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I Set Myself A Health Goal And Actually Stuck To It. What Changed?

Shannon Harvey
371 days ago things weren’t pretty. I was an anxious insomniac and I never felt as though there was enough time in the day. There were also some troubling signs that my illness, which causes arthritic chronic pain and fatigue when I let my stress get out of control, was going to flare.

It’s ironic that the final chapter in my book was called Lasting Change because the single most important change that I had made in order to live well despite my illness was the one that I had allowed to slip. My daily meditation and yoga practice had made way for mothering, cooking, cleaning, working, wife-ing, friend-ing, and general-chaos-of-lifeing. There just wasn’t enough time it the day.

I knew I needed to get back on track, so I decided to meditate every day for a year to see what would happen. But there was one problem. I didn’t have time to meditate.

As a health journalist, I’m all-too aware that knowing what the experts advise, wanting to follow their advice, and actually doing those things are different endeavours altogether. As I’ve written about before, the evidence shows that even really really really wanting to start a new healthy habit, isn’t enough to actually ensure we stick with it.

Today marks one year and one week since I committed to a daily meditation practice. I did it. In fact I more than did it and I’ll continue to do it. So I thought I’d share the four main things that I attribute to my success.

1. I Invented a Motivational Force

As I wrote about in my piece The Science of STAYING Motivated, one of my favourite anecdotes about making healthy changes last comes from writer A.J Jacobs who wanted to overcome his addiction to dried mango slices. He’d tried several strategies to kick the habit but nothing worked. In the end he wrote a $1000 cheque to the American Nazi Party and made his wife promise to mail it if he ate another dried mango. This is called a “commitment contract” – a concept in which the “you” of today doesn’t trust the “you” of tomorrow.

Like Jacobs, I knew I needed something – something huge – to help me overcome my resistance to meditate, for example, on a Friday night, after a hectic day, when the kids are finally in bed and I have the first moment to myself all week. So I made the project my job. I’m making a film about my year of living mindfully and have enlisted the help of a team of scientists who are tracking my biological changes along the way. The deal was that I had to meditate every day or there wouldn’t be anything interesting for the scientists to find.

Of course your own motivational force doesn’t have to be so involved. One of my friends (a high-heeled, vintage-dress-wearing, girl’s-girl) signed up for a competitive full-contact boxing competition just so she’d stick to her early morning exercise routine. Another friend signed up to a half-marathon so that she’d stick to her daily running goal.

2. I Planned

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m a fan of behaviour change expert Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology in the Psychology Department at New York University. He’s developed a super simple, and highly effective technique called If-Then Planning to help us overcome the gap between what we intend to do and what we actually do. Check out my piece How To Find Time To Meditate to read how this works in action, although it doesn’t have to be a meditation goal for this technique to be relevant.

3. I Gave Something Up

If you’re a busy person like I am, you already know that there aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything on your “Should Do" list. I realised pretty soon into my year-long self-experiment that if I wanted to add something in to my daily schedule, I would have to give something else up.

At the moment I’m meditating for 45 minutes a day (often more, occasionally less). This 45 minutes sometimes comes out of my work day, or my lunch break, or my sleep in the morning. But more often than not, the 45 minutes I’m meditating is 45 minutes that I’m not buried in my phone or watching television. Actually, come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I watched television. Interesting, given that eight months ago I was writing about my weakness for to a certain Highlander on a certain streaming service who was significantly compromising my sleep.

4. I Enlisted Help

Since I started investigating the science of the mind-body-health connection I’ve made enormous changes in my life. Sticking to those healthy changes was tough enough, but without the support of others, those goals would have been impossible. I’ve written previously about the importance of social support in making healthy changes last, but specifically, for the “My Year of Living Mindfully” project I enlisted help on three levels:

Practical –
The key person to sign up from the get-go was my husband. This meant that while he kept the fires burning on the home front, I’ve been able to participate in a meditation course and two silent retreats. I’ve lost count of the number of evenings I’ve dumped him with a sink full of dirty dishes so that I could meditate before turning into a pumpkin.

Emotional –
Being a meditator can be lonely because you sometimes sound like a fruitcake when you’re talking about the more esoteric side of the experience to others who don’t meditate. My husband, sister and best friend have been on board from the start and despite some of the weird stuff I’ve been talking about lately, they’ve provided shoulders to cry on when things took unexpected turns. Most importantly, they’ve never wavered in their belief that I would be able to complete the project, which means everything to me.

Informational –
In an age of information overload, finding trustworthy materials and resources to guide me has been crucial. This is where my teachers, mentors, books, podcasts and apps have been great. Before I invested any significant time into these I did my research and turned to trusted sources for recommendations.

**

In the coming days I’m doing the final scientific tests. I’ll be poked, prodded scanned and screened so that scientists from around Australia can look at my brain function and structure, my stress hormones, my immune function, my gene expression and the age of my cells, all to see what, if anything has changed on a biological level.

I won’t know the results for another month or so but I can tell you now, based on what’s happened for me on an experiential level, I’ll probably still be meditating daily regardless of the outcomes. I still have my autoimmune disease, but my insomnia is a thing of the past. I no longer anxiously bite my fingernails. My day-to-day experience of the world is clearer, my thinking comes easier, and I’m far less reactive to the inevitable stressors of daily life. All this, I directly attribute to my practice.

As for how I’ll go once the scientific results are in and I no longer have the huge motivational force compelling me to stick with it, that’s a question for the future version of myself.

Further reading you might be interested in:

This Is What Happened When I Stopped Meditating
This Is Why I Meditate – Despite the Skepticism
Mind The Hype: Is Meditation Really All That Great?
Surprising Truth: Meditation Hasn't Made Me Happier
What’s So Great the Most Popular Meditation Course on The Planet?
How To Find Time To Meditate
The Power of Purpose and Passion In Dark Times

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