Recently, I found myself thinking along the following lines:
“I’ve been meaning to get back to a morning routine all summer but haven’t. It felt so good when I was waking up before my family and experiencing quiet, calm solitude before the bustle of the day. I did it much of the winter and spring, but damn it, I fell off the wagon. I should get going again!”
In the months since I stopped rising earlier, I’ve stumbled into my habit tracking template and taken note of people who I judge to be rocking their mornings and felt qualms of self-reprimanding guilt: I’m reminded of exactly the morning routine I’m not doing.
Frustrated, I’ve chided myself, ‘I know better but I’m not doing better!’
I definitely witness this dynamic with loved ones and clients, too.
Maybe you can relate:
Perhaps your gym routine went off the rails – months ago.
You were gathering steam with researching a new documentary project and then stalled out. It’s only been a week, but you’ve lost some crucial momentum and it’s hard to get moving again.
Or maybe you’ve been kicking around an idea of something you’d like to implement for a long time but never attempted it, despite sensing it could bring real benefit to your life - like spending less time on Facebook or reading more books again.
When we’re not doing something we believe we ‘should’ be doing, I think we can have a tendency to get self-critical, assessing that our discipline is lacking.
I’m gonna suggest that embedded in this attitude towards ourselves are threads of a punishing stance that assumes that not only is our discipline not up to par but that we ourselves, more fundamentally, are bad or deficient in some way.
That may sound kind of dramatic but if you dig down, see if you can find this quality yourself - even at a very subtle level. It’s as though inside of us, there’s a teeny military colonel yelling:
“Come on, ________ (put down), you’re ___________ (harsh adjective) or not ___________ (worthy quality) enough. Get going, already! What’s wrong with you?”
Most of us have our own little (or not so little) source of shame right in our head.
When that’s the quality of inner dialogue you’re entertaining to nudge you into behavioural change what kind of results do you tend to experience?
Please seriously make this inquiry and consider:
Does listening to that quality of voice prompt you to do important things, help you to move into action and take brave risks?
Or does believing those refrains leave you feeling pummelled, discouraged, and limp on the boxing ring mat?
(Is that the right terminology? I’m the furthest thing from a boxing maven). ;)
Or somewhere in between? Or something else?
I encourage you to look deeply because how we relate to ourselves matters a lot when it comes to creating desired changes in our lives.
What I’ve noticed is that harsh inner voices yelling ‘should’s’ at me - imbued with assertions of personal inadequacy - don’t tend to actually nudge me into action.
I call this approach to change the ‘muscling-way’ - and the process doesn’t tend to be that effective… or to feel that great.
Instead, when I can cultivate more compassion, more curiosity and gently invite myself to change, that’s paradoxically when I often start to find traction and start moving again.
So, what does this ‘gentle invitation’ approach look like?
For me, what seems to motivate desired change is twofold: encouraging conversations about the admired habit/ritual/new step OR absorbing related information through reading or listening to a podcast or media clip.
These kind of experiences act as a potent catalyst: learning and inspiration seem to be much gentler yet more powerful influences than all that inner shaming and berating myself.
For example, I recently stumbled across a podcast by Danielle Laporte about morning routines. I resonated with many of her perspectives:
That how we start our morning ripples into and influences the whole day
That the cognitive and spiritual benefits of a morning routine often compensate for the impact of getting 20-30 minutes less sleep
That we thrive when solitude punctuates our often stimulating, social lives - and most of us don’t require great swaths of quiet contemplation but small and frequent doses of turning to our inner landscape matter profoundly
Listening to this podcast, I was so powerfully attuned to the benefits of intentional morning practices that I felt compelled to get up and start my abandoned ritual the very next day.
That felt so good that it was honestly easy to just keep going.
I was reminded of how, so often, the hardest part of creating change is getting started!
With muscling-my-way-to-change attempts, I hadn’t recommitted to my morning routine for months.
But with the gentle inviting-myself-to-change approach of simply listening to a podcast, experiencing resonance (and perhaps Danielle as a role-model)? I got oriented and moving within 24 hours!
Are you skeptical? Afraid that if that inner colonel wasn’t whipping you incessantly, you wouldn’t do anything productive and might turn into a binge-watching Netflix puddle of a human, existing just to shovel more junk food in your mouth and push ‘next episode?’
I’m gonna try and persuade you that that fear along those lines - common as it is - is unfounded.
When I look back at my history of creating deliberate changes in my life and experiences with various habits, I can see how truly powerful this gentle invitation approach is.
For example, I’ve experimented with taking breaks from refined sugar in my diet (it always feels so good!) and I’ve noticed that when my sweet tooth is going crazy and I’m chucking back baked goods in a fairly unconscious way and my mini-colonel nags at me how I ‘should’ take a break again and I feel bad about myself, that’s never as effective as simply getting back in touch with information about how sugar affects the body and the benefits of reducing or eliminating it.
Same thing with wanting to reduce frittering my time and attention on social media and getting swept up in compulsively turning to various screens in my life. I’ve been thinking for years that I ‘should’ only check my email (personally and professionally) at set, designated, and limited times in the day or week but never turned that instinct into practice.
Recently, reading Cal Newport’s book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” (highly recommend!) has been my latest ‘gentle invitation.’ That read is moving me towards ‘loooong-thought-about’ change - and it hasn’t required a bit of should energy. Cal lays out his perspective, case studies, and simple, specific suggestions in such compelling ways that I’m already reducing the amount of time I spend on screens and feeling the benefit of more focus in my life.
One other counterintuitive gentle invitation practice is that you can inquire about what knocked you off track from something positive in the first place.
Replace beating yourself up for ‘falling off the wagon’ with genuine curiosity: did something external or in your inner landscape shift? What really happened?
Maybe what was once truly nourishing for you no longer was for a time - an old habit felt rote, not vital; or you realized you were continuing a routine only to prove something to yourself or others and you wanted to take a break from doing something with that quality of volition.
Or perhaps there was a damn legit external reason your rhythms got disrupted: you injured yourself and needed recovery time from running; you hosted guests and daily patterns were completely out of whack; a loved one was in crisis and you dropped your routines to be of service to another for a time.
When I took a moment to reflect on what knocked me out of my consistent morning practice, I realized that when the kids were out of school, we got out of our affiliated patterns. The bright summer evenings resulted in delayed bedtimes, we did more social things, and packing lunches for the kids and laundry seemed to squish later and later into the evenings - and I started pushing snooze and dozing longer in the mornings because I wasn’t well rested. My animal body was offering genuine resistance to my intentions: I wanted (and maybe even needed) more sleep!
That insight didn’t change my desire to resume my practice - but I softened into more tenderness for myself, gave myself greater permission to be human (aka imperfect!) and for conditions to be in flux.
Here’s a summary:
The muscling-way-to-change approach assumes, “I’m bad for not doing X and I SHOULD do it.”
Whereas the gentle-invitation-approach gets us in touch with, “X is nourishing, so helpful in creating qualities A, B, and C in my life, that I WANT to do it.”
It’s subtle but this shift from muscling to gently inviting can make all the difference.
For one thing, switching into the gentle track gets us out of making this story mean something unkind and diminishing about ourselves and our fundamental worth.
For another, when we operate by ‘should’s,’ a funny, subtle inner tension can arise: an autonomous - perhaps even healthy rebellious! - part of us doesn’t want to feel ‘bossed around’ and so may resist the colonels’ orders and refuse to take action, even on something that would likely be very positive for us.
That is, the muscling-our-way-to-change approach can backfire and we can get stuck in a vicious cycle of being more immobilized and more frustrated. Argh!
So, instead of pushing harder on the ‘should’ or getting further down on yourself or making rigid plans to create change you want in your life, my encouragement is paradoxical:
Take the pressure off.
Go remember or learn about why this change is important to you and what its benefits could be.
See if this experiment prompts a gentle invitation within you that propels you into movement in a way that harsh barking orders from that internal colonel haven’t been able to achieve.
Because when we’re in touch with really wanting something, feeling an intrinsic quality of desire, it’s amazing how we can mobilize into committed action.
(Side note: if you come to realize that what you want has actually changed - that’s allowed! - then hey, maybe it’s time to give yourself permission to pivot! Because that happens, too.)
But if you try the gentle approach and affirm that you DO still truly want the thing you’ve been hard on yourself about, yahoo, let’s see what happens for you!
If you want to clear out those stacks of paper piled in your living room, try watching a Marie Kondo episode on Netflix or read her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” (you don’t even have to read the whole thing!) or check out someone’s blog on decluttering.
If you’ve been discouraged and self-critical about not resuming exercise, a healthier diet, or getting more sleep, check out The Whole Life Challenge or some other holistic health source you respect.
Time to resume focus on your documentary project? Learn from a documentary-maker great or listen to an interview from an up-and-comer who’s on her way to creating her first documentary.
Still struggling? Check out: 8 Things to Get Moving When You Don’t Feel Like It.
Take the pressure off of ‘the shoulds.’
Ease off the muscling and harsh self-talk.
Turn up the dial on speaking kindly to yourself.
Crank up the volume on curiosity.
Gently invite yourself to get back in touch with why you want this change in your life: listen, read, talk about your desired change and see what happens.
I’m gonna place my bets that you’re on your way to committed action before you know it.
I’ll be cheering you on all the way - likely from my meditation cushion at around 6:30am. ;)
Before drawing final conclusions on this topic, run experiments: is the muscling or gentle invitation approach most effective in nurturing change for you?
Please really look deeply, and I would love to hear your results, insights, and thoughts!
P.S. I’m excited to share that I’ve got some (FREE) workshops coming up - live in Toronto on October 9th and a Virtual Masterclass on October 17th! :) If your life currently feels a little small, cramped, or out of alignment in some way and you’re longing for some change, please check out these Make It Happen: Listen to the Life that’s Calling You and Start Taking Action opportunities.
If you would appreciate a boost of inspiration and to come away with renewed faith in what’s possible for you and clarity on your next steps, please sign up - or share the word with someone you know who might appreciate some timely encouragement & support! I’d love to see you there. XO, N
Nicola Holmes is a Life Coach who helps women and nonbinary folks step into their joyful power and realize their boldest dreams. She works with individuals, facilitates a group coaching program called The Expansion Circle, and is currently creating her first online program (tentatively titled, Let’s Get it Going!). Nicola’s academic background includes human development and adult learning and she spent two decades working in the non-profit sector. Along with coaching for the past twelve years, she’s mama to two spirited young kids, community-minded, and a voracious reader. Check out Nicola’s Facebook community or join the email party to access inspiration and resources to fuel the changes you yearn for.