The practice of practice

Succeed with a new habit by making failure part of the process


We’ve all been there: You want to make a change in your habits, you reach a decision, muster up the energy to boost your confidence that this time you will make it work, you start full of confidence and energy, certain that you will never fall back. And why would you? Clearly this new behaviour is very healthy for you and you even enjoy it.

Okay, fast forward a couple of days, weeks, or months and somehow you are not keeping up with your intentions anymore. We all have experienced failed new years resolutions, not being able to keep up with intentions to work out more, or mysteriously having started to eat too much cake again and now the pounds show.

Right now, you might be wanting to start a daily centering practice. What follows are valuable tips about how to succeed at that and reap the benefits from this simple and powerful habit.

The mysterious life of habits

Why do some habits go easily and automatically no matter how little time we have or how tired we are? Why do some people seem to have no problem with the habits we are struggling with? Why do we fall off our habit and only notice it (much) later?

Because that’s how life works. Everything goes in waves. Everything is interrelated. Our brain for instance can be compared with an ecosystem of habits, intentions and experiences. It is questionable how much influence we consciously really have on our own choices and behaviour. Scientists calculated that we have about 0.2 seconds of free choice but only if we’re in a centered state.

So, maybe now that we know this about ourselves, we can be a bit more proud of the positive change in our behaviour we have been able to instill in ourselves. And we can perhaps be a little more compassionate towards ourselves if, somehow, against our wishes, we ate that cake, skipped the gym or forgot to center ourselves.

So, if maintaining a good habit is so elusive, what’s the use in trying?!

Well, building positive habits is a wonderful practice to grow in wisdom and compassion. That is if you do it well. Otherwise it is more like a great recipe for low self-esteem, an out of control inner critic and a less than tranquil state of being.

The practice of practice

Here are three success factors for building and maintaining a habit successfully. One of these you might naturally be strong at and one of these might be more of a challenge for you. So work both on utilizing the ones that are easier for you, and on coming up with ways to enhance the weaker one.

1. Intention – Clarify why you want it
If you are not really sure why you are doing a certain practice, chances are that you will forget doing it.
As an example, let’s take the practice of building a daily centering habit. Why would that be a good idea? Maybe a teacher you respect told you it was a good idea. That’s a start, but we need to find internal motivation as well. What motivates you to do this? Enjoying your life more? Being less stressed? Becoming more compassionate? Being more effective at work with less effort? Get clarity on your most important motivation and formulate it in a sentence. “I practice daily centering because I am committed to …”

2. Commitment – Realization by aligning mind and body
Having a commitment and saying it (preferably out loud) to yourself helps to align your whole system, your body-mind, towards this. Decide what frequency and length you are building intending to reach eventually and pick your immediate doable next step goal. It is import this next step goal is a small step.

Back to the daily centering example: You are advised to build up to once a day for instance in the morning 5-10 minutes, during the day 6-10 times more briefly (one minute) , and whenever you think about it or need it, do a one breath version (called turbo-centering). Some people might be able to implement that successfully in their lifes in one go, but if you’re like most people that will be too much change at once. It is advisable to start with something that seems almost too easy and do it daily. Once the daily habit is established you can do it more often or longer.

3. Compassion – Accept that changing habits is difficult
How do you teach a child to ride a bicycle? By scolding them when they ride into the bushes and fall? By telling them “see you will never learn this and why would you even try, you’re going to fail anyway”. No, I didn’t think so. Yet the way we “coach” ourself is often a bit like this. How do you teach a child something new? You make it interesting and appealing (intention / motivation). You explain the whole process and show it and then you break it up in smaller chunks that can be practiced separately (commitment). And most importantly by comforting them when something went wrong, reminding them they cannot do it YET, and helping them to get back on the bike.

So the same goes for our efforts to learn a new habit like daily centering. We try our best. We might forget to do it. As soon as we notice that we forgot it, we might feel the urge to criticize ourselves for our terrible lack of discipline. Instead we realize that is part of the process and we are better off doing it now, or making a plan about when or how to get back on track. Be kind to yourself for your efforts, be forgiving when you don’t live up to your own high standards.

Three common mistakes and what to do about them

1. Having unrealistic expectations. Solution: Expect failure. That is to say, expect that you won’t always manage to do what you intended. This is actually NOT failure, this is normal. The actual practice lies in getting yourself back on track.
2. Wanting too much too soon. Solution: chunk it down. If you are somehow not doing it, but you do want to be doing it. Make your commitment smaller for now. Then build on it later when it is going well. For instance it is better to meditate for one minute than to NOT mediate for 5 minutes. (I am not kidding, one minute is a great way to start). It is better to center yourself once a day, than failing to center 5 times a day.
3. Being too hard on yourself. Solution: give yourself compliments and praise for what you ARE doing. Don’t criticize yourself for what you didn’t manage to do. It hurts and is not an effective didactic strategy anyway.

Success with the practice of practice

So, it saves a lot of disappointment if you adopt the practice of practice. Doing this will lead to success with a new habit by making failure part of the process. So, what is your next small step towards a big goal that you care about?