I went to a continuing education event yesterday called "How the Brain Forms New Habits: Why Willpower isn't Enough." Here are 5 takeaway concepts I think we can all use and benefit from. You can benefit directly and you can also be a better parent if you understand how we are made and why habit formation and changing habits is so difficult.
Here are Five concepts that will help you:
- Instituting change is notoriously difficult. Look around, even very learned people struggle with health habits - and other habits. If it were easy we would all be fit, rich, and in-control (of everything...). So don't feel bad about having a bad habit or two. You were taught well by the culture (to overeat, to sit on the couch, to drive instead of walk, etc.) You can do it - but it will likely take real work.
- The first step to take when you want to institute change is to simply evaluate your actions and figure out why you want to change. Then focus on the values that are behind your desire for change. Maybe you have been nagging your kids. Now it's a habit. You want to change that habit. Figure out why. Maybe you value the relationship with your kid (I hope this is true!) and you notice that he closes down and gets angry when you nag. It's getting in the way of your relationship. Is your relationship with your kid of higher value than getting him to put his dishes in the dishwasher? And is there a better way to get your son to do his part? This type of thinking can help you focus on the motivation behind change. Powerful motivation makes change a bit easier.
- Who you hang out with really does matter. Your mother was right! It's been measured and it's simply true. We pick up mannerisms and habits from those we spend time with. So it does matter who your daughter or son hangs around with. (I know, there's only so much you can do about this one - but you CAN do some things here to affect who your preteen or teen hangs out with.)
- Very small changes make a significant difference in the long run. Indeed, small steps are the only way to achieve lasting change. When we set out to lose 50 pounds or to never eat chocolate again we are doomed for failure. We can lose those 50 pounds a different way. We can control our chocolate cravings too - but not with all-or-none thinking. Make small changes.
- Old habits can fade but they never completely go away. We have a memory center in our brain that holds on to these old habits. That's why we can go without riding a bike for 10 years then get on and ride again tomorrow. It's not good news though when old "bad" habits revisit us. They will. If your kid made his bed every day for a month then stopped - he's normal. (You can still insist he make his bed - I'm just telling you this is normal - we all do these things.) Too much stress typically results in setbacks. Reverting to your old habits or eating a whole box of chocolates when you are stressed doesn't make you a failure. It just means you are human. Don't be too hard on yourself (or your kid!). Just go back to your new habit and try again. This is the most important part.
The good news? Change is possible. Absolutely. Positively. And you can do it.
You probably won't have access to the course I went to but you can read a great book on change. It's called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. It's a fun read by Chip and Dan Heath.