The key to strengthening good habits and weakening the ones that don’t serve us comes down to one thing— decisions.
Now that we’re into February, the time that’s notorious for when most people have already thrown in the towel on their New Year’s resolutions and goals, I’ve been paying close attention to where I could potentially get tripped up so I can catch myself before getting off track.
And by paying close attention and weaving in the nuggets of wisdom I’ve been learning in my daily reading, it’s all starting to click.
What I’ve realized is that the critical microseconds when I’m making the small, everyday decisions like— to do something or not, to eat something or not, or to think something or not are what determine whether or not I stay disciplined.
So, in this post, I’ll share some practical tips and ideas that have been helping me stay on track since the New Year. These tips and ideas are a combination of insights I’ve been studying in my daily reading, discovering in online sources, and applying.
My goal for this post is to encourage you to hold on and keep pushing for your goals (after the New Year’s “buzz” has worn off). By applying a little ancient Stoic wisdom and modern-day neuroscience, you’ll see how the points of everyday decisions and choices hold the key to what you want.
Here we go!
1 | Acknowledge you are in control of your choices.
In the daily devotional I’m reading this year, The Daily Stoic, the theme for January has been “Clarity.”
The guiding principle of the ancient Stoic philosophy is that one must clearly identify the difference between what he can control/change and what he cannot, and not give energy to what he cannot control.
Instead, one should give energy to what he can control/change, and the Stoics believe that the main thing we do possess control over is our choices.
Staying on track with our goals has to do with making choices— most importantly, the many little choices or decisions we face throughout the day.
All of these little in-the-moment choices and decisions add up to our big picture.
Things like, “Should I buy these cookies or not?;” “Should I go to the gym or not?;” “Should I work on my side project or go to the movies?;” or even, “Is this thought healthy for me or not?” (Thoughts are an absolute choice as well because we have control over them.)
So rather than feel powerless and/or unconsciously make decisions and choices, when we create a space of awareness just before a decision, we acknowledge our power, override unsuccessful decision making patterns of the past, which better guides ourselves into the future.
2 | Activate your ability to reason.
Items 2-4 in this list are the “3 Areas of Training for every Stoic” and these areas ride on the heels of the overriding Stoic principle of knowing the difference between what you can and cannot control.
So, the first key in actually making a decision is to become aware or activate your ability to reason— wake up and pay close attention, if you will.
When you find yourself facing a decision about whether to or not do something that will impact where you want to go with your goals, activate your mind and create a sense of awareness, guiding yourself through the decision with your innate power of choice.
This heightened state of alertness helps you train your brain to make slower, conscious decisions vs. unconscious, stay-in-my-comfort-zone ones.
3 | Know your desires and aversions and associate them with pleasure and pain.
Desires are the things, actions, or even inactions that keep us on track with what we want. We strengthen our ability to seek them out by training our brain to associate them with pleasure at the point of decision.
Aversions are the things, actions, or inactions that stand between us and what we desire. We strengthen our ability to avoid them by training our brain to associate them with pain at the point of decision.
So depending on what your goal is, assign an aversion to the thing that stands in your way of staying on track. For me, sugar is no longer a source of pleasure; it’s an aversion. (My brain tells me it’s a source of pleasure, and this is what I need to retrain.)
Or, it could be a matter of action vs. inaction that you assign an aversion to. If you are trying to stay active, reframe that activity as pleasurable as opposed to painful. Within time, it absolutely will be a source of pleasure.
To dive into this point a little further, here’s a video of a talk given by fascinating neuroscientist, Moran Cerf, where he talks about a study to help people quit smoking where an aversion (the smell of rotten eggs) was used to retrain the brain to associate smoking with something bad.
4 | Deliberately direct your impulse to take action or inaction.
Finally, once you acknowledge how an aversion will lead you away from what you desire, it’s easier to resist an impulse and take the action (or inaction,) depending on what your goal is.
Resist the urge to stay safe and/or comfortable and guide your actions to reinforce your habit. Within time, your decisions will become second nature and require less thinking.
5 | When faced with the decision to quit or to keep going …
An additional interesting insight I learned from Moran Cerf’s talk is that our brain is in a certain state just before we are about to quit, for example, strenuous exercise.
One way to keep pushing is to say, “Yes, I want to give up, but I’m going to hang in here for a little longer,” and each time try to extend the time a little more before quitting.
I plan on trying this while running once the weather gets warmer. Rather than stop at the point I usually stop, I’ll keep going, even for just a little bit longer and add to that as much as I can.
According to Cerf, this practice trains one to make decisions that go against what the brain is telling us to do, which is to stay comfortable, recoil, and retreat.
Taking Things A Step Further
If you’re facing a goal that involves impulses that are particularly hard to resist, Moran Cerf suggests keeping a diary for a week where you log your decisions related to that goal or habit.
He encourages us to get to know our own brain and suggests taking note of the following items below as you make critical choices/decisions.
At the end of the week, see if you notice any patterns that made you stronger or weaker in your ability to make better decisions:
Time of day
Social State (alone or in a group)
Urgency (close to a deadline)
Emotional State (angry, calm, anxious, afraid, etc.)
Sleep State (tired or rested)
Because we are wired to seek out what’s safe, comfortable, familiar, and pleasurable, our desires may be aversions and our aversions may actually be desires.
However, by stopping ourselves at the point of decision and reframing these things in our minds, we begin to retrain our brains to make strong decisions so we can grow.
Suffering is part of the equation for growth so, in order to grow, we have to initially endure some suffering. But over time the decisions require less thought, the suffering falls away, and we begin to see the results we desire.
To recap …
Know your goal.
Acknowledge you have control over your choices.
At the point of decision, activate your ability to reason.
Know your desires and aversions and associate them with pleasure and pain.
Deliberately direct your impulse to take action or inaction.
Keep a journal, if necessary.