The Mindful Way to Healthier Habits

Dan Harris
June 9, 2023
The Mindful Way to Healthier Habits

Here’s a little secret: almost everyone thinks they suck at meditation. 

It’s not that people don’t understand the instructions, which, after all, are extraordinarily simple.  It’s that meditation is hard to stick with, day in and day out – even breath in and breath out.  And then, when your mind wanders for a few minutes, or you miss a day or two, you feel bad. 

This is true not just for meditation, but for any healthy habit.  You want to exercise more, sleep better, or eat healthier, and you do, for a little while. But it’s hard to keep up a new habit, so you flake a little. And then, if you’re like me, you might resort to drill sergeant mode, operating on the assumption that the only route to success is white-knuckled willpower.

But that kind of willpower doesn’t work. Because it relies on a relatively new part of the brain, it usually evaporates in the face of older, deeper urges like hunger, anger, loneliness, or fatigue. And when it inevitably fails, in comes the shame-monger who's ready to help us wash down our failures with a nice hot cup of no one will ever love you.

Changing habits can be genuinely brutal.

That’s why, a few years ago, Ten Percent Happier developed a course on Building Healthy Habits with the renowned Stanford University psychologist and bestselling author, Kelly McGonigal.  People loved it, and so we’re putting the course into our tried-and-true Challenge format with bonus content and mindfulness-based, science-backed tools to help you make real change in a sustainable way.

Here's a little excerpt of my conversation with Kelly about a highly counterintuitive, yet scientifically proven way to build healthy habits: developing self-compassion:

Dan: So, why doesn’t it work to just try harder

Kelly: When we're trying to motivate ourselves to change, we might pile on self-criticism, because in the moment that we’re doing that, we’re the most desperate to change. The problem is that it doesn't translate into having the energy, the courage, and the willingness to take positive actions. It's like quicksand: we get stuck in, it feels awful, and we're desperate to escape it.

Dan: What’s the alternative?

Kelly: The first part of mindful habit formation is figuring out: Is this something that actually brings me joy? Does it actually improve my wellbeing? You’re not just learning how to do the thing you said you were going to do, but you’re learning this bigger habit of paying attention, and being willing to listen to your direct experience, and to make choices that are consistent with what you say you really care about.

Dan: Okay, so how does that work?

Kelly:  My approach to habit change is to really get to know the part of yourself who wants the best for yourself. So, if there’s a habit that you think will improve your health, or give you more energy, or make you happier, or make you a better parent or manager—whatever that motivation is—my process is about really getting to know that part of you who wants that. The process of habit change is actually a deeper process of self-discovery and self-compassion.

Dan: This sounds like letting ourselves off too easy.

Kelly: Having compassion for yourself doesn't mean letting yourself off the hook. What it means is you're not interested in punishing yourself or demeaning yourself. You're really looking for ways to constructively support yourself. That means being honest with yourself. And it means making amends if you've made mistakes, and looking for the very next chance you have to get back on track and make a positive choice.

Dan: I’m worried that some people might find self-compassion corny, or cheesy, or just not for them.

Kelly: Some people may associate self-compassion with weakness, but I define it as being the boldest version of yourself, the bravest version of yourself, who's really willing to see what your goals are, and is willing to acknowledge your own pain. This version of yourself will do what is necessary to improve your circumstances and improve your wellbeing.

— Dan

Dan Harris is the author of 10% Happier and host of a podcast by the same name. He wrote the #1 New York Times best-seller about how a panic attack, live on Good Morning America, led him to something he always assumed was ridiculous - meditation.

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