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Creating Your Better Self – Habits That Move You Closer to Your Goals

Following the birth of my daughter, my family’s second child, it became apparent that we would need more room in the house. As a consequence, I sacrificed my home office for a bedroom.

As I was going through the items that had accumulated over the years, I came across many journals. Some contained my thoughts, written hastily, margin to margin, to get at the root of my mind. Others held notes from classes I had taken or books I had read.

I picked out one of the older ones, from 1997, and flipped it open to a random page. On that page were goals. Future goals. Things like a move to the mountains, build a private practice in massage therapy, teach massage therapists, become a black belt in Aikido, get married, raise a family. What was interesting, is I had accomplished ninety percent of the things on that list.

Now if you’re of a certain age and have been through school, worked a regular job, or started a business, then the subject of goal setting and the power of habits is probably familiar to you. And, chances are you’ve had a similar experience to what I just described above. You came across some old piece of your writing that predicted where you stand today.

Today, the end of 2016 is nigh, and the unknown of 2017 looms. I’m not sure what it is about the end of one year and the beginning of another, but it is not like any other day of the year. There is something special about this time of the year. It’s a good time for us to reflect on the good things we’ve accomplished, acknowledge the mistakes that we’ve made, as well as identify the areas of our life that need improving and the things we want to achieve.

Man journaling on park bench

When I was in my early twenties, I read Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

A form of writing therapy, Natalie’s book introduced me to a way of writing that helped me dig deep into my thinking process, and clear away much of the obstructing mental chatter that was distracting me from becoming who I wanted to be. To this day, I use journaling to acquire a better vantage point over my life.

It’s difficult to know what you want until you can clear away what everyone else wants from you. All of us have more on our plate than we can finish. Every day closes with too many things left undone.

Purge the Past

The first thing you need to do is clear away all that mindless chatter. Before writing down any of your goals for 2017, take some time, as much as you need, to remember and reflect on 2016.

What did you do this year? Pull out your calendar and go through month by month, and week by week. Go back to January and work your way up to December, month by month. Where did you go? Who was with you? What happened?

And don’t just write down the facts. Relive it. Record not only what happened but how you felt about it. Was it a celebration of life and victory that had you happier than you’ve ever been in your life? Or was there a death, a tragic loss of something, someone, that you’re still struggling over?

Get it all down. This reflective purge is for you, and your eyes only. Do not hold back.

You can write for as long or short as you want. But ten minutes is a good amount. If you’ve never done it, it’s harder than you might think to write continuously for ten minutes. And when I say “continuously,” I mean non-stop for the entire ten minutes. No breaks to go to the bathroom or lean back in your chair. Once the clock starts, you write. And you write until the clock stops.

You will find yourself stuck writing the same thing over and over, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process. You will get unstuck, and your ideas will begin to flow.

One final thought on your journaling is don’t use capital letters or punctuation of any kind. Also, don’t worry too much about spelling. It’s a little awkward at first, but you’ll quickly get used to writing this way. Remember, this isn’t a piece of writing that you’re going to publish. It’s a process. It’s practice.

Imagine Your Future Self

When you’ve finished the purge, it’s time to turn your attention forward into the coming year.

As a side note, this process is adaptable to any time frame. For example, I’ve gone back ten years in my reflective journaling and gone ahead ten. Gone back to my birth, and projected out to my last day. But for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on a two-year period, last year and next year.

You’re going to do the same type of journaling you did for last year for this year. Get out your calendar and look what you have coming up. Are there any trips you want or need to make? Anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, or other important dates that will deserve a celebration? When are they?

As you go through your year, be there, and write about it, freely. There is no right and wrong of this. Just write your thoughts and your feelings. Who are you at this time in the future?

Write about yourself from different perspectives (e.g. first person, second person, third person). Describe yourself from an outside point of view. Who do you want to be? Who do you want other people to see, when they see you?

Woman takes a selfie with her Canon

Again, spend whatever amount of time you want on this. Ten minutes, one day, or one week. It’s up to you. Write until you’re ready to move on.

A great online journaling course that has a proven track record and based on psychological research is Self Authoring. Created by doctors Jordan Peterson, Daniel Higgins, Robert Pihl, and Michalea Schipper, Self Authoring guides you through a series of simple journaling exercises that have shown to help people create what they want for themselves in their lives.

As of the time of this post, they are offering special winter discount where you can purchase one program and get a second for free.

Through their website, you can also download a short e-book written by Jordan Peterson and Raymond Mar called The Benefits of Writing.

The e-book explains in more concise detail the value of writing to not only help a person through traumatic experiences but also in our day-to-day lives.

Identify what you want

Now that you’ve quieted the voices in your head, for a moment, now’s the time to isolate and choose the important things that you’re going to work towards this year. Time to set some goals.

Goal setting is like hiking in the woods with a compass and map. With a compass and map, you know where you are and where you’re going. Without a compass and map, you are some place going somewhere, but where?

By now, you should know what you want. Write it down. Make a list, add some bullet points, and put some dates on it. Be as specific as you can.

You can use the following questions to help guide and focus your thinking.

  • What do you want to have, do, or be?
  • When do you want it, or need it?
  • How are you going to track your progress towards it? How are you going to know when you’ve achieved your goal?
  • Why is this goal important to you?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice to reach your objective?
  • What will having, doing, or being this give you?

As with the journaling, take as much time as you need. However, for this step in the process, edit your writing as much as you need so that it expresses as completely as possible what you want and why it’s important to you.

Goal setting is the first stage in the planning process. You’ll want to identify what you want as clearly as possible.

Getting what you want, however, requires action. It demands you live your day in constant, relentless pursuit of your goals.

Getting What You Want

Who you are and what you have today is due to what you’ve done and are currently doing. If you want something to change, you’re going to need to change how you think and what you do.

Though it seems pretty straightforward and simple, it is. But it’s not easy. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be thousands of books, courses, and research on goal setting and habit formation, and human behavior.

Once you know what you want, you have to decide how you’re going to get it.

Going back to the compass and map analogy. Now that you know you want to be up on the lake next to the waterfall, and that it’s twelve miles away with fifteen-hundred feet of elevation gain, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to navigate yourself and your gear from here to there. Will there be a river to cross? Do you have to bushwhack some part of it, all of it? Is there a way around? Is there snow still on the ground?

Habits are in large part what got you to this point in your life, and it’s habits, brought about through modifying and encoding new behaviors, that’s going to get you to the next point.

Habits are patterns. Patterns of thought and action. Some are supportive of progress, while others are destructive. For example, regularly brushing your teeth after a meal is a productive habit. Whereas not brushing your teeth regularly after meals will be destructive, unless your goal is to lose all your teeth.

According to the American Journal of Psychology, “a habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.”

One of my favorite books, and maybe one of the most well known, on the subject is Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Changing habits is a tricky endeavor. Where we can quickly identify what we want, altering our behaviors, particularly our subconscious ones, so that we move towards our goals requires constant attention to the course. Lose focus, and we might just get lost and fall off a cliff.

Beware of danger

And you will get lost and fail to secure your new habit, again, and again. Expect it. Plan for it. And then get back on track ASAP.

You will have to work to replace your old, destructive habits with new, productive ones. Life will try to get in your way and pull you from your chosen path. So prepare yourself for battle.

There is a lot of research and written material on the topic of habits and behavior, and I will attempt to address those in greater detail here at a future time.

But for now, here are a few tips to get you started forming your new habits, and taking action on your goals, today.

Choose one habit, but make it a big one. It’s tempting to go whole-hog on the goals and habits thing, by trying to get after all your goals and implementing a dozen new behaviors. But don’t do it!

Seemingly small gains, in the beginning, can lead to massive gains down the road. Success breeds success.

What’s more, chances are as you look at your goals for 2017 you’ll be able to group them into categories. For example, maybe you want to lose ten pounds, run a Spartan Race, and eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates. Establishing the habit of training daily, rain or shine, no matter what will move you closer to those goals.

Though exercising doesn’t directly impact your eating, for many, once they start one healthy behavior, other behaviors fall in line more readily. So, do a little goal triage and pick the most important goals, and the one big habit change that will move you towards those goals, and make your killing there first.

Recruit a “battle buddy. Ask a friend, relative, or your spouse, if you’re married, to help hold you accountable to your goals. Tell them what new habit you’re trying to create and discuss how best they might be able to help. For instance, let’s say you’re working to wake up at 5:00 AM so that you can get to the gym by 6:00 AM. Agree to pay your battle buddy $10 every time you don’t make it to the gym. Or maybe you can check in with them once a day via text or email. There are many ways you could set this up. Work it out with your battle buddy.

Keep a habit log, and review it daily. Find a place in your bullet journal, Evernote, wall calendar, or whatever system you use to record when you’ve performed your new behavior.

Using the workout example, did you workout today or not? If you did, check the box, if not, pay your battle buddy $10. Remember, the goal is to change your behaviors so that you will move in the direction of your goals. If one way isn’t working, change it, and keep changing it until you’re checking off those boxes every day.

Only when your new behavior is entrenched and becomes a habit, is it time to tackle the next one.

To sum up the process:

  1. Journal your past. Go through the past year, month by month, and write about your experiences. Include as much detail as you can – thoughts, feelings, successes, and failures.
  2. Journal your future. Look at the calendar ahead and write about upcoming events. Include the things you want to learn and achieve. Add as much detail as you can – thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears.
  3. Identify your goals. Be as specific as you can. Explain “why” this goal is important to you.
  4. Modify behavior. Identify your destructive habits, the ones that are keeping you from achieving what you want. Identify and plan to implement constructive actions that will move you towards your chosen goals. Change only one behavior at a time. Success breeds success. Track your progress daily.

If you decide to take this on, let me know how it goes. Check in with me through the comment section of this website or via the contact page.

Lastly, I’m always interested in learning what other people do that brings them success. So, if you’ve got a New Year’s plan that works for you, let me know about it.

Here’s to a healthier, happier, more successful you in 2017!

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