How to Build Healthy Habits

Dan Harris
January 22, 2020

If you’re like me, you might have made a New Year’s resolution to exercise more, meditate more, sleep better, or eat healthier.  But also if you’re like me, you’ve failed at this before, ending up on an endless treadmill of trying and failing, trying and failing.

That’s why Ten Percent Happier has just launched a new course on Healthy Habits featuring bestselling author and Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal. 

Here’s a little taste of what Kelly teaches in the course.     

- Dan

Dan: I find when I try to fix things, I often resort to drill sergeant mode, operating on the assumption that the only route to change is white-knuckled willpower.  Why doesn’t this work?

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 with that 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 where it feels awful and we're desperate to escape it.

Dan: What’s the alternative?

Kelly: So often, we pick a habit based on what seems like a good idea, but part of a 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: 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: Let’s take an example: mindful eating, or in my case, mindless eating.

Kelly: So, one question to ask is: How is this behavior creating suffering in your life right now?  What does that relationship to food look like? That's how we would find out what the deepest motivation is.

Dan: Two things come to mind. One is, I don't like the way I look in the mirror. Two is, my pants don't fit the way they used to.

Kelly: You’ve described this as mindless eating.  I'm wondering if there's something about the moments that drive you to eat in a mindless way that are connected to this experience of feeling not comfortable with yourself or wanting to sort of be a certain version of yourself. Is that what matters most to you?

Dan: It's definitely not what matters most to me. And yet I could see it interfering with me concentrating the greatest amount of my bandwidth to what I truly care about. Because if I've got this ambient sense of self criticism because I caught a sideways glance at myself in the mirror, how's that going to affect the interaction with my son five minutes later?

Kelly: So [the motivation is] how that voice in your head might interfere with your ability to be present with your son or what he might learn from you about how he interacts with himself.

Dan: I can see how that’s different from telling myself that I’m a slob, or that my face looks like the Eurasian Griffon Vulture I saw in my son’s book of animals the other day…  But how do we keep ourselves accountable, without reverting to drill sergeant mode?

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 about 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 and to go to the place where you are going to do what is necessary to improve your circumstances and improve your wellbeing.

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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