Each of us has a part of ourselves that's responsible for building new habits, sticking with the old ones, and figuring out how to fit everything into a day.
I call this inner manager the Chief Operating Officer. She's quite good at her job. She has to be. She's the one who developed the systems for you to build all your habits – the good ones and the bad.
Think about all of the things you do now that take very little conscious thought, like pretty much everything in your morning routine: going to the bathroom (when you're potty training kids, you realize how much of a feat this is), getting all the shampoo out of your hair in the shower, putting on eyeliner... The list of “mindless” habits is long and continues throughout your day.
But your daily habits are far from mindless – your COO has created programs for your habit, each in its own slot in your brain, ready to repeat again and again.
At the beginning of the year, you might have made a long list of new habits you wanted to build. Maybe your list included adding more exercise, changing your diet so you and your family are eating better, going on more date nights so you can see your spouse as more than just a co-parent, getting a new job (or figuring out how to actually like the one you’re in). Maybe you added some self-care desires to your list, like getting a massage once a month, spending more time with your girlfriends, or taking a fun art class once a quarter.
How’s it going with all that?
About right now, I’m thinking your COO is more than a little overwhelmed. She’s no slacker but there's only so much she can do. And she has only a little bit of help – Willpower and Dopamine.
Willpower is determined to help but she’s a bit of a delicate flower. She gets very tired very quickly and then slinks off the job to the break room. And when you go looking for her, she's half awake scrolling through Facebook with one hand with the other deep in a bag of Cheetos (even though she's the one in charge of managing the new diet).
Dopamine is quite perky. Hair in a high ponytail, toothy smile, lots of clapping and bouncing. I know you know the type. When you're building a new habit, like going to the gym, Dopamine is by your side: You put on your workout clothes! Yay, you! Look at you in the new Crossfit class! This is so exciting!
It feels good to have Dopamine with you, like you’re drinking free shots of happy juice at the smoothie bar.
But Dopamine is easily bored. She’s not so upbeat on Day Two at the gym. Weren't we here earlier in the week? she whines as you tie your shoes. She half-heartedly claps as you complete your set of burpees, but she's clearly not as impressed as she was on Day One.
Dopamine is only interested what’s new, so she soon wanders off and you’re left to trudge through your workout alone.
Meanwhile, the COO is trying to manage all the new habits you’re trying to build. Her biggest challenge by far is handling the barrage of incoming messages like …
• You've worked hard today. You deserve to have an easy night. Let’s order Chinese food and have it delivered.
• Your daughter hates the daycare at the gym. Are you really going to be that mom that puts herself before her child?
• One cookie won't make a difference in your diet.
Your COO can usually handle these messages when they come one at a time, masterfully batting them away like they're irritating salespeople with inferior products to sell. But now she's can’t handle the deluge while developing the systems for all your new habits.
There’s a final straw – an argument with your spouse, a really bad day at work, or a call from the principal’s office at your daughter’s school – and your COO is done for the day, maybe for the month. Definitely, she’s done for now. She's got a bad case of the "screw-its," and the diet, new exercise routine, even the motivation for planning the next date night is gone.
So what do I do? I hear you cry. When there’s so much that I need to do to improve my life, be happier, be a better mom/wife/daughter/sister/employee/manager… Your list really does go on and on.
You might believe that going all-in is the way to get you where you want to be, but it’s often the sure fire way to set yourself up for failure.
Here's what to do instead: Pick one small thing. That’s it. One small thing from your long list of self-improvement, life-improvement, parent-improvement, work-improvement goals. Start there.
What’s your one small thing? Losing 20 pounds is too big. Eating healthfully is too vague. Choose a goal that’s you think is too small to make a dent and start there, like eating a healthy lunch three days a week.
When you start small, here’s what happens.
• You learn to trust yourself.
When you work on change bit by bit, you build self-confidence because you’re less likely to get the “screw-its.”
• You’re more likely to stay on track.
If/when you fall off the change train, it’s much easier to climb back on board because you’re only carrying one habit along with you, instead of a pile of self-improvement luggage.
• You learn a lot about yourself – which helps you get better at building new habits.
When you focus on building only one habit at a time, you can see where you’re getting in your own way, like when you listen to your thoughts that try to convince you to eat ice cream at 9:15 at night or pay attention to your inner critic’s voice that tells you that you’re not strong enough or smart enough to follow through with your plans.
• You’re better able to achieve your goal.
When you build a new habit step-by-step, you’re also making sure that you’re giving your inner COO the time to build strong systems that can support the new habits so they become an unconscious part of your routine. When you start small, you make sure Willpower has enough energy and Dopamine stays on board with each small step along the way.
As you climb aboard the Change Train, pack light – one small carry-on habit at a time.
Do you need some help figuring out what change you’d like to make and how to break it down into lightweight but powerful steps? Schedule a coaching session with me and we’ll create a do-able plan for your inner COO – and her assistants Willpower and Dopamine – to build. To schedule your planning session, go to The Well-Crafted Mom’s online calendar here. Use coupon code NEW50 for half-off your first coaching session with me!