When I was a teenager, I developed an unhealthy habit of repeatedly making promises to my mother that I would go on a diet, then fail to keep my promise. For this reason, I’ve found that one of the best ways to make a change is not to make a promise.
If that sounds strange, it’s hardly the only quirky way I’ve found over the years to make lasting changes, and now that I’m 71, it’s much easier than it once was. Here are 11 more strategies I use, culled from my professional background, my spiritual practices, and my life experience:
1. Writing A Note And Putting It In My “God Box”
This sounds like I’m a religious person, but I’m not; I believe in entropy, gravity, inertia, and other natural forces, but not a supreme being. Yet counter-intuitively — perhaps similar to a placebo — asking for help from a God I don’t believe in is one of my most successful strategies, especially when my approach is playful. For example, one day when I had eaten practically a full day’s food by late morning, I wrote:
“Hey–have already eaten plenty today! Please help.
In order to
Avoid this plight!
Thx pal. Love ya,
(Sarah is my first name.)
“Footwork” means I can’t ask God to help if I’m not willing to step up myself, so I always offer what I’ll do. We’re a team.
My God Box is a small tin box from childhood, which ironically — given that many of the changes I’ve wanted to make are related to food — once held pieces of toffee. On the outside, it says in cursive, “Take The Home Sweet Home.” The box reminds me of myself as a playful little girl.
After asking for help from God, I always feel lighter and like I can more easily make the change I want.
2. Asking My Long-Gone Family Members For Help
Seeking support from my mother and my sister, Arabella, both of whom died decades ago, also really helps. Not because they were always models of success — in fact, both of them found it difficult to make changes in their lives, especially, like me, in the area of eating. But the fact that they too struggled is exactly what I need because I sense their empathy, which helps me feel less alone. This is important because, for me, a sense of isolation increases my sense of anxiety and almost guarantees I won’t succeed.
3. Using Timing To My Advantage
During the ’80s, when I was eating two bags of Doritos a day, my sister, who was visiting, told me she was concerned about my nutrition. After our conversation, I agreed not to have any more Doritos for the duration of her visit.
The day after she left, my husband Barry and I went sailing in the Gulf Islands, one of my nine happy places, off the coast of British Columbia. Back then, Doritos were not available in Canada. Since I somehow managed to restrain myself from buying any Doritos to take on the trip, by the time I returned home, I hadn’t eaten them for 10 days — long enough to have passed the worst of my cravings.
I use timing, too, by tagging a change to a significant event, like when I gave up drinking Tab, Diet Coke’s precursor, on the day my sister went into labor. I recently told my now 36-year-old niece that her birth was pivotal in helping me overcome my Tab habit!
When I used to drive to a nearby town for a class, I’d often stop at a particular grocery to buy an irresistible bag of chips that I couldn’t find easily in Eureka, the “Victorian seaport” on the North Coast of California where Barry and I live part of the year. I’d sit in the car after my class, devouring the whole bag while reading a magazine. Bliss! But afterward, I’d feel bloated and almost sick.
Finally, I asked a friend if I could call her before and after the drive and leave a message letting her know what happened. No promises! Only an update — for good or for ill. Communicating with her on either end of the drive made all the difference, and after calling her a couple of times, I stopped buying the chips.
I am the fastest eater I know. Once, at a retreat, when I was more mindful than usual, I decided to consume my meal at the same speed as the other participants sitting at my table, who were all eating at what looked to me like a painfully glacial pace. Only when the man next to me would pick up his fork, would I pick up mine. It was a huge challenge, but I forced myself to slow down.
At home, I can’t use Barry as a guide, because unfortunately he’s imitated me and has also become a fast eater! But I try to remember my former companions and take bites more slowly, which helps me not only savor the meal but digest it better.
6. Creating A Ritual
I believe changes are best made when they use both the left and right parts of the brain. Ritual, which harnesses the power of the senses to symbolically convey meaning, is one example. For example, when I realized my bathroom scale was not my friend, following my therapist’s advice, I mangled it into shards and framed the innards. Another time, I created a candlelit ceremony to enjoy my last cigarette, and soon after giving up Doritos, went to a Halloween party wearing a dress with empty Dorito bags pinned to it.
7. Keeping Records
I’m a huge fan of record keeping. Research shows that record keeping in and of itself brings about change. I’ve been amazed at how it has helped my business clients achieve difficult goals, not to mention myself. Over the years, tracking habits on a chart has helped me succeed in flossing my teeth, eating more greens and fresh fruit, running a marathon, making cold calls, saying hello to strangers, doing more upper-body exercise, practicing Spanish, and increasing my writing output.
Writing a checkmark on a page at the end of the day when I have accomplished something gives me a huge sense of satisfaction. And knowing that I’ll see an ever-growing line of check marks at the end of the week also motivates me.
Many people use computer software or apps to track their habits, but I’m still old-fashioned and prefer paper and pen.
8. Befriending My Resistance
If, after several attempts, it’s obvious I don’t want to make a change, I don’t fight it. Sometimes I’m just not ready. Instead, I say to myself, “Okay, I’m not willing to make this change right now. But am I at least willing to want to be willing?” Usually I am. Sometimes I write a note to God asking for willingness.
9. Forgiving Myself
I have learned over the years the importance of being kind to oneself, and now I’m pretty good at it. When I make a mistake, I say, “Well, Sweetheart, así es (so it is).” Or I’ll repeat the Sufi poet Rumi’s beautiful verse, “Come, even if you have broken your vow 1,000 times, come, yet again, come…”
I know from hard-earned experience that self-criticism is not the way to create change; in fact, quite the opposite.
10. Drawing And Painting
Any activity that involves both the mind and body helps me get out of my head. When I’m struggling with something — wanting to change a habit or facing a tough decision — I sometimes use art to depict my mental state. For example, many years ago, after an unproductive conversation with Barry, in my sketchbook I painted the background in sunset pink with blue streaks, with a green leafy tree, and then in letter form, added this suggestion to myself: “When I start reacting to B, walk away. Get some space. Thanks, God.”
Another time, frustrated with my pattern of overpacking, I sketched and painted several light suitcases.
Once, I was worried about what to wear for a keynote speech I was giving. Worn out by my habit of overthinking, I painted a row of dresses on a clothes rack with the message, “But what will she wear?” And underneath, “If only she could wear her art pages!”
The playful act of painting the dresses helped me relax. Like my notes to God, art enables me to lighten up, a key ingredient for changing a habit.
11. Writing In The Third Person
As I did above, referring to myself as “she,” using the third person helps me detach.
Willpower, self-control, 5-year plans, New Year’s resolutions, and promises don’t work well for me. But getting help from others — even if it’s only in my imagination — engaging in rituals and mind-body activities, and being kind to myself have helped me find the willingness and creativity to overcome many unhelpful habits.