By Leo Babauta
If you want to create a new habit, you need to tell a good story.
Suppose you want to create a new exercise habit (for example), you might tell yourself something like this: “This is going to be amazing; I’m going to get fit and look incredible and be super healthy!”
This is a story you’re telling yourself. It’s not real, but it has tremendous power to affect your feelings about your habit, and to change your action. You have a positive story about the habit, and it motivates you to take action. But perhaps the exercise you did one day was really tough, and you didn’t enjoy it. Your story might change, to something like, “Wow, that was super hard. It sucked!”
Now your story about the habit is not so good, and you’ll be less enthusiastic about doing the habit from now on.
Maybe you also missed a couple of days of exercise because you got busy. Your story changes to, “Damn, I screwed up, I’m not as good at this habit as I thought. Why am I not disciplined?” The story isn’t so good. Now you might actually try not think about the habit, and you are much more likely to skip the habit from now on.
The story you tell yourself about your habit matters more than most people realize.
So the key is to shape the story—become your own habit storyteller—and create a story that will make you more likely to stick to the habit.
Telling a Good Story
The truth is that none of these stories are actually true. They’re just narratives we have made up, in our minds, about what’s going on. The reality is what’s happening right now, and in an “ideal” world we would just drop the stories and be present with the moment, experiencing reality as it is.
There’s no such thing as an ideal world, though. We tell stories—that’s what we do. So the key is to realize when you’re telling a negative story that’s going to make you quit the habit, and instead create a more helpful story.
Ask yourself how you feel about the habit you’re creating. Are you psyched about it? Are you discouraged? Looking forward to it or dreading it? Feel strong about it or feel like you’re doing lousy? Is it a wonderful experience for you or are you ploughing through the suckiness? This is all an indicator of what story you’re telling yourself.
Start creating a better story by focusing on the things you love about the habit. You could focus on how much you hate the habit, or you could focus on what you love. It’s your choice. Find things to appreciate about the habit. Look at your successes and think, “Man, that’s awesome that I’ve done those things.”
This is not to say that you should only think positive thoughts, or that you should ignore the negative. But if your story is on the balance—more positive than negative—you’ll be more resilient. You’ll be able to handle the negative stuff with grace because you have a positive feeling about the habit. If you resent doing the habit, or see it as a sacrifice, you’re more likely to blow the negative aspects up when they happen. But people with a strongly positive story will be likely to weather the storm of negative aspects of the habit.
The Positive Story Exercise
Try to think about some of the following thoughts when you’re working on your habit:
- This makes me feel strong/healthy/empowered (or some other positive trait).
- I am proud of doing this habit.
- I have had some great successes with this.
- I’m learning a lot with this habit.
- I’ve had good experiences with this habit.
- There are some exciting things about this that I’d like to share with people.
- I can appreciate the little things about this habit.
- There are things I genuinely love about this habit.
- This can sometimes be a struggle but it’s definitely worth it.
- This habit is improving my life an multiple ways.
- I’m lucky to be able to do this habit.
- There are things about this habit that I look forward to.
- I’ve missed doing this habit sometimes, but over the long run it doesn’t matter.
- Doing this habit makes me more resilient.
- When I’ve done this habit, I feel accomplished and satisfied.
- I feel like a better person when I do this habit.
- Just think about one of these each time you do the habit, or just after. And then try another one on the next time you do the habit.
Slowly, with thoughts like these and others you might think of, you’ll start to have a more positive story about the habit.
And that will make all the difference. Not only will you want to stay with it longer, you’ll enjoy it more each time you do it.
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Leo Babauta is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer from Guam (now living in San Francisco). He eats vegan food, writes, runs, and reads. He is the founder of Zen Habits which is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.
This article was originally published on Zen Habits and re-published with author’s permission.
Editor: Dana Gornall