On Habit Change and The Itchy Scratchy Art* of Saying No

*If this is an art, my current skill-set is that of a five year old with crayons . . . but hear me out. Three things before we jump in:

  1. HUGE thanks to all of you for helping me max out Jeremy's DonorsChoose.org page on my birthday last Sunday -- we did it!! We weren't the only ones to contribute, but by the end of the day he had raised the remaining $448. It completely warmed my heart and his -- makes me so proud to have a community of readers like you. THANK YOU!
  2. I was honored to be chosen as one of 100 women for eHow's first annual "Shift List" -- check it out here.
  3. I am going to be speaking at the Texas Conference for Women on November 17 -- if any of you live in the Houston area, this will be a don't-miss conference with a huge line-up of incredible speakers (including one of my idols, Martha Beck) -- the registration fee is a very reasonable $140.


The Itchy Scratchy Art of Saying No

"Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts." --Arnold Bennett

If you recall my New York, New York post, you'll know I had every intention of taking things slowly this quarter so that I could leave the house and spend time in this great city rather than remain chained to my laptop by emails and meetings. You were all very understanding, and it really felt possible!

You have to crawl (and fall) before you can walk

The month of September went as follows: I kept telling my coach, "I'll slow down next week -- this one just got really busy." Then next week would come, and I would do nothing differently.

My first homework assignment was to take a four-day weekend off given how hard I'd been working after the Make Sh*t Happen launch.

I barely took four hours, let alone four days. So we adjusted our expectations and my homework the following weekend was to take Saturday and Sunday off. Once again, even with the best intentions, I bulldozed right over what should have been time untethered.

Then you hit a breaking point, and something has to change

Niagara Falls from the Maid of the Mist Boat

My first true days off since I've been here were the week of my birthday, when I went to Niagara Falls with my mom and grandma. I left my laptop at home (shocking!!) and spent time reading, reflecting, and relaxing.

Correction -- I was trying to relax. But requests and emails kept pouring in. Shockingly, they followed me to Niagara, even though I was on a break. Funny how that works! Over two days, I received 8 requests for my time (outside of coaching calls) -- Skype chats, networking, interviews. I felt my anxiety bubbling to a boiling point. Taken individually, no one request was a big deal. One was even just 10 minutes! But taken as a whole, it was just too much.

Enter nature: the great sorbet for the soul.

Niagara Falls is an incredible sight to see, and call it cliche -- but I had an epiphany standing there on the Maid of the Mist boat, water raining down on me, staring at this great landmark with it's gorgeous, powerful water spilling and crashing everywhere.

*I* have to change. People cannot read my mind. If I don't learn to say no, and learn to take time off, NOTHING will change.

It sounds so obvious in hindsight. But I kept waiting for "next week to be better" when deep down, being the self-help junkie that I am, I knew that "next week" had to start NOW.

Changing a well-worn habit is like turning a giant ship around.

It takes TIME. Patience. Self-love. Compassion. Discipline. A little bit of failure.

I've got to say . . . this mission to slow down in Q4 has been very humbling for me. It's humbling because I normally respond quickly to goals I set, but in this case I felt like such a failure. I literally did not know where to start, and I found myself continually overwhelmed week after week.

You can't just wait for things to change, then get frustrated when they don't.

New habits, especially one as sensitive as saying no (at least for all you people-pleasers like me), are scratchy and difficult. That is why they are new. That's why they matter. It's frustrating, but you're in the trenches now. You've got to fight, learn, and fail your way through.

We can't expect to turn the entire ship around in two seconds.

10 Important Reminders for Habit Change and the "No" Business

  1. It's not enough to hope for habit change. Actions have to follow desire -- this is not easy. There WILL be a dip when you are learning a new skill.
  2. Habit change starts with one tiny aspect at a time. In yoga, the teacher might give the most subtle correction: don't collapse the arches of your feet during standing poses. That alone will take me months of concerted practice and repetition to correct! And yet those nuances are part of the fun. It's a champagne problem to have (in yoga or life) to be in the business of refining, not just survival.
  3. What got you here won't get you there. This is a popular business book that also applies to habit change. Sometimes the very habits that have made you successful (working around the clock) are not the ones that will help you create sustainable success over the long-term. At a certain point you have to evolve, particularly as your life, goals or responsibilities become more complex.
  4. Any big goal usually comes with new habits. How will you make room for them in your life? If your goal is to lose weight, what new eating and exercise habits do you need to develop? If your goal is to start a blog or write a book, when will you set aside the time to write?
  5. You may will probably fail at first. Remember learning to ride a bike? It's scary. Wobbly. Crashy. It requires support from those around you. But, after concerted practice, one day it will become second nature.
  6. Habit change starts TODAY. Not tomorrow, not next week. Snap out of your procrastinator's paradise (more like purgatory) and make the tough decisions to change and improve your life TODAY.
  7. Saying no -- especially to people you care about -- can be very challenging. Root your response in truth and values -- share your conflict honestly. Let them know that normally you would love to say yes, but right now you're taking a much-needed break (or insert other authentic reason) and that you hope they understand. They might even relate and admire your no-wielding courage.
  8. Priortize. What is most important to you? If you are clear on your priorities, it will be easier to say no. One of my mentors Susan came up with a great checklist: Are you healthy? Do you have enough time for yourself? Do you have enough time for your friends and family? Do you have enough time to get your own work done? If yes -- and ONLY yes to all of the above -- should you then start entertaining others' requests. Make your own list -- what should come first before saying yes?
  9. If it's not one exception, it's another. Don't let exceptions wiggle you out of your commitment to habit change. We've all played the "just this one time" game. When is it time to make yourself the exception?
  10. When all else fails, get outside! Nature has this amazing way of bringing clarity and a sense of grounding. If you're frustrated about a habit you can't break, frame up your challenge as a question and go for a walk, a hike, a bike ride, a run -- anything that will shift your thinking through the power of fresh air and connection with the great outdoors.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments:

What helps you turn the big habit ship around? Got any great tips for saying no, even when you're conflicted and want to say yes?