Setting yourself up for successful life changes
I am a New Years resolution breaker. Every year, I'm going to meditate 2 hours every day, cook organic three-course meals every night, get up at 5 a.m. to go running before work, and never have negative or judgmental thoughts about anyone ever again. I take the bus everywhere, so never having negative thoughts again lasts about an hour. The other ones last about 2 days.
The reason New Years resolutions are doomed to fail is that discipline is irrelevant. Thinking that keeping New Years resolutions is a matter of personal discipline only sets up a death spiral of stress and self-punishment that makes failure inevitable. Unless your resolution is to eat more cake, habit will always win over willpower. This sounds terrible, but is actually great, because it means that you can make positive changes in your life even if you don't have the discipline to keep New Years resolutions. Positive change is about forming new habits, which takes time. Making one huge change is exhausting. Changing one small habit at a time is much easier, and will lead to long-term support for a major change like a daily meditation practice or a strenuous exercise program.
The first step is to look at the reasons you aren't already doing whatever it is you want to do. The reason I don't get up at 5 a.m. to go running is that I go to bed at 11:30. If I make it a matter of discipline, I have to force myself out of bed on 5 hours of sleep to do something I hate. Eventually my body rebels and I pull a muscle or get sick. My lifestyle does not support getting up that early.
Make a list of all the habits that are standing in your way. Start with the most obvious and work backwards, so if you reverse the list you have a very loose kind of "butterfly sneezing in Antarctica causes a tsunami in Thailand" progression. My running list looks something like:
going to bed late, eating dinner too late, working on the computer at night, not getting enough done earlier in the day so I can relax at night, daytime schedule is disorganized, not eating lunch early enough to be hungry at a normal dinner time.
There are also emotional barriers (I hate running), but that is less important. I also hate flossing, but I do it every day anyway because there are no habits preventing it. Changing your habits will take time and involves many small pieces, so looking strategically at the steps is important.
Now that you have your list of habits, start with the last one. This is probably the first in the progression, and is often the easiest to change. It took a while to think of it, so it's not a huge part of your life. I don't try to eat lunch at 3:30, I just don't schedule myself time to eat during the day, so I eat whenever I get a break. This is a relatively easy problem to fix. For the first week, change that first thing. Changing the first habit supports changing the next: if I eat lunch at noon every day for a week, I'll start getting hungry earlier in the evening, making it easier to eat dinner earlier. Make a plan to change each small habit, working up to the biggest one.
My 6-week running plan looks like this:
week 1: eat lunch between noon and 1 every day
week 2: finish dinner by 6:30 every night
week 3: schedule time during the day to do computer work so I don't have to do it at night
week 4: go to bed by 9:30. Read in bed if you can't sleep that early, don't look at a screen.
week 5: get up 15 minutes earlier every day
week 6: get up another 15 minutes earlier
After 6 weeks, it won't be so miserable to get up early, because I've set up the day so that I can relax at night and go to sleep earlier. If I get up half an hour earlier, I'll have time for a short run. Once a habit is established, it is much easier to maintain.
It all looks easy on paper, of course actually doing it is more difficult. You have a much higher chance of success if each step is as small as possible. The 6-week plan isn't universal, I chose that number because that's how many habits I think are standing in the way of my goal. You might have more, or fewer, and that's fine. It might take 2 weeks for each step, you can plan it that way if you think it will have a better chance of sticking. It's better to take 2 months to make lasting change than try to get everything done in 2 weeks and not maintain it.
The most important thing to remember is to keep each small step small emotionally as well. Don't start the death spiral of failure because you slipped a few times in the first week. It's all fine, as long as you keep moving forward. If you get to the end of the first week and the first habit is impossible to change, take a few steps further back. Break that habit down into smaller pieces. Success will build on itself if the steps are small enough to manage.