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How to prevent feelings of overwhelm when changing a habit

Living a happier, healthier life is something we all aspire to.

Many of us will have tried to commit to promises and declarations to change our habits to get us closer to this goal. However, at the same time we think about committing to the change, we also think about all the other things we need to factor in. And before we know it, this small change suddenly feels like a much bigger project that we should probably come back to “when the time is right”.

At the risk of sounding like a cliche, the right time is right now. Changing a habit does not need to feel so overwhelming, that you feel you need more hours in the day to be able to make any progress. Habits can be changed in small consistent steps. 

What are feelings of overwhelm?

Feeling overwhelmed is an emotional state linked to stress and anxiety. More often than not, when we speak about feelings of overwhelm, it’s as a result of, or response to, negative stressors. Such as feeling overburdened at work, feeling time-poor due to numerous commitments with friends and family, or feeling there is too much on your plate/too much is being asked of you.

How can feelings of overwhelm prevent change?

Feelings of overwhelm can cause a shift in our perspective, which alters our focus. Instead of focusing on the expected benefits of making the change, i.e focusing on “the good”. The focus is firmly placed on the barriers preventing the change, i.e focusing on “the bad”. Often this thought spiral of uncovering more and more reasons why the change will be hard to do, can quickly be followed by a wave of demotivation. And before the day is done, the decision has been made to scale down the change or better still, not do it at all.

This blog post will be focusing on how negative, detracting, feelings of overwhelm can prevent us from making positive change. Before we get into that, it is worth mentioning that feelings of overwhelm can also be linked to positive stressors and excitement. Such as the birth of a baby, exceeding your own and/or others expectations, meeting someone you admire for the first time, or watching a live sporting event.

How to change a habit, without getting overwhelmed

Prepare for the change while maintaining focus on the desired outcome

Changing a habit is hard. Our habitual behaviours are so much a part of our lives, we only really notice them when someone else points them out to us. That’s why the first thing you need to do when changing a habit is to be specific about the habit you want to change.

After choosing the specific habit to change. The next step is to identify all the barriers (real and perceived) that could prevent you from practicing the new habit. Doing this step upfront helps to make sure the barriers are accounted for in the overall plan. Opening up the opportunity to get out ahead of any potential problems. And giving you more time to work out ways to remove, overcome or manoeuvre around them.

Straight after outlining all the possible barriers that could prevent you from achieving your goal. You need to shift your focus back to why you want to make the change, by listing out all the benefits you will gain from the new habit. Changing your focus will help to stop the negative thought spiral, and give you more perspective on what your overall goal is.

The final step is to make a plan. The plan should be detailed enough so that you know what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it and how you will go about achieving your goal. And, simple enough that you are able to consistently practice the new habit. Aristotle believes a “bad habit” can be changed, by moving gradually towards a better version of it.

Practice the new habit as often as possible

Aristotle argues the experience of acting in the way of your goal will help to encourage and reinforce the behaviour. By consistently practicing a better version of your habit, you are able to experience the benefits of that habit, even with the smallest change. 

With every step towards bettering your habit, you demonstrate, to yourself and others, how capable and possible it is to achieve. Which will result in you wanting to do it more often, until it becomes so much a part of how you behave you don’t notice it… until someone else points it out to you.

Preparation and perspective will help to change a habit, without getting overwhelmed

Change is a stressful and anxiety inducing experience for the best of us. It is important through change experiences, specifically habits, to show yourself some compassion.

Being as prepared as you can, to make the change, and maintaining focus on why you want to achieve. Will help the whole process feel more manageable, help you feel more incontrol and help to prevent feelings of overwhelm.

Five tips to help you prepare and maintain perspective when changing a habit
  1. Be specific about what habit you want to change
  2. Identify and assess potential barriers to changing the habit 
  3. List out all the benefits of changing the habit
  4. Plan to make small changes towards a better version of your habit
  5. Practice, practice, practice

A habit doesn’t need to be changed overnight. The habits you have now have developed over years (or months) of practice.

In order to be able to change an existing habit, or adopt a new one, you need to allow yourself some time to practice. To try it out and experience the benefits in a low risk high reward environment. Give yourself permission to make small steps towards a better version of the habit. And, as a bonus, find a friend who shares the same goal. So you can work on making the change together.

When changing a habit, prevent feelings of overwhelm by removing the expectation that the change needs to happen overnight.

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