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Sticking to a routine that’s new or different is hard. We are creatures of habit and resist change, even when we know the change is for our own good.
If you’re having trouble sticking to a new routine or adopting a healthy habit, here’s the one thing you should do first to increase your chances of success.
Why is it so hard to stick to a new routine or goal?
There’s a reason why something like 80% of people give up on new year’s resolutions by the end of February. We set goals, commit and prepare, and start off strong. But eventually, life gets in the way.
As obstacles and distractions arise, one after another, it just becomes too stressful or complicated to keep going in the direction of our new goal or sticking to a new routine. At least that has certainly been my experience.
But wait. People adopt new habits and routines and transform their lives all the time! So how do they do it? What do they have that I don’t?
I’m not sure. But, I recently learned about a method called mental contrasting that may be part of the answer.
What is mental contrasting?
Mental contrasting refers to anticipating and planning for potential obstacles and difficulties when setting out to achieve a new goal.
In other words, when we set out to achieve a goal or adopt a new practice or habit, it’s not enough to just commit and stay positive. We have to get a little more realistic (perhaps even a bit pessimistic actually) to increase our chances of success.
In lawyer speak, we call this a contingency plan. An “if, then” plan.
Let’s try it together right now!
Is there a specific routine you’re trying to stick with but are having trouble? Or a current goal that’s more difficult than you thought? If not, think about a new goal or routine you’ve been wanting to implement.
Okay. Now, take out a piece of paper or open up a note on your phone. Make a list of all the ways the goal could fall apart or how you could fall off the wagon. In other words, think of all the ways you could fail to stick to the new routine. Yup, I’m giving you permission to be a total Debbie Downer for the next five minutes or so.
Have your list?
Now, here’s the magic of mental contrasting. For each potential obstacle or hurdle you just came up with, come up with a contingency plan for how you will handle it. If this negative thought, situation, circumstance, or person shows up to fuck up your shit, what are you going to do to say, “Nope, nice try, but I’ve thought ahead! You will not deter me!”
Need some inspiration? Let’s use my yoga practice as an example.
I’ve tried and failed to build a regular yoga practice for years. When it comes to sticking to a routine, this has been really difficult for me. I’m sure anybody who has ever tried to get in shape, lose weight, or stick to any type of exercise or fitness goals can relate to this.
Below are three specific scenarios that have caused me to give up on my yoga practice in the past. But this time, I’ve done some mental contrasting and come up with contingency plans for each scenario that will help me stick to a regular yoga practice no matter what!
Potential obstacle #1: I’m on my period and feel like crap for days.
Yup, we are getting right into it! I almost feel like my uterus messes with me on purpose. Every time I pay for a class package at my favorite yoga studio, my period that month is exceptionally painful and I’m out for days, which means missing days of class in a row. What to do?
Stick to Routine Solution #1: Sign up for a restorative class instead.
I call my studio’s restorative yoga classes group nap time. In restorative yoga, you move through only about six poses. The point is to hold deep stretches, relax, and focus on your breath. It’s more meditative than exercise. I used to think these classes “didn’t count” because I wasn’t working as hard, but I have since changed my mind. Most importantly, they get me on my mat.
Restorative classes are always the first classes I take when I’m trying a new yoga studio or have been out of the game for awhile. It’s a great ice breaker if you have been thinking of giving yoga a try too but are worried that you’re not flexible or coordinated enough or something like that (neither am I and it really doesn’t matter, but I know how you feel!).
I’m in a lot of discomfort some periods, so I’m going to honor my body’s limitations and need for rest. But since I also want to honor my commitment to my yoga practice, opting for a restorative or meditative class is a great option.
Potential obstacle #2: It’s raining and parking at the yoga studio is a nightmare when it rains.
This is a total LA problem, I know. But it’s still illustrative! Traffic and parking debacles are total dealbreakers, at least for me. So, in a post-COVID world where I would be driving to my yoga studio for an in-person class, I need to prepare for things that make me not want to leave the house.
Stick to Routine Solution #2: Have a yoga DVD or YouTube channel ready for yoga at home.
When I am rained out, I will block out the same amount of time I would have spent at a yoga class and spend it doing yoga at home. I have an ancient yoga DVD that I stole from a former roommate over a decade ago because I really liked it. My friend Alexa also recommended her favorite YouTube yoga channel, Yoga with Adriene. So I have that on standby too.
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Potential obstacle #3: I’m out of town.
When we’re on vacation or traveling for work, most if not all of us hit the pause button on our daily routines. I’m checking my email less and certainly not walking the dog or making my own coffee in the morning. But there’s no reason really to stop doing yoga because I’m not at home. You can do yoga anywhere you have about six feet of space to yourself.
Stick to Routine Solution #3: Pack some leggings and do yoga no matter what!
I have four designated days of the week for yoga. If I happen to be out of town, I am still going to make time for yoga. No, probably not a full 60 minute session, but I can at least wake up and do some sun salutations in the hotel room while my husband keeps snoozing or fetches us some coffee, can I not?
My goal is to stay in the habit of doing yoga regularly. For me, missing just a single class is a slippery slope that I don’t want to go down. So my mental contrasting involves staying in the habit of regular yoga, no matter what that looks like. Restorative yoga is still yoga. Hotel room sun salutations are still yoga. The longer I stay in the habit, the more it will stick and the harder it will be to break the habit in the long run.
Let me know what kind of mental contrasting you’re doing to stick with your self-care routines in the comments below!