They say it takes 28 days to change a habit… (or sometimes 21, or more) – it all depends who you ask. And while there may be some evidence to support these claims, the truth is – it’s different for everyone.
Early in the year, so many of us are focused on new beginnings. Our attention tends to gravitate to a few common areas – physical fitness, healthy eating, organizing our physical spaces, or getting a handle on our finances. But what if we focused less on establishing a hard and fast deadline for change, which can often be discouraging when we don’t meet it, and instead worked to cultivate greater consistency around whatever it is we’re looking to shift regardless of the timeframe?
Change takes Practice
This idea of consistency goes hand in hand with practice, which is the way we define our engagement and commitment to well-being through activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. We refer to these activities as practices because ultimately, they serve as grounds for self-exploration and understanding, to notice what’s happening in our inner landscape and the thoughts that travel through our mind. They bring us into consciousness by slowing us down so we can witness what’s really there vs. moving unconsciously or unskillfully through the motions of daily life.
The Pull of Samskara
In yoga philosophy, there’s a concept called Samskara. This Sanskrit word refers to these ruts or grooves of mental and emotional patterning we all have – it’s from here that many of these unconscious behaviors, or habits, develop and they can be viewed as either positive or negative. Simply realizing this universal phenomenon helps to normalize the presence of our samskaras and can allow us to see that our habits don’t make us bad people. Over time, as we stay attuned and keep working with a given habit, new neural pathways form allowing our thinking to change.
Harness the “Fiery Discipline” of Tapas
Tapas is another quality we can work to cultivate when undergoing the process of habit change. Also from the Sanskrit language, Tapas is one of the “yamas” or restraints outlined in yogic philosophy. The root word “tap” means “to burn”, and it is this fiery discipline that, when harnessed, is said to burn away the cloudiness and confusion caused by our samskaras.
With these ideas in mind, here are 4 helpful tips that can support you in working with habits:
1. Zoom out
Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Reflect on why you want to change this habit and what payoffs you might be receiving, even from the more negative ones, that behavior so ingrained. Take some time to journal, consider any triggers involved, and really get to know the “why” of the habit.
2. Start Small, Keep It Manageable
Rather than trying to overhaul multiple habits at once, as so many of us do when the sudden motivation for change comes over us — choose one. Take one step in the right direction. Move steadily. Focus on quality over quantity. This might look like setting aside time 1-2 days per week for exercise instead of the loftier goal of 5 or 6 days, eating one plant-based meal each week if you’re trying to eat more consciously, or choosing one room to organize instead of the whole house all at once. Make a choice that sustains progress without inducing feelings of burnout or overwhelm.
3. Embrace Accountability
Find a trusted friend, mentor, or even a like-minded co-worker to help you stay accountable. Have someone you can check in with regularly – perhaps even someone on a similar path so you can support each other. An accountability study done by the American Society of Training and Development showed that people have a 65% greater chance of meeting a goal by committing to someone other than themselves. All the more reason to buddy up!
4. Be Kind To Yourself
Perhaps most importantly, be sure to practice self-kindness along the way. If you find you’ve veered off the path toward your goal, notice how you talk to yourself. If your inner voice takes on a harsh or critical tone, ask yourself — would you reprimand a friend, colleague, or loved one like that if the tables were turned? Be sure to remind yourself as many times as it takes – you are worth it, and you can always, always begin again.