What is it that drives a permanent shift in our behaviour? What happens that means we sometimes have a compulsion to change for good and are then able to dig deep for the necessary grit and determination to make it stick? And what about the opposite, when we seemingly cannot commit to our intentions and repeatedly end up back at square one, dogged by an inability to make lasting change?
There have been only a handful of occasions in my life where I have arrived at a major lifestyle choice and subsequently proceeded to stay on course with that decision: when I became vegetarian aged 9; when I simultaneously quit smoking, drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs aged 35; setting up the Soberistas website aged 36; starting running aged 25; and when I promised myself I would only make authentic choices, in which I was myself, no matter the situation or company I found myself in. In addition to these, there have been many twists and turns: relationship dilemmas, work and study projects, fitness crazes, diets, and numerous little lifestyle tweaks - none of which lasted for long, and now dot my history like little flecks of short-lived passion that sparked and then disappeared as swiftly as they came.
We learn as much about the choices we make that don’t remain as permanent fixtures, as we do from the ones that become entrenched. Unless we try something, we don’t know if it’s the right thing for us at that particular point in time, and so there are lessons to be learned from the ideas we experiment with that turn out to be wrong for us - we can establish what it is that we don’t want. But sometimes, there are decisions we really need to make that are difficult, where there is something to lose as well as to gain, and for that reason, we often enter into a state of inner conflict, pin balling between the devil and the angel on our shoulders.
So how can we ensure that the truly important choices we make, the ones that deep down we have to stick with for our survival and wellbeing, become our new normal; that we won’t renege on our promises to ourselves and will stay the course, through thick and thin?
When I think back to the above lifestyle and behaviour changes I've made that have stuck, I can draw upon a few commonalities amongst them:
1) Values - all of these choices fitted absolutely with my inherent values. I believe wholeheartedly in animal welfare, in environmental care and responsibility, health, fitness, personal responsibility, family, emotional balance, and living a life in which we fulfil our potential. I understood on a very deep level that my actions before I committed to these new habits totally compromised my values, and this misalignment left me full of self-loathing and bogged down with feelings of inauthenticity and disappointment in myself. When you struggle to look at yourself in the mirror, you know you’re not living a life that’s true to your values.
2) All of these new habits were in part inspired by other people. When I first quit alcohol in 2011, I met up with an old friend who was also a non-drinker following years of self-destructive alcohol misuse. She planted a seed that there was a life after drinking, that maybe life was even better without alcohol. She also shared with me the tools that were helping her achieve this new balanced, self-compassionate life she was carving out for herself. Speaking with her provided me with evidence that there was another way. The first quit lit book that I ever read, written by Jason Vale (Quit the Drinking…Easily!), also achieved the same result. My eyes were acutely open to a different way of living, in a way that had never happened before.
When I became a vegetarian aged 9, it was because my best friend at the time had just taken the same decision. I listened to her reasoning and felt inspired by her. Sadly, this friend was murdered eight years later, but in many ways that tragedy made me commit to the vegetarian lifestyle with even more tenacity because it became about something I did, not only for myself and the planet, but also in her honour and memory. RIP Fiona.
3) These new habits felt good, and I noticed that. Soberistas provided me with a new emotion - one of a sense of purpose and the knowledge that I was helping others. Being vegetarian made me feel less guilty and more authentic, because I no longer felt like a hypocrite, eating animals when I loved them so much. Promising myself I would only make authentic choices from now on also felt good - I had spent so much of my life compromising what I really wanted and who I truly was, that the sense of freedom I discovered in living authentically was intoxicating. I felt strong and honest, and it felt right.
4) I got organised and made a plan. When I embarked on the above new lifestyle choices, I redesigned my life in order to accommodate them. I didn’t expect things to just rumble on as normal and to not have to change any other aspects of my life. For instance, you can’t just remove the booze and expect it to stick - there are so many emotional and environmental changes that are essential to your sober success. There was also an element of humility that played a part in my drive to stay on track with my new habits; I understood the human tendency of resistance when it comes to making any lasting changes, and so I didn’t allow myself to be swayed by a desire for instant gratification. Instead, I followed the rule of short term pain for long term gain and overrode my immediate wants for the greater good. I guess this comes down to taking a leap of faith.
If you are struggling to stick to your goals, have a read again through these factors and ask yourself if they are currently present for you. Could you work on any of them, to help you stay focused on your intentions?
And here is a little mantra to end with, that also works for me… there is no such thing as a superhuman. If someone else can do it, so can you. You just need to work out what that magic recipe of motivators is that’s going to work for you...