On creating a habit and completing a challenge

My friend Merna once dragged me to a gathering hosted by a native Canadian Shaman. At the time, I didn’t really understand or know much about Shamans and was a bit skeptical as the session began with the Shaman asking “how do you practice self love?” It was obvious that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way as a few of the 30 or so people there started giggling. The Shaman gave us a stick with a feather on it and said that each person holding that stick has to say one thing that they do to “practice self love.” As the stick went around the room, people said things that ranged from eating their favourite foods to enjoying their favourite activities or hanging out with people they loved. When the stick made its way back to the Shaman, she took a long pause then said, “While what you’ve all said is great, I’m surprised and a little disappointed that none of you have mentioned gratitude as a way to practice self love.” She went on to explain the importance of being grateful and how taking care of oneself and others must stem from gratitude, because if you’re not grateful for what you are and what you have, you’ll take it for granted and lose it. I thought that was a great lesson.

I’m retelling this story now because it was a lesson I forgot for most of 2014, and as such many aspects of my life suffered. I alluded to that in my post about new year challenges, where I also talked about starting 2015 with a yoga challenge. In an effort to get back my gratitude for a largely amazing and blessed life, I wanted to start the year off by creating and sustaining healthier and happier habits. This is what I’ve learned from a month of doing so thus far.

They (used to) say that it takes 21 days to get rid of a bad habit, or, alternatively, to start a new good one. I started this year with a challenge, to practice hot yoga every single day for 3 weeks. The aim was not to lose weight (though that was an added bonus), but to get my strength back, refocus, reenergise, and get back to a healthy routine. What I had noticed when I stopped going to yoga regularly for about 5 months was that my will power had gone almost completely extinct, I was ignoring my (usually healthy) eating habits, I wasn’t sleeping as well, and I was in a generally worse mood than normal regardless of what was happening in my day. I’m not trying to sell you on yoga here, though I would wholeheartedly recommend it. I’m just speaking about my own experience with forming this habit. Or, to refer back to gratitude, I had become ungrateful of my body and my life, and so I didn’t respect them, and I wanted to kick that habit away.

The reason I knew I could complete this challenge was that I knew I loved yoga. I have been practicing for a year and a half, I enjoyed it, and I knew it had great results for me in the past. If I had just set a random challenge of exercising every day then that would have been a sure way to fail oh-so-miserably. That’s why most new year resolutions fail, according to multiple sources and studies. We set ourselves up for failure when we promise to do something that’s so outside of our normal habits and routines. If you’re having to expend the very little motivation you have in order to push yourself to do something you really don’t want to do, what do you expect the result to be? It’s better to start out small and build on that. If you like dancing, then add a dancing class to your routine. If you like swimming, do that. A gym routine is fine too, if you’re into that sort of thing. Whatever floats your boat, do that…you know, in a healthy way, not in an I-enjoy-eating-junk-food-so-I’ll-do-that sort of way.

Another thing I noticed I had to do was to practice the act of letting go of judgement. While you consciously have to want to be better, you’ll set yourself back every time you judge yourself for not achieving something exactly as you had wanted or according to the schedule you set in your head. I found that positive reenforcement was much more helpful for me: I rewarded myself with little treats and I sought out more positive activities/experiences that rewarded me with feelings of productivity and positivity, and that helped me let go of harmful thinking and self-scrutiny. It’s like being addicted to a drug: you’ll want more of the high, and it’ll seep into other activities in your life, but in a good way (for instance, you’ll want to be kinder – watch this entertaining TED talk about that.)

Just a few more observations:

  • Expect other things to suffer – I won’t lie, creating a routine is difficult and will feel like it’s taking over your life (which it is in a way). For the first two weeks I felt like I wasn’t doing anything other than go to work, then go to yoga, then go home, shower/eat then Spanish and guitar lessons. Rinse, repeat. Even though it was immensely rewarding, it was exhausting, and after two weeks, I wasn’t doing both Spanish and guitar lessons every day because I just didn’t have the time or the energy. I was trying to do too much. That’s why being realistic and learning to prioritise is so important. Make sure it’s a schedule that you can sustain over a longer period of time so that you’re creating a lifestyle habit and not just one you’ll kick after finishing your challenge.
  • Have an objective, a purpose, and stick to it – You have to have a very clear objective that you’re working towards. Something to remind yourself of whenever you feel like you’re slipping (and that WILL happen). It’s not an easy process to create a habit, and yet it’s so easy to slip away from it. A healthy reminder of your goals is good motivation to keep you going. 
  • Know that it will require supreme dedication and determination, more than you’re used to – To rework your daily routine and add more things to your schedule will obviously throw you off for a little while in the beginning. For instance, eating healthy meant that I needed to prepare all my meals in advance so that I wouldn’t be tempted by ready-made food and unhealthy snacks. It meant preparing my breakfast and lunch the night before right after I got back from an exhausting day/workout (as an aside, here’s what I have for breakfast, you should try it!). But putting in that extra bit of effort keeps you on track.
  • Know when to take a break and not feel guilty about it – I had to take a couple of days off (separately) during this month because I had strained my arms and shoulders too much by jumping into this challenge after months of not practicing. It was a smart decision. Had I continued to strain my muscles, I would have likely injured myself and then derailed my practice for much longer. I didn’t feel guilty at all for taking that time off because I felt motivated and even excited to get back to the practice when I wasn’t in pain.

Result? Well, I’m happy to say that I feel much stronger, happier, and definitely more grateful. Physically, my muscles are more defined, abs are toning and coming in nicely, and I’m able to do more advanced asanas/poses than I was able to before. As for everything else, I’m happier and in a better mood, I’m back to being grateful for my life and searching for the positives in it, even in difficult situations, I’m smarter with my daily choices, and I’m generally more motivated in all activities. It’s still not easy, but it’s definitely easier and oh-so-worth-it! As well, I’ve now decided to continue the challenge, but by going every other day rather than every day, just so I am able to create other habits as well, like continuing to learn Spanish and how to play the guitar.

I’ll now leave you with some interesting reading on habits, healthy eating, and great healthy snack recipes that I read this month:

  1. Where Does Fat Go When You Lose Weight? – I did not know this handy piece of information, and if you don’t either then give this a read.
  2. What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits – interesting read on addiction and how our brains work.
  3. The Happy Secret to Better Work – the TED talk I mentioned earlier. You’ll feel happier just watching it!
  4. Tips for never skipping another workout
  5. How it takes 66, not 21, days to stop a bad habit (or create a good one)
  6. Tips for shaping up
  7. In case you didn’t know, it’s best to eat something within 20 minutes of finishing your workout. Here are some great recipes for homemade protein bars for you to have until you make your meal.


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