Have you ever made a commitment to change something in your life, had tremendous inspiration, motivation and momentum at first, but over time found yourself falling back to your old ways?
When I was 19, I started experiencing health problems that are more typical for someone much older. I suffered from joint pain, ulcers, and (perhaps more typical to my age) severe acne. At the time, I worked at a pizza restaurant which not only provided most of my income, but also provided the main pillar of my diet.
Because of the problems I was having, I made a commitment to my health by changing the way I eat significantly. I nearly eliminated meat from my diet and added more fresh foods. I focused on spiritual growth and meditation. I started exercising regularly: weight lifting and running. I felt great!
I maintained this lifestyle for about a decade, but it gradually eroded. Little by little, my diet got worse and worse, my exercise became less and less frequent until a few years ago when my health kind of hit bottom for me. All my old health issues and a host of new ones were creeping back into my life. I was sick nearly half of the time. I had crippling migraines that landed me in the hospital. I felt awful.
I see people, including myself, fall into this pattern of regression so often that it almost seems to be an inherently human condition. I have friends who have maintained a healthy lifestyle for years only to find themselves slipping back to their old ways and wondering why their health has declined.
Why do we do this?
The main reason we do this is that we fail to recognize the benefits of our work. Sometimes we don’t see results fast enough or we’re not thoroughly convinced that the results we are getting are worth the effort and sacrifice. Other times, we get used to living with better health, lower stress levels, meaningful friendships or whatever benefits we have been experiencing, and forget how we had to work for them and how important they are to us. In short, we take things for granted.
When I started slipping back to my old ways, I was accustomed to the health benefits I was experiencing. I took them for granted, and therefore, didn’t place much value on them. I was more focused on the sacrifices I was making and my desire for gooey brownies and delicious beef sticks rather than focusing on the benefits of my healthy lifestyle and the things that really were important to me: the things that motivated me to make the changes in the first place.
From this experience, I learned that, if I want to sustain positive changes indefinitely, I need to consciously evaluate and reevaluate what I want, and continually commit to that. I reflect on this idea in the sixth step to long lasting change in my article, How to Change Who You Are:
Re-evaluate your commitments regularly to assure that your behaviors stay in line with your personal morals, values and priorities. Recommit to and/or adjust choices you’ve made. Practice self-discipline at times when you forget why you are doing what you are doing.
Reevaluating Your Commitments
One of the first steps I took that lead to my return to poor health was eating more meat. It wasn’t the meat itself that lead to my poor health; it was the fact that I was no longer convinced that a vegetarian-based diet was the right path for my health. But, I never made a conscious decision about it. I just allowed my old commitments to crumble without making new ones.
Circumstances and values change over time. As this happens, you may find that the goals you set in the past are no longer important to you or are not as relevant. Or you might find that some are more important than they were.
This is why it is important to take time periodically to re-evaluate commitments; tweak those that are still important, and eliminate those that are not. They are distractions from what really is important. Remember that your resources and time are limited, and anything you commit to will have to be “paid for” through a reduced commitment to something else.
Recommitting To Your Decisions
Once you reevaluate your commitments, it should become clearer what your priorities are and where you should be spending your time and energy.
For the past couple years, I have been practicing a raw food lifestyle. For the last 10 months, I have eaten no cooked or processed foods. I often get asked how I can sustain the willpower and whether or not I miss certain foods. The truth is, I have fleeting moments where I think about a food that I choose not to eat today, and if I dwell on those thoughts, I could probably work myself into a state of longing and sacrifice. But, I so tremendously enjoy the foods that I am eating and the way I feel that I couldn’t even imagine trading in those benefits to indulge in a food that might taste good in my mouth, but feels bad in my body.
I’m always surprised at how unwilling some people are to even believe that I enjoy this lifestyle. But the fact is, it’s not difficult for me because I’ve made a commitment based on my desires, and I’m thrilled with the results. This is what I want.
Think about your commitments and remember why you chose to commit to them in the first place. Allow yourself to experience the good feelings you felt when you first conceived of the ideas behind the commitment. You may have had feelings of excitement, joy, hope, etc. Allow yourself to experience gratitude for the gains that you have already made. Gratitude will help keep you from taking things for granted.
If your commitment feels like a sacrifice, re-frame it in your mind so that it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice to you. Focus on the benefits rather than the sacrifices. It may seem like this is fooling yourself, but the truth is, your desires are what lead you to make these changes in the first place. By staying in touch with those desires rather than those that would alienate your goals, you are staying true to yourself. Remember: this is what you want.
The idea of self-discipline might be frightening but only when it’s not fully understood. Self-discipline is not about forcing yourself to do what you don’t want to do. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. Forced discipline might keep you going for a little while, but it eventually leads to resentment of yourself and your own goals and visions.
Effective self-discipline comes from having faith in yourself and your goals. Faith in yourself and your goals is possible when you set goals that you believe in through and through (this is why the above the evaluation and commitment discussed above are so important).
When you are feeling weak and not fully in sync with your goals, self-discipline is about keeping it up just one more day, knowing that your goals are solid, your strength will come back again eventually and you will remember what motivated you in the first place.
21 years ago, when I first joined a 12 step fellowship to help me stay away from alcohol and other drugs, the mantras often repeated to me were “one day at a time,” “just for today,” and even “just this moment.” This is effective self-discipline at it’s best, because it helped me trust in the process just for a little while longer, until the moment of weakness would pass. If this mantra can help keep the seemingly hopeless junkie get off of drugs, it can certainly help you stay on track with your goals.
In your moments of weakness, have faith in the goals that you set just for one more day or a few more minutes. You can always go back to your old ways tomorrow. But, if you can stay on track right now, you’ll be that much closer to realizing your goals.