I know the feeling.
You tell yourself you want to change; you can feel it in your gut, and every morning when you wake up it’s the only thing on your mind. You want to be healthier or kinder or want to quit cigarettes or get out of debt. You realize that what you’re currently doing just isn’t working out anymore. You are unhappy, but at the same time, you believe that you’re capable of turning your life around.
You just don’t know where to start.
I struggled with this for many years. My patterns are different than yours, but I believe the practice and how we approach our life’s struggles can, in some way, be universal to a certain extent.
Here’s how I did it:
1. Harness Awareness
If there is one force that helps me become a better person, a better writer, friend, brother, and son, it’s awareness.
Being aware of your feelings, attitude, thoughts, and actions, is a conscious brave decision and essential to one’s development. Most people aren’t aware of what they do. One of my teachers told me that during his many years of practicing therapy, people who had trouble with stuttering didn’t even know they were stuttering. He helped them become aware of it, and in turn, was able to help them.
So self-awareness in my life looked something like this: Hi, I’m Paul. I’m overweight, I’m failing college, and I’m always angry; I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I’m lost and bored but I want to make a difference. I want to be better. I know that I am capable.
I wrote it down because it helps me acknowledge it. I can wake up and look at it. Realizations arrive after chaos has made its mess, not the other way around. The idea is to harness these realizations because there is something to be learned in them.
I watched an interview with awesome blogger and writer Leo Babauta on The Good Life Project. Eight years ago he was overweight, was addicted to cigarettes and junk food, was in massive debt, disliked his job, and wasn’t happy. One day he wanted to buy simple groceries like eggs, milk, and bread, but didn’t have the money to. He had to steal change from one of his kid’s piggy bank. He said that was a major realization for him, and I can see his eyes getting a little watery.
That realization elicited awareness and in turn, action. He set a date on the calendar and announced to his family the day he would stop smoking. He made a promise. He started running to replace smoking. He had his wife and friends involved to help him. That realization, particularly self-awareness, saved his life. He became aware, and with that awareness, he was compelled to act upon it. From then till now, he has lost 80 pounds, quit cigarettes, is a vegan, developed mindful habits, runs one of the most popular blogs on the web, and has built a fruitful life for himself and his family.
When I read stories like this, both online and off, it makes me think of a quote that always stuck with me:
Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too. — Marcus Aurelius
Being aware of what we do and why we do it is the most powerful force to embracing who we are and realizing what we are capable of accomplishing.
In order for awareness to be effective, it requires action.
So when I became aware of my current situation, I had to take a step back.
“Okay, I’m over weight because I keep eating this, this, and that.” “I’m always angry because I feel stuck and I continue to do the same things that elicit anger.”
“I don’t go to the gym because I realize that once it hits 10 a.m., I lose all motivation. I need to start going when my body feels ready.” (Which I found out was early in the morning.)
Do you see what I’m doing here?
Once you acknowledge the hindrances in your life, the next step is to devise a solution. No, it may not be the right one right now. The idea is to experiment, to see what works and what doesn’t, and to continuously work at it.
One day I was smoking a cigarette outside my friend’s house. It didn’t give me the relief my brain was expecting. Instead, I felt sick to my stomach. My head got dizzy and I started to sweat. I became aware of how I felt, I looked at the cigarette, tossed it, and from that day I haven’t smoked one since. (Not saying it’ll be that easy. The point is to see how change can begin once you become aware.)
I always knew that after smoking a cigarette I’d get tired and groggy, but that specific day, the realization hit me harder than ever. That awareness compelled me to take action because I had a desire to do better for myself.
3. Set a schedule
Like Leo, all these realizations hit me all at once (he even remembers the exact date). It may happen to you as well.
Once you harness all this awareness and motivate yourself to take action, set a date. “Tomorrow, I will work on this.” The idea is to do it little by little, not rush into things because that always proves to be ineffective.
So when all these realizations hit me, I said, “Okay on Monday, I will get in the gym. I’ll take it slow. I’ll also start a food journal and write down what I eat so I can become aware of my food intake.”
Did I fail from time to time? Absolutely.
It took me weeks to get into rhythm. But with every failure came more awareness, more desire, more motivation. You can accomplish this by paying attention to what you tell yourself. If what you tell yourself consists of negative thoughts, you undermine your motivation. Changing that inner dialogue takes practice but it is also critical to being unstuck.
4. Relentless Practice
Unlearning bad habits and discarding old beliefs takes relentless practice and bravery.
Once you become aware, the challenge is to constantly practice harnessing awareness in all areas of your life. This awareness helps you see things for what they are, to not be blinded by your own ignorance (or arrogance), and to not remain stagnant.
The moment you feel struggle, take a step back. Become aware of your assessment of the problem. Write it all out. Then mindfully go about solving the problem. Fail forward — meaning if you fail, learn from that failure and take another step forward. Fail until you succeed. What other options are there?
- Become aware of what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing. Understand why you’re doing it. Are you responding out of stress, anger, or something that happened earlier?
- Once you become aware of the problem, take a step back. Think about what comes next. So let’s say you become aware that you spend too much time on Twitter or Facebook. Write it down. “I spend 4 hours a day doing nothing and learning nothing.” The next day, spend an hour less, or maybe even 30 minutes less. Be mindful of what you’re doing every time you slide your finger across the screen of your phone.
- The idea is to replace this bad habit and create a new one. So during the times you catch yourself logging onto Facebook, do something entirely different. Read a book. Catch up on blogs. Watch an inspiring video. Clean your workspace.
- Continue to harness awareness in all areas of your life. “I got a ticket because I was clearly an asshole to the officer. He wasn’t the problem, my attitude was.” Boom. There is so much bravery in that way of thinking because most people will never become aware of the root of their problems. “I realize I keep eating peanut M&Ms late at night.” Boom. You became aware of it — the biggest step of all. Now work at it.
- With awareness comes responsibility. Realize that no one will do the work for you. Set a schedule, tell your friends and family so you feel empowered and accountable, and work towards the change that you desire to attain.
- This takes relentless practice. It took me years to finally get into a gym and healthy eating habit. It took me a while to give up certain social medias that served no value to my life. Once you get into the rhythm, once you develop a system for how you do things, it does get much easier because you’re developing the skill.
If you have questions, ask.