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Declutter Your Habits Heading into the Holidays (and Beyond)


Dec. 13, 2021 Psychology Today

“Building a real perpetual motion machine is impossible since it would violate the laws of thermodynamics. But when it comes to human motivation, we can have perpetual energy as long as we invest in a sense of connection, meaning, ownership and long-term thinking.” —Dan Ariely, psychologist and author of Payoff

You have likely set, reset, or outright dropped many habit change goals over the years. 

I know I have.

Heading into this week, and into the new year just around the corner, it can be tempting to start what I call “nexting”—overthinking, anticipating, and trying to control some Grand Canyon change result into being.

Losing 30 pounds by summer. Going and staying vegan. Making a million dollars in a side hustle. World domination.

And yet the science is clear that habit change (particularly when facing the nastier changes of dropping long-standing bad habits for less “sexy” healthy alternatives) is much less likely to succeed if people fixate on goals of a big result. For example, research findings described in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology show that peoples’ habits and performance are influenced much more by the environmental contexts they are in than the goals they set for themselves. 

Though goals seem important, the short-sighted, needy human brain loses steam quickly when the dopamine drip is slow going, and when your daily contexts are filled with triggering cues toward competing, “bad” habits, and the Grand Canyon result you desire is a mirage on the horizon. 

David Neal and his colleagues showed in these studies that only when people self-perceive that their habits are guided by goals do these goals seem to have much impact on their performance on memory tasks. 

It’s clear then that you need to focus more on your daily habits than on lofty results we crave. What are the unskillful habits cluttering up your day that are blocking you from the new, higher habits of creating, leading, connecting, and making a lasting impact? You will benefit from careful examination and effort to declutter certain key habits and build new ones into your daily life.

Planning and scheduling small, daily actions in the direction of (versus fixation on) a change goal is the way of a habit change warrior. 

Eat using a smaller plate each day… Eliminate one high-calorie snack item each day this week… Drink 8 glasses of water daily… Reach out to three potential network leads today… Write out, schedule, and track habit change efforts daily.

Specific, small, and daily doings. 

The Grand Canyon itself was forged by the daily flow of water over many years. A habit change goal won’t take millennia, and yet it is daily action that breaks unskillful, career-blocking, or relationship-stalling habits. It is daily change effort that builds new, higher, effective habits. It is daily action that builds our character, the identity radiating out to others in the world.

And speaking of water, I view mindfulness practice as the core habit that, like water, creates the flexibility and flow needed for changing and building habits. Like water, mindfulness is the universal “solvent” that melts the unskillful habits you have cluttering up your professional and personal life. Mindfulness is the awareness that sees clearly—that feels the discomfort of change with patient, kind abiding. Mindfulness sees the goal and, consistent with research, sees the step to take now. Mindfulness moves without the nexting our fixated, over-anticipating minds incline us toward.

So, as you head deeper into the holidays, consider your Grand Canyon hopes and see about (mindfully) making them into daily footsteps on a daily change path. 2022 will arrive. Decisions in the here and now, mindfully made, determine much of what those first intrepid steps into the new year will look like.

Hurry Up and Sit There

Your “nexting” mind-habit will have you react on impulse, often unskillfully. This only reinforces and adds to your habit clutter. When feeling a strong impulse, instead:

  1. Pause and close your eyes, bringing attention to the sensations in your body. 
  2. When the impulse to rush into action returns, wait a bit more, sit and notice more sensations, even thoughts showing up. 
  3. Listen to your body and mind and wonder whether the rush serves or takes from you.
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