Christine Carter reveals the underlying beliefs and assumptions that can thwart our attempts at habit change.
BY CHRISTINE CARTER | JUNE 3, 2019
I have a habit of going to bed later than I want and then being rushed in the morning and getting to work late. For several years now, I’ve been wanting to get to bed earlier, but I can’t seem to do it.
I have a tendency to feel pretty driven and busy during the day, and the evening feels like my only time to relax. I binge-watch Netflix, scroll through my social media and news alerts, and generally get caught doing random things on my phone until late at night. But when I think about going to bed early, I feel kind of deprived. I think I actually do need time to wind down and take a break before I go to sleep, even when I’m totally exhausted.
I would like to try again to go to bed earlier, but I feel a little nervous about it because I’ve made that resolution before and not been successful quite a few times.
Tired and Running Late
Dear Tired and Running Late,
I hear you on all fronts. Who hasn’t resolved to get to bed earlier, only to find themselves going to bed late night after night? I think most people these days have experienced the same frustration (if not with sleep, then with another resolution). It’s very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old patterns.
Though frustrating, it’s normal to struggle to change our daily routines. Research suggests that 88 percent of people have failed to stick to their resolutions to change; we humans are creatures of habit. Our brains crave routine and resist change.
So how do we change our habits?
Going to bed earlier is a realistic and worthy goal—one that will have very real benefits for you in your busy life. To do so, however, you will do well to change your thoughts before you try to change your habits.
For starters, I’m guessing that the reason you feel nervous about trying to do this again is that failing to keep your resolutions in the past has been stressful. This is normal, but we usually aren’t successful at changing our habits when we’re anxious about it.
Failing at our resolutions is more stressful when we opt for self-flagellation in the face of our setbacks or lapses. We tend to think that if we’re really hard on ourselves, we’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or we’ll motivate ourselves towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.
Why? Because self-criticism doesn’t work. It’s stressful, and it doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.
Self-compassion—being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves—does help when we fall short of our intentions or our goals. It leads to less anxiety, less depression, and greater peace of mind—and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.
So, the first step to making lasting change is to simply forgive yourself for having failed in the past. It’s okay; it’s normal, even. You did the best you could with the skills you had. Take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a really good friend: Use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response. Remind yourself that few people are successful the first time they try to change their routines, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.
The next step is to figure out what’s holding you back.
This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing you to go to bed later than you are intending to.
You’ve already identified a major obstacle to getting to bed at a reasonable hour: You don’t relax during the day, and so you need time to unwind at night. This is likely more of an identity obstacle than a practical one. By that I mean that I doubt there is an actual, physical obstacle that is keeping you from unwinding earlier in the day or evening. Instead, I’m guessing that there is something that you believe (maybe about yourself, or about your success) that’s holding you back.
Our beliefs really matter when it comes to our behavior. Our thoughts—about ourselves, other people, our circumstances—and the meaning we attribute to our world tend to trigger our emotions, and our emotions are often the motivation for our behavior. Our actions, when repeated, become habits.
And what we do repeatedly tends to add up to our accomplishments. Our outcomes are usually often lagging measures of our habits. You’re tired and running late (outcomes) because of your habit of going to bed late. Feeling deprived of rest led you to stay up late. What beliefs do you hold that keep you from taking breaks during the day? When we get back to our identity, we can see how much what we believe about ourselves can influence our habits. For example, you mention that you are busy and driven. These are beliefs about yourself common to many ambitious people these days.
I relate totally. Until a few years ago, every time someone would ask me how I was doing, I would always give the same answer: I am so busy. Extremely busy. Crazy busy. Busy and important. As such, I was always running late, white knuckling it through an over-packed day.
I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character. At one point, for example, I ran a half-marathon with a fever, not wanting to disappoint my family who’d driven five hours to support me. The busier I was, the more important I felt.
I held a common mistaken belief: that busyness is a marker of importance, of character, of economic security. And I believed the reverse, as well: If we aren’t busy, we lack importance. We’re insignificant. We’re under-achieving. We’re weak. Un-busy people are lazy, and they are missing out.
Part of my identity included a constellation of thoughts, beliefs, and values about busyness that triggered emotions (feelings of importance, significance), which motivated behaviors (not resting—running with a fever). Over time, staying busy all the time and never resting became a habit, and it really affected my outcomes: Eventually, my body broke down. I got really, really sick, again and again—and this forced me to rest. It also caused me to change my beliefs about myself, and my success.
Behavior that conflicts with our identity doesn’t last. As long as I believed that my busyness was a sign of my productivity and the source of my success, even the idea of resting created a vague anxiety that I was possibly about to fail at something—or that I was about to miss an important email or opportunity.
In order to finally change, it wasn’t that I had to try harder to sleep more, or that I needed more willpower or self-discipline to rest when I was tired, injured, or sick. It was that I needed to change my beliefs about myself, and about my success.
The more deeply something is tied to our identity, the harder it is to change it. By the same token, the more a new behavior is aligned with our beliefs about ourselves, the more likely it is that we’ll adopt it.
Just as I had to upgrade the part of my identity that was keeping me in a continual state of busyness and exhaustion, I suspect you do, too, Tired and Running Late. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that feeling busy and tired isn’t contributing to your success. At all.
In fact, you can probably already see how getting enough sleep, not rushing in the morning, and getting to work on time are better bets than busyness and exhaustion. Can you take the part of your identity that feels driven during the day and upgrade that from “busy and driven” to “relaxed, focused, and productive,” or something like that?
And then dig into your beliefs about what leads to productivity and focus. I can tell you with certainty that never resting and not taking breaks throughout the day will not help you do your best work, get a lot done, or stay focused when you need to be.
Plenty of research has shown that taking breaks, even brief ones, dramatically improves our performance and productivity. When we don’t take breaks, our focus and the quality of our work usually suffers. But when we do rest throughout the day, we can work for much longer without the quality of our work, or our focus, suffering.
Your mission then, should you choose to accept it, is to take breaks throughout the day. Take a proper lunch break. Go for a short walk between meetings at work. When you get home from work, don’t immediately jump into the next activity—wind down a little. Read a book. Watch a 20-minute sitcom. Call a friend.
Try taking as many breaks as you need to take so that you don’t feel deprived of rest at bedtime.
Do this as an experiment, and record how much you get done and how well you do it. Gather evidence that you are relaxed, focused, and productive—or whatever your upgraded identity is—throughout the day. Note it if you experience greater feelings of relaxation, or more focus. Relish it if you take time to relax before it’s time for bed.
Above all, enjoy the heck out of your breaks. Don’t plan them, don’t worry about them—just let yourself take them. All you need to do is show up, and a little added rest will work its magic on your life. And do let me know how it’s going. I’m hoping, Tired and Running Late, that you’ll soon be signing off as Relaxed, Focused, and Productive.