Change your life…one step at a time

Every year, the calendar kindly starts over at Day 1. Traditionally, a time for rethinks and new beginnings. But perhaps you are sceptical about making New Year’s resolutions? With good reason: most resolutions collapse before Day 31. Why is it so difficult to make changes that are supposed, after all, to make you feel better about yourself?

St Paul famously fretted, “Why do I keep doing what I wish I wouldn’t, and keep not doing what I should?” The answer is that he didn’t understand how the brain works. Our behaviour is chiefly governed, not by ideals, not by threats, but by habit. Like Google remembering your search history, the brain expects to do what it has done before.

Habit is unconscious, involuntary behaviour. That is its value, and its curse. Value, because it saves time and energy; you don’t have to keep reinventing what to do or how to do it. Curse, because habits kick in automatically. Even when it is bad for you, habitual behaviour feels familiar, and takes less effort; and that seems comforting, even if you hate yourself for it later. Habits override your best intentions, and whoops – before you know it, you’re doing it again.

‘We are what we repeatedly do,’ as Aristotle observed. Our lives are shaped by what we repeatedly do…and by what we repeatedly say, hear, think, believe, imagine. Don’t shame yourself for what does not work in your life, as if your character were fatally flawed. Habits are learned. They can be unlearned, and new ones planted.

Habit is all about connections. The brain links one habitual action to another. To grow a new habit, embed it into your usual routine: practise your affirmations or your Arabic in your daily shower.

To unlearn a habit, you interrupt the automatic chain of events. If you habitually have a cigarette with your morning cup of coffee, and then cut out just the cigarette, you will feel bereft as the brain gropes for the missing link. But invent a new routine – drink orange juice instead, take the dog for a run – where the smoke has no place and would spoil the pleasure.

When I was a child, a wire-and-plastic brace was fitted on my teeth that abruptly put an end to my comforting habit of thumb-sucking. I would have outgrown it anyway; I only remember stopping because of its brutal suddenness. But unlike childish behaviours, our most addictive habits do not gradually cease. Like water, they run along grooves dug deep by frequent use.

To etch a new habit takes time and repetition, reminders to yourself and more repetition, until it becomes automatic. To get out of an old rut, you need strategies to avoid sliding into old patterns while you nurture new ways.

Either way, if you want to change something in your life, it is practical psychology to pin it to a definite date, like the New Year. An external structure such as a timeline, or a planned programme or support system, helps you to put a decision into action and to monitor your progress.

But improving aspects of your life is not about forcing yourself. The secret of lasting change is to make a new behaviour feel more natural and satisfying to do than to not do. One foot automatically follows the other when the way is clear ahead.

Relaxation for Busy People

“Christmas has been cancelled this year.” My father made this same joke every year, when we children were beginning to get excited. A few decades ago, our Christmas was a one-day, one-present-each event. It was a brief, magical moment in a mostly monotonous calendar of working days and plodding Sundays. Even so, my father was harassed by the disruption and what must have been a quite modest extra cost.

Since then, Christmas, far from being cancelled, has swelled like an insatiable beast. It feeds on people’s time, energy and money for weeks or even months on both sides of the day itself. For many people, the harassment snuffs out the magic. A host of mounting pressures – to get more done, and done in time; to spend more than you really want or can afford; to eat and drink more than is healthy or comfortable; the heightened emotional cost of loneliness, or else of strained relationships – are all the more stressful when the season is supposed to remind us of peace and joy.

Not that anyone talks much these days of goodwill to all mankind. ‘Goodwill’ is out of date and ‘mankind’ is sexist. You are more likely to hear people redefining Christmas as “all about family time and loved ones,” and, after all the extra stress and overwork, looking forward to some bingeing (box sets, luxuries) and a few days of mindless torpor.

The difference between torpor and real relaxation is that torpor can leave you feeling dissatisfied and irritable rather than rested. A habit of relaxing during your busiest times, instead of after, restores your depleted energy as you go. Torpor is a form of collapse, an attempt to switch off living for a while because it has become too overwhelming. Relaxation is the natural counter to anxiety and activity. It is the easing-up between one effort and the next that stops you getting overwhelmed in the first place, so that you do not pile up a debt of fatigue and emotional burnout to add to the other burdens you will carry into the New Year.

Christmas coincides with the transition we make at the end of each year from one stage of our lives to the next. I am reminded of a primary school I know of, where for the last five minutes of every class the children sit and think about what they have accomplished in the lesson just ended, and consider the new activity they are about to begin. Instead of classes that end with a jangling bell and an eruption of noise and rush, this small pause allows one period to lead calmly and purposefully on to the next. The same principle works whenever there is much to do and little time. Pockets of calm between your activities give you breathing space and help you keep things in perspective

Calm first: then carry on. This is practical psychology, and not only because stress impairs us. I am still amazed how, when (against my impatient grain) I pause and relax for five minutes – before leaving the house, for example, or before sleeping, or on waking – that is when my mind clears, and allows something important I had forgotten, or a solution to a problem, or renewed calm to float into my awareness.

Don’t tell yourself that you will relax later, when you have time. Even one minute, now, to pause and relax will put you back in control, stop your mind running on auto-pilot, and bring your life back into focus. Calm first. Then carry on.

Like all other Christmases past and future, this Christmas will come and go. You can navigate the pressures more freely when you are relaxed and (forgive the pun) more present.

How are you feeling?

This country used to be famous for its British reserve and its stiff upper lip. Now we take our cues from television characters who scream and slam doors and hotly accuse each other at the slightest provocation. Public displays of rage or sentiment are reckoned as more honest, authentic or ‘human’ than calm and rational courtesy; and we freely broadcast a spattering of emotional reactions to the world on social media, in the convenient shorthand of emoticons.

Emoticons can express what we find difficult or are too inhibited to put into words. In this world of remote communication, where the person you are speaking to is not right there to read your expression, a wink or a smile can convey your meaning more subtly than words. But do emoticons help us to accept how changeable, irrational and complex our emotional weather really is? Or do they reduce complex shades of feeling to a set of clichés and grimaces, the online equivalent of cartoon expletives like ‘Grrrr’, ‘Arrgh!!!’ and ‘??’

In magical tradition, to name something gives you power over it. When you can appreciate your emotional state of mind lucidly enough to label it – “What I am feeling is angry, or sad, or anxious…” – you take command of the stress or upset that a moment before was controlling you. It is immensely helpful to give a child the words to pin down their confusing emotions: “That looks frustrating”, “Are you very disappointed?”, “That was surprising, wasn’t it?” It is immensely helpful to yourself to name your feeling, or cocktail of feelings: “This is only fear talking, this is my critical self having another go at me, this is confidence saying Go for it!” It is helpful to everyone when you learn to communicate your feelings: not as rights, or excuses, or reproaches, but to clarify where you are coming from; to explain your present point of view, without demanding sympathy or compliance.

Your kneejerk reactions are never a reliable guide to what matters. Our emotions do not tell us what is true. They can only tell us what we believe, or hope, or fear at this moment in time. But they give us a rich, rapid and intuitive range of responses to the world and to each other, faster than thinking. To be emotionally aware is to become emotionally resilient. If you know what it feels like to be afraid, defensive or hostile, you can also be more freely grateful, affectionate, compassionate. When you pay attention to your feelings, whether your heart is sinking or singing, you will know the direction of your thoughts. Then you can make decisions and move on, wholeheartedly – with heart and mind together – instead of being blown off track by mysterious and unwanted impulses.

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