I remember being taught how to do a lot of things when I was little. How to wash a dish. How to take care of a dog. How to pick out an outfit for school. I was one of the lucky ones who had a parent interested in teaching me the skills I’d need to navigate life.
When we become adults, we tend to continue following the routines we were taught in childhood. That can be good or bad—or a combination of both, depending on what your inner voice is telling you to do. Our brains are much like computers in that once we program them, they tend to keep operating the same way—unless we undertake the fairly big task of reprogramming.
If your voice is telling you to spend more time on your art project and you keep failing to find that time because you’ve been programmed to keep a pristine house, you’ve got an outdated habit to get rid of. Yet even after you vow to let some of the housework go, you may find yourself restless in front of the canvas until the carpet is vacuumed or the floor mopped.
What we learn in childhood we become comfortable with, so when we try to break away from that comfort zone, our minds and/or bodies react with resistance. Imagine you were taught in childhood that to sit down for too long meant you were lazy. If you need to sit down to work on a painting, a piece of writing, or an important business letter, you may find your mind and body sounding off all sorts of alarms the second your seat hits the cushion. You feel hungry. Your legs jump up and down with restless energy. You can’t focus. Your mind keeps jumping to other things you need to do.
The good news is, this is entirely normal.
“Breaking bad habits involves coming out of your comfort zone,” writes Jacqueline Sidman Ph.D. “and your mind will start to resist the change. All sorts of fears will start to set in, and physical ailments can start to develop….Feelings are more powerful than thoughts, so even when your rational mind knows what you want and how to get it, feelings of resistance can prevent you from taking the actions you know you need to take in order to achieve your goals.”
How do you get past all these difficulties to actually change the habit you want to change? Since most of the responses you’ll experience have to do with fear, first realize that you have nothing to be afraid of. Whereas you may have been teased or punished for being “lazy” as a child, you now make your own decisions, and have only yourself to answer to. When you’re sitting in front of that computer or canvas and start to feel restless, reassure yourself. Everything is okay. There is no need to be anxious.
Second, learn to “sit through” your negative responses. Craig Ferguson, TV host of The Late Late Show on CBS, once said that the key to his successfully quitting smoking was to get through the craving. When he craved a cigarette, he summoned his will power and diverted his mind to another task. If he could make it through ten-to-fifteen minutes, he explained, the craving would pass and he would be fine for another hour or more. Try applying that idea to your situation—when your mind and body start to feel restless, remember your decision and stick with it. If that was to spend an hour a day painting, set a timer and don’t get up until the hour is over. Most likely you’ll have only ten-to-fifteen minutes of discomfort before your passion for your project takes over.
Finally, be patient with yourself. Change takes time. If you fail one day, try again the next. Remember how important this change is to you. You may want to note, as well, that researchers have found that when we consciously develop new habits, we create new pathways in the brain, which means more creativity and a lower risk of dementia. So the effort will not only serve your inner voice, but is likely to contribute to your mental health as well.
Give it 21 days. Try the new habit for that long, and see what happens. Life coach Brian Tracy says, “Since you are always free to choose, you can make new choices and decisions today that will determine what happens to you in the future.”