23 December 2011

15 & 21: the magic numbers for a happier, healthier you

The time of year when people (including myself) start thinking about New Year's resolutions is quickly upon us. A brand new year is essentially a clean slate--in theory, you can step forward into 2012 as your very best self, leaving any baggage of the old year behind. How fabulously exciting!

If only it were that easy.

As a somewhat regular gym goer, it always amazes me how crowded it gets in January, with all manner of well-meaning people taking a step to improving their health. Yet, in February, most of those folks are gone, and it's back to the regular crowd. A large percentage of New Year's resolutions do typically die a quick death. What happens?

Based on my own experience with resolutions, goals, and attempts to replace less than desirable habits with good ones, I think it happens for two reasons:
  • we prioritize quantity over quality 
  • we don't focus enough on making space for them
Have you ever said something to yourself like, "starting in the New Year, I'm going to exercise an hour a day". That "hour" may be a half hour, and that "day" might be three times a week, but the point is that the goal you're setting may not be reasonable given your current life style. If you can't seem to get an hour to yourself every day, it's pretty unlikely that starting in 2012, an extra hour will just appear.

On top of setting lofty goals, we often have all or nothing attitudes that make us feel bad about ourselves when we don't instantly and always make the right choices. Have you ever said, "I can't fit in an hour of exercise today, so I guess I'll just start over tomorrow." This doesn't help you any today, and won't help you tomorrow when the same thing happens. Soon guilt and self criticism for failing at your goal creeps in, and it's enough to make you give it up entirely.

I've experienced this myself. Yet, it all changed when I started using the 15-minute rule.

The 15-Minute Rule
I started using the 15-minute rule because I'd heard about it before, and when it came back to me from several different and independent sources, I felt like the Universe was just screaming at me to stop and pay attention.

I'd been working on writing a book (in my copious spare time), dedicating two-hour blocks on weekends to the effort. One beautiful, sunny weekend in July, I actually spent most of both days writing and editing furiously--when it was over, I felt exhausted, resentful, and angry at myself for missing some really beautiful days. Other times, when I didn't really feel like writing I'd get angry with myself, forcing myself to the computer. If life got in the way, I'd become anxious until I could sit down and fit it in. Fortunately, I soon realized that this was no way to make progress on something I was supposed to be enjoying! After leveraging some online resources and talking with a local writers group about their challenges, I kept hearing that I should set a timer for just 15 minutes, and just write something every single day. That I should stop before I finished what I wanted to do. Initially I resisted the concept, but when I felt like giving up the book idea altogether, I decided to give it a try.

What happened? I used this wonderful mindfulness bell and incorporated 15 minutes of writing into my morning routine. My goal was to do this every day for the month of November (even when on vacation in Costa Rica over Thanksgiving week). I gave myself permission to re-evaluate the whole idea, and decide whether to continue after doing that. 15 minutes seemed manageable. And so I wrote. Every single day, for 15 minutes. When the bell went off I stopped, feeling excitedly bummed that I couldn't continue. Which meant that every day, I looked forward to that 15 minutes. When the month was up, I was happy, had made more progress than ever, and decided to continue (taking weekends off this time).

A similar experience happened with my yoga practice. While having dinner with a friend and chatting about teacher training, she asked how long I practice. My answer? Usually about 45 minutes (when I do it at home), or 90 minutes (at the studio). And naturally, I couldn't do that every day. She gently asked me why so long, and coached me to think about doing less more often. A light bulb went on here too. Why do I do that? Why not do less, more often? I changed my routine to try this, and I'm feeling amazing benefits from having a short, focused daily practice.

Making Room for the New
The second problem with goals is that to have any hope of achieveing them, you really need to make room in your life for them. For example, if I added 30 minutes to my morning routine (for writing and yoga) without taking anything away, how likely is it that I'd be successful? I could get up a half hour earlier, but if I'm not a morning person, that is a sure path to failure. Turns out, taking my 45 minute yoga practice down to 15 gave me 15 minutes for writing, and 15 more minutes to spare! Sometimes it doesn't work out like this though, and you have to find other ways to create the necessary space.

There are many approaches you can take to this. One idea is to list the typical activities you do every day, objectively evaluate whether or not these things align with your goal, and re-prioritize your activities so they do. Sometimes this will bring up negative feelings (like selfishness, guilt, or sadness about giving up something else you love to do). But to focus on what you want, sometimes you have to let go of things that just aren't serving you as well as they could be. For example, I love West Coast Swing dancing, and I used to go out dancing four or five nights a week. But over the last six months or so, I've realized that staying out late isn't compatible with getting up early and doing my morning routine. Each time I had to evaluate what I valued more, and because of all the wonderful benefits I was getting from the latter, I made the choice over and over again to let more dancing go. It's sad, yet I see the benefits of my morning routine even when I dance, and I appreciate dancing more when I do.

Letting go of some less tangible things can help too. I found this great article called 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself. A lot of the things the author mentions do take up space in terms of both time and mental / emotional effort, so they can provide you with more ideas about how to make the room you need for your new goal.

So What's the Deal with 21?
Although I often try things in month-long increments, 21-days is what experts say is needed to adopt a new habit. So, if you want to be successful and achieve your goals, try making quality choices for just 15 minutes a day, for just three weeks. Tell yourself that after this time has passed, you will reflect on whether what you tried worked or didn't work for you, and you can make adjustments. You may find you need to try something different, that small tweaks make something good even better, or that you want to continue as is, because you're feeling so much happier and healthier for having met your goals!

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