I smoked my last cigarette four years ago. The last time I had quit, I had also smoked my “last” cigarette. The time before that was also my “last” cigarette… At some point in my early 20s, I had given up on the idea of “final” and accepted “last,” meaning “for now” and “until the next one.”
I’m known for making sweeping declarations of “never again!” only to find out that “never again” is just a way to set myself up for failure.
I’m never going to smoke cigarettes again.
I’m never going to eat processed food again.
I’m never going to drink alcohol again.
I’m never going to eat meat again.
I’m never going to go another day without exercise… again.
These “nevers” are similar to what many turn into New Year’s resolutions. More often than not, New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside soon after the declaration is made, which leads to more self-deprecation and an overall feeling of disappointment and failure.
To make lasting change, I had to be less specific in my “nevers” and turn my “nevers” into daily habits that aligned with my core values. What made lasting change was turning all of those sweeping declarations into one simple phrase:
I’d like to make daily efforts to improve my life.
Without giving myself an ultimatum, I was able to reward myself for small but positive changes. I was able to forgive myself for lapses in my day-to-day decisions. I was able to indulge occasionally in previously chastised behavior without guilt. Finally, I was able to adapt to new research or physical responses that amended my definition of improvement.
If you’re in the market for habit change, do not simply remove unwanted habits. You’ll find yourself in a situation similar to many ex-smokers, who always find themselves saying in the beginning, “Okay, no more cigarettes. Now, what do I do with my hands!?” Now that you remove the unwanted habit, what do you do instead? Habits become harder and harder to remove if nothing is added in its place. After all, if your life becomes focused solely on removing the negative, you’ll soon become hyper-focused on the negative in your life without finding and appreciating all of the positive.
I’ve had similar moments while trying to realign my personal finances, consumption, impact, and priorities. I found the abusive mental chatter overwhelming: Just stop spending money you don’t even have! Wow, do you even care about the planet? You call yourself a minimalist? Look at your closet! So you’re sitting down to watch television again. Way to focus on your priorities.
Instead of creating deprivation and promoting negative self-talk, I found positive replacement behaviors that aligned with my definition of improvement. Instead of spending money on commodities, I leave my money alone and enjoy commodities I’ve already acquired. I shop my bookshelf or restring an old guitar. Instead of turning off the television and staring into a blank screen, I hike a new trail, catch up on a favorite blog or podcast, meditate, or play music.
I also keep a to-do list handy of every surefire way to keep me in alignment. To put it another way, when I start to hear more negative self-talk or I’m worried about creating a void, I can refer to a list of non-regrettable actions:
- Drink tea, coffee, or water
- Walk, run, hike, bike, swim, or longboard
- Read, write, or play/listen to music
- Call, text, or write friends or family
- Water, re-pot, or just put hands on plant life
- Sleep, stretch, or meditate
- Cook, prepare, and/or enjoy a good meal
- Pet, groom, bathe, or play with animals
- Repair or donate belongings
- Learn or teach something new
- Get dirty (in a garden, while cleaning, on a trail, while exercising)
- Get clean (self-care/spa day)
More concisely, I’ve also created a list of experience takeaways as simple reminders:
- Never say never.
- Avoid voids.
- Find your non-regrettables.
- Be in constant realignment.
What are your non-regrettables?