zen habits : breathe

How to Establish New Habits the No-Sweat Way

“The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” - Samuel Johnson

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen.

Have you ever had problems establishing a new habit? Maybe I should ask, have you ever not had problems establishing a new habit? Whether it’s getting up early, going for a daily run, losing weight, writing a journal – let’s face it: most attempts to establish a new habit end in a dismal flop.

In her book “This year I will…”, Andy Ryan, an expert in collaborative thinking, spells out why change is difficult:

Whenever we initiate change, even a positive one, we activate fear in our emotional brain….If the fear is big enough, the fight-or-flight response will go off and we’ll run from what we’re trying to do.

That’s exactly how it is for me. One part of me is gung-ho about making changes, and the other part just turns tail and rushes off in the opposite direction!

Let’s take a look at how we can affect change without giving ourselves a fright. Or do we just have to accept that we are creatures of habit and nothing much will ever change?

In a New York Times article based upon the research by Andy Ryan it says:

Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.

How do we create pathways of change so gently that we don’t take fright?

There is a very interesting Japanese philosophy called Kaizen which can help us do just that. Kaizen focuses on continuous but small change.

In order to find out how Kaizen can help us to establish new habits, let’s take a look at change in terms of momentum. Just imagine for a moment that you are the captain of an ocean liner. If you decided to change course 90 degrees, there would be two different ways to accomplish this. One way would be to stall the ship’s forward momentum and then take up a new course.

Big changes mean that momentum is lost.

The other way to change course would be to use the forward momentum and to incrementally change course until the full 90 degrees are accomplished.

If we change direction little by little, we can use momentum to affect change.

Andy Ryan says:

The small steps in Kaizen don’t set off fight or flight, but rather keep us in the thinking brain, where we have access to our creativity and playfulness.

With a strategy of continuous low-level change, we are able to sidestep the number one barrier to change: fear.

Let’s see how this would work in our daily life. Let’s imagine that you want to get up an hour earlier each morning in order to be more productive.

Strategy No. 1: You grit your teeth, set your clock an hour earlier, and struggle out of bed. This might work for a few days, or for longer if you’re disciplined. But chances are that you’ll be back in your old groove as soon as you begin to feel tired and stressed.

Strategy No. 2: You use the Kaizen method and get up one minute earlier each day. Two months later you would be getting out of bed one hour earlier – without even noticing the change!

You can see by this example what a powerful strategy for change Kaizen is.

The Kaizen method of continuous incremental improvements isn’t just a personal philosophy. It was embraced by industry giants such as Toyota and has enabled them to become world leaders in automotive innovation.

The word that leaps out at me when I read about the principles of Kaizen is ‘continuous’. I don’t know how it is for you, but in my life personal growth happens in bursts – with longish pauses in between.

This is rather like doing a massive run or a superhard yoga class one day—and then letting all exercise slip for the next days because your body feels sore. A few days later you feel the need for a hefty dose of exercise again – and that brings you back to the massive run or the superhard yoga class. And so it goes on and on…

What if we we kept our exercise routine going each day and very gradually increased the length or difficulty of training? What if we used this gentle but powerful way to effect all change in our life?

What’s your sense of how the Kaizen method would work for habits that you want to establish?

Mary Jaksch is a Zen master, psychotherapist, and author. She’s a Karate Black Belt, and loves dancing Argentine tango in skimpy dresses. Visit Mary’s blog, Goodlife Zen.



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