I recently celebrated a personal milestone regarding a new habit and decided it would be interesting to reflect on how I got there and what I learned about myself in the process. It may be of little interest to anyone except myself, but I feel like this blog is the best place to explore my thoughts on this experience.
A couple of years ago, I did a clinical placement at a site that incorporated regular mindfulness practice into its treatment program. Having been interested in mindfulness for a while, and being uncomfortable with the idea of preaching something that I wasn’t actually practicing, I decided to build mindfulness into my own daily routine. I downloaded a few different mindfulness apps and eventually settled on Headspace as my go-to for regular practice. After a couple of months, I did manage to build mindfulness into my daily routine, but it was frankly laughable how difficult it was for me to fit even 5-10 minutes of practice into my daily routine. It was not at all unusual for me to play a quick 1-minute mindfulness track *just* before midnight in order to maintain my daily streak and then do my real mindfulness practice a few minutes later, right before going to sleep. Despite the fact that I did manage to keep the daily practice up for almost a year, it became something that I did because I wanted to have done it, rather than a practice that I was actively engaging with, and once I realised this, my practice gradually dwindled away to nothing.
In late 2017 I started experiencing heartburn on a fairly regular basis, and when I went to the doctor about it, she informed me that it was likely stress-related and recommended that I try some yoga. At the time, it felt like I was being fobbed off a bit – “just do some exercise and you’ll be fine” kind of thing (despite already knowing how beneficial exercise can be for both mental and physical health), but last May, after coming back from a relaxing holiday, it felt like a good time to hit the reset button and establish a better, healthier routine. I decided to try some of the Yoga with Adriene videos on YouTube, which had been recommended by a friend.
Adriene Mishler has become a yoga superstar over the last few years and her YouTube channel has over 7 million subscribers. She specializes in providing gentle, encouraging yoga videos for a range of different levels and has a sweet and silly sense of humour that is highly endearing, all of which helps to foster the friendliest, most supportive comment sections of any YouTube videos I’ve ever watched. I decided to start with her first 30-day program, aptly titled “30 Days of Yoga”. I was also working full-time, which was my own secret excuse for taking almost FOUR MONTHS to complete the 30-day program, despite knowing that many people manage far more on much busier schedules. By September, I had finished my internship and, finally, that 30-day program, and I knew I would not be working for at least another 3-4 months until I finished my thesis, so I decided now was the time to commit to another of Adriene’s 30-day programs and try and build up a regular daily practice. I started another program and marked off each day on my calendar, tracking how many days I had completed so I could see how many I still had left of the program. This time, I managed to practice yoga almost every single day, which, I reminded myself, was not a huge achievement, bearing in mind I had no other commitments aside from finishing my thesis and preparing for my defence. But it did prove that I was able to stick to a regular practice, even if it was only when I had little else to do. I finished the second 30-day program and also a third one, but in late November/early December I went on two trips almost back-to-back, and did not manage to maintain my routine while I was away, so unfortunately my yoga practice stopped completely. I decided to leave it until after Christmas before trying to build up my practice again.
There’s a scene in the (amazing) show Bojack Horseman in which Bojack is struggling to commit to a healthier lifestyle after engaging in addictive, self-destructive behaviours for many years. Another character tells him:
“Every day it gets a little easier… But you gotta do it every day — that’s the hard part.”
This line, above almost all the other wonderful lines in that show, has stuck with me because it is honest, insightful, and speaks to something that almost all of us have experienced at some point. Whether it’s breaking a bad old habit or starting a new healthy one, making any kind of significant change, and sustaining it, can be incredibly difficult. Sustaining it, that’s the challenge. How many of us have decided to eat better, exercise more, be kinder, work harder etc. and flung ourselves into our new routine or activity with seemingly boundless enthusiasm and energy, only for it all to fade away only weeks, or even days later, when we fall back into our old, comfortable routine and feel a creeping sense of shame for letting it all fall apart so quickly?
It’s my belief that there are a couple of that we tend to fall into when attempting to break or make a habit, the main ones being: a) we set ourselves unrealistic goals and b) we fail to recognise that the path of progress is rarely a perfectly straight line.
What we think our progress will look like How our progress will actually look
The first issue is problematic because if we have very high expectations for what we are aiming to achieve, we will feel that much more shame and disappointment when we don’t achieve it and are therefore much more likely to give up and not bother attempting something similar again. In the case of my yoga practice, I was luckily not discouraged from trying again by my initial inability to complete 30 days of practice within a month, but I have previously given up on many different activities simply because I wasn’t as good at them as I wanted to be within the first five minutes of trying them. Perseverance is essential = “you gotta do it every day”.
With regard to the second issue, this is something that I have learned about only in the last couple of years or so, but it absolutely makes sense to me. Often success stories are presented to us as: someone struggles with an issue for a long time, suddenly finds the one magic technique or skill that works for them and then sails off into their perfect new life with no further issues to overcome. But this is not how life works. It is unpredictable and messy and throws us curve balls almost constantly. I think the key here again is having that perseverance and patience to accept that our routines will inevitably be disrupted at some point, but that is not a sign of failure, as long as we don’t let it put us off getting back into things as soon as we are able to do so.
At the start of 2020, I made a commitment to myself to practice yoga every day. The two main obstacles that I was concerned might derail my practice were: going on holiday for a few days in February (as that had messed up my routine last year) and starting my new full-time job in March (because I had found it so hard to fit yoga practice in while working last summer). I decided that if I could sustain a regular routine until March, the habit would probably be ingrained sufficiently to not be disrupted by work commitments. When we went away for a few days in February, I faithfully practised yoga in our hotel room every day, despite the fact that I had to use up my data to watch the YouTube videos on my phone (no free wifi unfortunately!) and use an extremely slippery mat borrowed from the hotel. Then I started work in late March and found that, as I had hoped, my practice was now such an established part of my daily routine that it took barely any extra effort to maintain my regular practice.
Since January 1st of this year, I have done yoga practice every single day except one, when I was very ill for some unknown reason and spent most of the day asleep. I don’t tick off every day on the calendar any more, because it’s no longer about maintaining a streak or getting to the end of a 30-day program, it’s just something that I do, every day. Many people do yoga because of the physical benefits in terms of flexibility, pain reduction etc., but I have not noticed any particular difference physically, aside from a slight improvement in the length of time I’m able to hold plank position without feeling like my body will collapse at any second. My heels still don’t touch the ground in downward-facing dog, I can’t touch my toes without bending my knees in forward fold and I am VERY far from achieving crow position. But I have proven to myself that I can start and sustain a healthy new habit, and find joy in it. I have lacked self-discipline almost my entire life and it’s only now, in my early thirties, that I am slowly starting to improve in this area. It is now deeply amusing to me that I apparently have no trouble at all in finding time to fit in a 30 or even 40-minute yoga practice every day, when I previously struggled to find 10 minutes in which to do a mindfulness exercise. I am sure that there will be times that my routine will temporarily fall apart for various reasons, but I feel more confident in my ability to re-commit to it than when I first started yoga practice almost a year ago. I would also like to think that I now have more empathy for any clients I see who are trying to stop an unhealthy behaviour or find the time to practice a new wellness skill. Making lifestyle changes is really hard and it can sometimes take a while to properly establish new habits. The trick is to be patient with yourself, persevere, and keep practicing!
References: All images used in this post are taken from Google Images.