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Happy New Year! Your challenge for January 2021

Happy New Year!

Though really, this is just an arbitrary calendar change. Years, solstices and equinoxes are real, observable, astronomical events. But this dating system is entirely human and arbitrary. And wouldn’t it make much more sense to date the New Year from the Spring Equinox? But I digress…

I don’t do resolutions. They don’t usually work, and this is entirely the wrong time of year to be making serious changes, especially if you live in the Northern hemisphere. Back when I was a member of a gym, I just did not go for the first couple of weeks in January, because it would be chockablock with enthusiastic unfit people, almost all of whom would quit within the week. Which is a shame, really, but it’s an inevitable outcome of the resolutions model.

So what does work?

Good habits and good people.

A rising tide lifts all boats (though may sink the boatless), and I am blessed by the enthusiastic and engaged students I interact with. If there is one key element to my success as an instructor, it has to be the calibre of the students I get to work with. Most of the time I spend interacting with students these days is through my zoom classes, through my mailing list (there’s a link to join below this post, if you’re not already on there), and most recently through a Discord server that I set up for the students at SwordSchoolOnline.Com (If you’d like to join us, and you’ve enrolled in any of the paid online courses, please drop me an email and I’ll send you the link.)

One of the students on the Discord server suggested we do a monthly “challenge”, where I set a challenge for students to have a go at. Of course I have to lead by example, right?

We started this in November, and my first challenge was to post a video or photo of yourself working outside your comfort zone. I had just started playing with GMB Fitness online courses, and so posted this:

December’s challenge was to add at least one rep to your maximum in any exercise: I did push-ups, and went from a rather pathetic start to a much more satisfactory maximum set. I won’t share the numbers here, because they are not relevant. Depending on your own experience of push-ups you’d be either intimidated or decidedly unimpressed (probably the latter!).

The challenge this month, for the start of 2021, is different.

We all have habits that do not serve our long term goals. They vary hugely from person to person, and can range from negative self-talk to smoking cigarettes, with almost infinite variety in between.

So here’s the challenge. This month, drop one of those habits. Just for the month. You can take it up again later if you want to.

The habit I’m dropping for the month is drinking alcohol. I love drinking. Especially wine. But I tend to drink more than I should, and more often. It’s bad for my reflux, and bad for my sleep. Cutting down would make sense, but it’s really hard to quantify and stay on top of. So for the whole month of January, I won’t touch a drop.

That should help my sleep, at least. And my finances. And my reflux. I’ve been meaning to take a month off the sauce for ages, but haven’t done so for at least two years! So it’s about time.

Drinking alcohol is a simple, clear, easy-to-keep-track-of habit to break. There is no fudging it- I either consume an alcoholic beverage, or I do not. But others are much more elusive, such as negative self-talk. And the essence of a habit is you can unconsciously start doing the thing- it’s become an unconscious response. The loop goes like this: stimulus-habitual response-reward. The habit can be broken at any of those three points, and it’s worth taking some time to be very clear about what those three points are for the habit in question.

  • You can avoid the stimulus.
  • You can change the response to the stimulus.
  • You can change the reward.

Changing the stimulus usually requires changing your environment. The old adage for alcoholics is “if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery”. So, if you normally drink in bars, don’t go to bars. Meet your friends somewhere else instead! Or if you usually smoke when you have a coffee, switch to tea. (Unless of course coffee is an addiction, which you might need to break before you quit smoking).

Changing the response is basically learning a new habit that gets you the same dopamine hit. The stimulus for me to have a drink is usually making dinner. Changing that would be very hard, somebody has to feed the kids! So I’ll need to do something else instead, to get the ‘reward’ which is actually the feeling of “I’m done for the day”. Having a drink is for me a signal that it’s ok to switch off. So I need to find something else.

Negative self talk is much harder to break at the point of stimulus, and at the point of response. But it’s possible to change the reward to something negative. One trick that works for some people is having a rubber band around your wrist, and when you catch yourself in negative self-talk, snap the band, which stings. If done consistently over time, this can lead your brain away from the behaviour that causes the sting (brains are weird- you’d think you’d just stop snapping the band, but it’s much easier to control that active choice than it is to control an unconscious response).

It is much easier to change a habit if you have social support for the change (good people, remember?). I’ve let my wife and kids know I’m off the juice for January, so they will expect me not to drink. Do what you can to recruit some social support. This can be positive, such as joining a group that’s centreed around quitting that habit, or negative, where you set up some consequences for failure. One classic is to write a cheque for a painful amount of money, to an organisation you despise. Then give the cheque to a friend who will send it to that organisation if you fall off the wagon. Personally I don’t like this approach, seeing failure as a one-time lapse and you’re done. I prefer to think of failure as a normal part of the process. If you could quit completely cold turkey with no lapses, you’re either extraordinarily motivated, or the habit wasn’t that strong.

Expect that it may occur (snap that band if you have to), and get right back on the wagon again. No negativity, no judgement. It’s like when meditating, and you’re supposed to be focussed on your breath. When your mind wanders notice that it has done so, and bring it gently back. The practice is not focussing on your breath. The practice is returning your attention after it has wandered. Same with this challenge.

I'll post this challenge in the Discord, and will be happy to discuss it there. Especially for habit-changing, getting the support of a community is incredibly helpful. See you there!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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