If you google “how to change habits,” you’ll find an abundance of advice from all kinds of people from all walks of life. Individuals who want to share their secret to success along with psychologists, psychiatrists, religious leaders, and successful entrepreneurs give counsel.
You’ll also find companies that will guide you through the changes you want to make (for a fee, of course).
You’ll also find that the rule for habits becoming permanent in three weeks has been debunked. The current thinking is that at least two and up to eight months of consistent behavior is required until the replacement habit is established and the former habit is extinguished.
After dipping into many of these articles over the past few months and experimenting with some of the approaches they recommended, I’ve come away with one that works for me.
This approach is based on multiple studies conducted by Cornell University psychologists involving hundreds of people. The studies focused on end-of-life regrets. As people approached their final years, the majority (75%) said their single biggest regret was not realizing their ideal self.
One way or another, the individuals expressed perhaps the saddest words in the English language, “If only . . .” They were profoundly disappointed in themselves that they had reached the end of their lives without having realized their ideal self.
Based on their studies, the Cornell psychologists came up with the concept of our three selves:
1. The ought-to self, as in, “I ought to lose 10 pounds.”
2. The ideal self, where I lose 10 pounds and maintain a healthier weight.
3. The actual self, based on what I continue to do day to day.
As you have no doubt discovered on your own, the ought-to self has no power to effect changes in habits. No matter how often we say to ourselves, “I ought to give up my nightly bowl of ice cream,” we open the freezer door at bedtime and take out the carton.
The only self that has the power to change daily habits is the ideal self. We intuitively know who this person is because we know when we’re falling short of living consistently with this self. That’s where the “ought tos” originate.
But if you’re like me, you’ve never taken the time to write down the attributes and actions of your ideal self.
If we are to realize our ideal self, we have to have an articulated vision of what actions the ideal self would take and not take. We need a detailed, comprehensive portrait of our ideal self. Only then can we be clear about whether we are on track or not.
Three weeks ago, I wrote the first version of my ideal self. Surprisingly, once I created this portrait, I slowly began to make small changes that reduced the space between my ought-to self and my ideal self without any apparent willpower or self-discipline.
For example, I drink less coffee now. This was not the result of telling myself I ought to limit my caffeine to three cups of coffee daily and toughing it out. Rather, it was because I spontaneously chose to stop at the three-cup limit.
To be human is to be fallible, so I will never fully realize my ideal self. But it seems I can definitely move in that direction.
Orison Marden, the founder of “Success” magazine, expressed the same idea: “We lift ourselves by our thought, we climb upon our vision of ourselves. . . . Hold the ideal of yourself as you long to be, always, everywhere.”
Since creating a blueprint of my ideal self, I’ve refined it as insights occur. I’ll probably continue to revise it as I seek to crystalize and distill the essence of this person. My sense is that it will always be a work in progress.
And as Marden recommends, I reread it every morning to remind myself of moment-to-moment choices I will be making during the day.
If you have some dysfunctional habits that you’d like to change—maybe lose a few pounds or give up nightly cocktails or drink more water, you might want to experiment with this approach.
Let me know if you need my ideal self portrait to use as an example. Of course, mine is unique to me just as yours will be unique to you, but it may give you ideas on what topics you might want to cover.
Also, if you have ideas on how habits can be changed based on your success, please let me know. Send your strategy and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carole Carson, of Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact: email@example.com