If there is one thing I’ve learned about being a happy and successful person, it’s that the most important skill we can develop is control of our impulses. So much of what we struggle with in life, from overeating, exercising regularly, being happily married, being present with our children, or sticking with a new project requires nothing more than an awareness of how we respond unconsciously to our wants and desires and a commitment to mindfulness. In the service of mindfulness, which is simply bringing awareness to our impulsive and mostly unconscious desires and thoughts, I have used the following three tools to great effect.
I use goals mostly to help me build momentum on an on-going project that doesn’t necessarily require developing new habits or skills. An example would be starting a new business. I am currently in the beginning process of this goal and the best way for me to move forward, considering one of my biggest stumbling blocks is taking action over the long haul, is to set measurable short term and long term goals. These don’t require me to learn new skills like using WordPress or marketing. I already have enough of that knowledge to move forward. What I need to the momentum and accountability that goals provide. Other goals I have set:
- Complete an ultra-marathon
- Get house ready to sell by X date
A close cousin of goals is Challenges, which I tend to use much more than goals but which can eventually evolve into goals. I use Challenges to start or stop habits for specific periods of time. I’ve done so many of these I can’t count anymore but some examples:
- no sugar for 30 days
- meditate every day
- make bed every day
- gratitude journal
- read 100 books in a year
The example of “read 100 books in a year” is a good example of how close a challenge and a goal can be. It could be either one but I count this one as a challenge because I didn’t need the motivation to START reading like I might need the motivation to START training for a race. I did need it to remind myself that I wanted to see what would happen if I read a lot more than before.
Challenges help me test-drive new things to see if they have a place in my life long-term, at which point they move over to goals or rules. Before I gave up gluten for good I did a 30 day gluten free challenge. Long before I gave up sugar for good I did numerous sugar free challenges of various lengths. For me, challenges can be stepping stones to lasting change in an area where I have some level of resistance. It didn’t take much to convince me to give up gluten, but it took many sugar-free challenges to work up the mental strength to give it up for good.
Rules are the scaffolding over which everything else can get built. If your rules are set and followed, life becomes much simpler and the good things that seem small but make a huge difference don’t require any effort at all. Rules help us replace our impulsive, poor choices with automatic behaviors that we intentionally choose. It’s mindfully replacing mindless patterns. Rules are extremely powerful once they are truly ingrained and can possible change the quality of your life more than goals or challenges. Here are some of my rules:
- wake up at 6AM every day
- upon waking, meditate for 20 minutes, make bed, gratitude journal
- no sugar or grains
- spend time outside daily
In the above, you can see that most of my rules relate to my morning routine, which I developed over time but have diligently stuck with for about 5 months now. It’s made a huge impact on my happiness level, especially over the summer when I normally experience stress and depression due to lack of routine. Just getting up every day at 6am has made more of an impact than I ever could have imagined. That’s the magic of rules. They seem so simple and boring yet when they stick they are incredibly powerful. I now spend NO energy making the decision to wake up at 6 and can use that mental energy and willpower on other things.
If you want to explore these tools, I suggest starting with a Challenge. Try something new or quit something you are tired of and see how it feels for 30 days. Don’t just jump into a rule of No Sugar, for example if you have never tried it as a challenge. Use a challenge to gain evidence that the change is good for you, THEN consider making it a rule. For goals, think of something that requires more diligence or attention than it is currently getting. Work, marriage, parenting, fitness, etc. Set some goals that are broken down into smaller stepping stones and see what the higher level of effort and attention does for you.
I promise you that using these tools can help you replace mindless impulse and desire with mindful cultivation of the good life. And I also promise you that it feels wonderful to be free of compulsions that once shackled me, like an addiction to sugar or the depressing feeling of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. It all boils down to helping yourself do things today that you won’t regret tomorrow.