or those that you really want to stick deep in your brain.
Replace Give Up Thoughts With Go-To Thoughts
There are many guides on starting new behaviors, but relatively few about recognizing the give up thoughts. You are going to have them. Whether it’s day 1 or 100, something is going to tell you to give up. You’ve done enough, no reason to keep trying, go back to what you know and are good at.
Some examples of give up thoughts are:
- I failed and can’t keep doing this
- Things aren’t changing as fast as I wanted
- I don’t see the point in doing this anymore
Those thoughts will make sense, but really what they’re saying is that the pain amount seems too high now. You want to return to the normal and comfortable, before the behavior change started. Using go-to thoughts can be useful here.
This borrows from CBT and it’s about recognizing and changing these thoughts.
Examples of go-to thoughts would be:
- I didn’t do well today, but I can try again tomorrow until I get it right
- Things aren’t changing as quickly as I want, but things will change if I just keep going
- I may not remember the point in doing this now, but I remember how much I wanted to do this before and I do want to get better
As you can see, these thoughts take a more balanced approach to what you’re going through. They acknowledge that there is pain while also reminding you that there are reasons to continue. You only get better by doing something repeatedly.
Write Down Your Thoughts
Track your give up thoughts when they come up. Don’t be swayed by them. Just hear them out and write down what they are saying. Then, write a go-to version of them. The go-to message reminds you that you are resourceful, willing to stick through the pain, and are able to make these changes permanent.
You can do this with a journal or any piece of paper you happen to have near you. I suggest writing it so that you can go back and review what you are telling yourself. You should also write your go-to messages so you can read them later.
Remember the Original Reason
You wanted to change for a reason. That reason may not seem as potent now that you’re in pain and don’t see as much change as you want, but the reason won’t go away. Truth is that it will likely come back if you don’t see this change through.
If you don’t lose weight, then you’ll remember it when you get on the scale or need to move around in new ways. If it’s about starting a business, then you’ll remember it when finances seem tough or your boss is a jerk. If it’s about a skill, you’ll think about it when you see someone else doing it.
I suggest writing down or somehow recording the original reason why you wanted to change. This can help guide your go-to messages, and it can also give you a goal to reach.
Model of Behavioral Change
Have you ever noticed that there seem to be steps to a behavior change or new activity? Many people recognize that they are curious about something new, then they look it up, and then they actually try it.
This has been formalized into the transtheoretical model of behavioral change (also known as stages of change). The model has five or six stages depending on whether you consider relapse/recurrence to be a stage.
While this model is mostly used for substance use, it is also very useful for any other behavior change that you are considering. Here’s what the model looks like:
Now let me explain what all this means.
Precontemplation means that you aren’t considering any change. People might say that your weight, smoking, lack of money, or anything else is a problem, but you’re not ready to make any change. Either you don’t acknowledge it as an issue, or the pain of changing is too great right now to consider it.
Next up is contemplation. You recognize the benefits of changing, but aren’t ready for it yet. Ambivalence is common here, also known as being indecisive. Something is telling you that change might be better, but you’re not ready yet.
Planning or determination is next. You’re not quite ready for the behavior change, but you’re going to make a plan. This might involve doing research, watching videos, or determining a time when you can make the behavior change (“In three months I will start my new business. Until then, I am going to do my research”).
Action is up next. You’re actually making the change. Things are new, scary, and difficult here, but you’re trying the new activity. The main goal here is stabilizing yourself and continuing the momentum.
Maintenance is the last formal stage. The habit is formed, your goal is achieved, and now you can easily perform the activity. Some people say this stage is reached after 6 months while others say 12 months is better.
I wanted to give relapse or recurrence it’s own section because we have a lot to say here. As I said before, this model is primarily used with substance use, but this stage can also be applied to any behavioral change.
It doesn’t have to mean going back to heroin or alcohol. It might instead mean eating junk food again, not improving your business, or otherwise going back to comfortable habits.
The reason I want to highlight this is because lapses happen. Ideally they won’t, but ideals don’t always happen. There will often be times you fail while trying something new. Maybe you’re lacking motivation, maybe things aren’t progressing as much as you wanted.
This is when those go-to thoughts are super important. It’s also when you need to recognize that this is only a stage. You can go back to action or even planning if the action doesn’t seem to be working.
A lapse is a lapse, nothing more. It doesn’t mean you have to quit forever. It should be an opportunity to learn why you stopped. Try to prevent this from happening again and build a plan around your temptations to stop.
We all have something we want to do, but changing our behavior and keeping it going can be tough. Not only do our brains fight us because they want to use the least amount of energy possible, but our thoughts work against us too and ask us to stop.
By understanding this struggle and using go-to thinking, we can stop those give up thoughts and continue on our new path. Be sure to let me know how this worked out for you.