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The Power of Habit

Imagine this scenario: It’s New Year’s Eve, and as the final moments of the year draw nearer, you begin to dream up all the things you want to do differently in the new year. You excitedly envision your future self accomplishing all that you’re dreaming of. The inspiration is palpable. When the new year arrives, you set off toward your resolutions - maybe it’s to exercise more, learn a new language, save for a big purchase, or simply consume less. It goes well at first, but as February approaches, the burst of inspiration you felt on New Year’s Eve feels increasingly distant, and your confidence that this year will be different - that you will be different - starts to wane. Keeping your resolutions starts to feel like a chore, and you might even resolve that it’s not worth it - or worse, that you’re not capable of achieving what you were inspired to achieve a mere month before.

If this roller coaster of inspiration and doubt sounds familiar to you, do not fear! Your resolutions are assuredly worth it, and you are absolutely capable of keeping them. The simple power of habit (combined with some creativity and patience) may just be the missing ingredient for sustained success.

Tips for building successful routines

There are many simple things you can do to be more realistic about, in control of, and even gentler about your self-improvement goals. Here are five to get you started, with a small example of each. 

Start Small

It’s tempting to voraciously go after all of our goals in the first few weeks after making them. While invigorating at first, this approach is highly likely to leave you feeling drained and overwhelmed. This is especially true for goals that require a lot of time, such as saving for a big purchase or training for a marathon. 

Speaking of voracity, one thing many people often speak about wanting to consume less of is sugar. If your goal is to cut back on processed sugar, for example, you may be tempted to completely eradicate it from your diet. Though this may work for some, for many it will only increase the self-imposed pressure to achieve sugar abstinence, consequently increasing negative feelings when sugar makes its way into your diet. Rather than set yourself up for such high expectations, consider choosing 1-3 sweet foods you regularly consume and replacing them with foods that are less sweet. You might be surprised at the snowball effect that starting small will begin to have on your success.

Consistency is key

This point is directly related to the previous one by pointing toward a more sustainable approach to achieving goals. By focusing on making daily or weekly movement toward your established goals rather than any one particularly productive day, you are more likely to avoid burnout and make progress over the long term.

If you want to exercise more, for example, consider beginning with lighter workouts at 15-20 minutes, 3-5 days per week. Instead of epic gym days that make it hard to get out of bed the next morning, this approach makes it more likely that you’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, and more likely that you’ll still be making time to exercise well past February.

Layer your habits

The all too limited resource of time can sometimes be the largest impediment to keeping resolutions. Whether you realize it or not, however, you probably already have a handful of daily or weekly habits that can be adapted to your goals. Rather than searching for spare time to chip away at your goals, see if you can attach them to your existing routines.

For example, if making more time for friends and/or family is important to you, you might consider where in your existing routines you have time to make a phone call. If you have a ten minute walk to the train on days that you work, that can be ten minutes to talk to a friend or family member. Or, if you have a lunch break at work, consider using some of that time to check in with important people in your life. You never know what future plans might develop from these small efforts.

Use natural reminders

Sometimes it can be too easy to lose sight of what goal we’re working toward, or why we’re working toward it to begin with. To help keep your eye on the prize, consider writing yourself a reminder on a sticky note of why you want to achieve that goal, then placing that reminder somewhere you’ll see every day. 

In my kitchen, for example, I have sticky notes in Russian (a language I’ve been learning for two years) with kitchen-related vocabulary and phrases. Every time I wash the dishes, I’m reminded of a particular grammar rule that holds together a phrase posted near my sink. The beauty of this habit is that it encompasses the first three by being small enough for me to manage, a consistent part of my day, and layered into other tasks. 

Keep a progress journal 

Finally, progress toward a goal is often difficult to discern on a day-to-day basis. This can leave us feeling like we’re actually not making any progress at all. Recording your daily or weekly progress can help you maintain a sense of accomplishment, which is fundamental to maintaining motivation.

If quitting smoking or drinking are a part of your self improvement goals, try keeping a daily journal of when you successfully met those goals, how it felt to do that, what or who helped you do that, and the money you’re saving by making this change. Remember that progress is rarely linear, and often requires resilience among setbacks. Seeing how incremental shifts result in monumental changes over time can go a long way to helping you be the best version of yourself.

No matter what your goals are, remember that you are capable of achieving them. Creatively taking small, consistent, layered, natural actions can lead you toward your desired outcome in more manageable and sustainable ways.

By: Stephen Boegehold

Mental Health Counseling Intern

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