Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ asked Alice

’That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘’I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.‘

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’said the Cat.

‘–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The booming self improvement market, already valued at 11 billion dollars per year, is proof that, like Alice, many of us look for guidance. It also indicates that we spend a lot more time and money thinking about where to go and how to get there, then about where we are right now.

A fitting example is the New Years resolution. Despite gloomy predictions that 88% of New Years resolutions fail, we optimistically start the year off with renewed commitments; to get in shape, to keep up with a budget, to get organized, to travel more. Maybe we even buy a self-help book, download a wellness app, or start a new podcast to increase our odds for success. And then, according to research, before the end of January many resolutions are shelved – perhaps to be pulled out and dusted off next year.

Intentions vs Habit Creation

Why do our good intentions fail? And, despite this, why is the self help market continuing to grow? After all, if people are actually being helped, then shouldn’t demand level off at some point? One study (led by Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago and Cornell University’s Kaitlin Woolley), attributes it to delayed vs. immediate rewards. “If you have a hobby – say you like to knit or quilt – the process itself is enjoyable, it’s intrinsically motivated. You’re doing it just for the sake of doing it, rather than for the outcome,” Woolley said, therefore you have an immediate reward.

If we try to implement a new habit, say running, with only a future outcome to motivate us, and we don’t already enjoy running, chances are we may choose in the moment rather to do something we enjoy more, sleeping in for example. That sounds a little hopeless doesn’t it? How do we start doing something that is new, possibly a little uncomfortable, and stay with it until we enjoy it? How do we successfully create a new habit, or even better, a hobby?

Welcoming a Habit Into the Moment

Let’s continue with running as a health goal, using myself as an example. If I’ve felt exhilaration when watching Forrest Gump or reading Haruki Marakami, and thought – “I’ve always wanted to do this”, then even though I may not have grown to love running yet, I am being inspired by something that resonates with me. If during my run I’m able to call up the feeling that was kindled by these influences, the likelihood is greater that I’ll develop the fortitude to continue and even to find some joy in running. Further to this, setting small goals and feeling the achievement of them “I’ll run without stopping for x amount of minutes, vs. I’ll be able to run a marathon eventually” will be an immediate vs. future reward.

Associating a new habit with something I already feel positive about also works well. Running to a great playlist, or a favorite podcast, will help my mind tie in the act of running to something I look forward to. Taking a route that ends at my favourite coffee or smoothie shop will also create rewarding connections.

Examining Habit Motivation

Let’s circle back to habit motivation. Say that, instead of being inspired by the thought of running, I’ve decided to take it up because I want to lose weight and research tells me that intense cardio is the fastest way to do it. This new goal of running is serving as a means to an end rather than taking up a new habit for the sake of the habit itself. Worse, the desire for this new habit is likely being motivated from a negative place. If  “I want to lose weight” equals “I’m unhappy with my body” then every time I think of running, I’m revisiting, if not reinforcing, this negative thinking. And if I choose to skip a workout chances are I’m be dwelling on my failure and further reinforcing these negative thoughts I’m carrying. 

Let’s dig into this motivation even further, this statement “I want to lose weight”. If this is coming from a feeling of unhappiness with my current situation, then perhaps my healthiest intention is to learn to accept who and where I am at right now. Because at this moment – this is who and where I am! One run is not going to magically transform me into this ideal I’ve manufactured for myself. I do, however,  have the power to transform my ideals. 

If being healthy is important to me, and I am accepting of who I am at the moment, then perhaps some decisions coming out of this accepting place may lead to feeling more healthy. For example, I am turning 50 next year, and I’m aware of the importance of heart health more than ever due to the open heart surgery my father had to undergo recently.. As someone who hasn’t focussed much on cardio activity for the last few years , by being accepting of my current health, I will likely not choose to go for a hard run as a first step to toward strengthening my cardio. I’ll be aware that this may be setting myself up for a non enjoyable experience at best, and actually may be risking injury, at worst. Instead I may choose to go for a power-walk, or even a walk/run, and I’ll likely feel good about making that choice, vs. feeling inadequate because I’m not running or running well. Chances are I’ll be much more inclined to create a habit with this new activity, and maybe I’ll even run like Forrest one day because I want to, and because I can, and not because I “should”.

The Habit of Self Acceptance

How do we achieve self acceptance? And does this mean we give up on the idea of change all together? I’ll be examining this with you in an upcoming series of articles.

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