Breaking habits is easier than you think (here's how)

coaching mindset Mar 19, 2019

Last year, I decided for the fiftieth time that I would start getting up early, once and for all. No more hitting snooze, no more rushed, frenzied mornings. I would have long, leisurely stretches of time before going into the office. I would calmly get my kids ready for school, meditate, maybe journal, and set up my day for mindful productivity. I would be one of those mysterious, semi-mythical people who are always refreshed, well-rested, and energized, even at 5 a.m.

I have tried to do this before, but every time, it has taken Herculean effort, and it still has not stuck. I've tried everything – keeping my phone across the room, happy ring tones, timing my alarm so I'd get exactly 4 REM cycles – you name it. I usually do okay for a few days at a time, but inevitably, I would slip back into my old habits of hitting snooze. This time, though, would be different. I would will it into being.

The first morning of my new life – this was a Thursday – my alarm went off at 5:15. I was so exhausted that I couldn't even roll over to turn it off. I just lay there, mentally cursing the day. When I finally dragged myself out of bed, I was cranky and annoyed with myself, trying to get backpacks and breakfasts ready. After all that, my kids were still late to school.

Friday morning was no different. Why is this so friggin' hard? I demanded as I got to my desk, trying to suppress a yawn. The answer came quickly (because your brain answers the questions you ask it): I'm tired because I only got five hours of sleep.

Okay, I thought, so how can I get myself to bed earlier?

The night before would have to be smoother. I'd have to get everything done that I need to do, I answered.

This little internal coaching session reminded me of an acting technique I learned in Hollywood: before you begin a scene, ask yourself, "What happened the moment before?" That helps you step into the character more fully. It helps you understand where she's coming from, why she'll say and do the things she does, and how she's feeling (and why). It's the key to a believable scene.

And, I thought, it might be the key to why I couldn't get out of bed in the mornings.

So I decided to apply the technique here: What happens the moment before I hit snooze?

Well, I'm sleeping, obviously.

What happens the moment before that?

The night before, Stephen and I usually perform our nightly ritual of trying to get everyone fed, get everything done, and get everyone ready for bed (including the dog). Inevitably, this is a battle of epic proportions that takes way longer than it should.

What happens the moment before that?

"Dinner time," I said out loud. Ding ding! That was it: dinner was where all the trouble started.

Here's why: I dream of having a peaceful, fun, healthy dinner with the four of us – and yet it always turns into a disaster. No two people like the same thing, so I end up making two or three meals (which I don't have the time, patience, or ingredients for). We often end up ordering take-out, sometimes as late as 9pm, with everyone eating a separate meal, and no one in a good mood.

That negative energy then feeds into the evening activities, which makes bedtime that much harder (and later), which means I’m not getting a great night's sleep, and by morning, there's this residual frustration – why can't I get this right? Why can't we eat together like a normal family?

That was it: that's why getting up earlier is such a massive undertaking. It's not because my alarm clock is too close to my bed, or because I lack the willpower. It's because nights are stressful, and that sets of a change of events that makes me need to sleep in a little.

To break a pattern, we need to get to the root of the issue.

The "what happened before" questions led me to dinnertime, which is where I needed to focus my efforts. How could I make dinner a more positive, loving time?

I decided to talk it over with my family and see what they thought. I was afraid that might be another dead end, but I was pleasantly surprised when my daughter Kaya offered a brilliant suggestion: "Why don't I make a weekly meal plan for? I'll make sure it's food we all like, and you can go shopping on weekends, and then every night, we all know what we're getting."

I just looked at her, filled with gratitude and awe. I'd had no idea she'd be willing to do something like that. But it turned out, she wanted a happy meal time as much as I do, and on top of that, she's interested in meal planning. Who knew?

"Solutions tend to come when we get specific about problems," writes Ellen Langer in Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. When the problem is a big, swirling mess, of course it's difficult to "fix" it. It's like trying to shove a tornado into a shoebox. But if we can get to the root, before that gust of wind becomes a tornado, it's so much easier to handle.

Be specific. What happens the moment before you reach for a cigarette, yell at your kids, eat a bowl of ice cream?

What happens before that?

Ask your brain the right questions, and it will give you the answers you need.

I'm proud to report that I am close to becoming one of those mythical bright-eyed-at-5 people. I have no trouble getting up early on mornings after a smooth, conflict-free evening. We still slip up sometimes, dinnertime-wise, and when we do, I know I'm in for a rough morning. But hey, no one's perfect, right? Now I feel that I have more control of the matter, so on those impossible-not-to-hit-snooze mornings, I may be be exhausted, but I'm not as frustrated with myself.

So let's turn to you. What's a habit you can't seem to break?

What happens the moment before you succumb to it?

What happens the moment before that?

Keep asking that until you get to the root. When you do, you might get that ding ding ding! feeling that I did – that "Oh, that explains it." From there, ask yourself how you improve that situation.

It can be extremely helpful to talk this over with a trusted friend, family member, coach or mentor – someone who can help you objectively and methodically go back, moment by moment, to the root cause. Remember to trust yourself, and to be honest in your answers. You have all the answers you need, already within. Sometimes it just takes a little digging – and the right questions – to find them.

Go out and shine.

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