Mindfulness is a skill that allows you to become aware of your current mental state. It creates the pause necessary for you to reflect on your values before acting, giving you the mental flexibility you need to choose something new.
Think about how you feel when you get home from work. You’re probably tired and hungry, maybe not in the best mood after fighting traffic.
This morning, you planned on cooking a healthy meal when you got home, but now there’s a good chance that you don’t feel like it. This combination of fatigue, hunger and frustration is triggering you to want calorie-rich food that does not take a lot of effort. So that easy pizza in the freezer is pulling you much more strongly than the low-calorie fish and veggies in the fridge that require prep and cooking.
Being aware of these individual feelings, rather than simply reacting to them or trying to resist them, is a powerful skill because once you do it, you can then ask yourself if those feelings are worth acting on or if it’s worth it to do the healthier thing anyway, even if it’s a little harder today.
And here’s the thing: even if in this instance you decide that you really are too tired to cook, a pizza really is the best option, that awareness can help you recognize that there’s actually something you can do to prevent this situation in the future.
For instance, you could grab a handful of nuts before leaving the office to avoid compounding your fatigue with hunger.
Or maybe the dinner you chose to cook was too ambitious or not exciting enough, and you need to choose a different meal to jump start your new cooking habit.
New habits will almost always feel like more work the first few times you do them. But if they’re intrinsically rewarding, eventually it will start to feel like the easiest option. Mindfulness is what will help you get there.
This is why I recommend developing a regular mindful practice to develop this skill. Even if it is just a simple breathing exercise. Practicing mindfulness when it’s easy, when you are not triggered, makes it much more likely you’ll succeed in the more difficult situations you’ll face in your life.
The third part of your new strategy might be the most important. It is developing a growth mindset.
“Growth mindset” is a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that you can overcome obstacles of perseverance and develop your skills with effort.
A growth mindset stands in contrast to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that your talents and traits are set at birth and you can’t really change much with effort.
In my experience, health is one of the most difficult areas of life to develop a growth mindset. Because when diet after diet leaves you heavier and less healthy, it’s easy to start believing that the problem is you.
You start to develop a personal narrative about how you are just not a fitness person or you just love comfort food too much.
When you start to believe stories like this about yourself, it becomes very difficult to make meaningful change. This is the trap of the fixed mindset.
Fortunately, a growth mindset is something you can develop. It involves understanding that all humans are capable of learning and developing their skills. And you are no exception.
You can learn to cook. You can learn to like food you hated as a kid. You can become an active person even if you hate the gym. And you can prioritize your own self-care even if you work long hours or have a family – or both.
Developing a growth mindset also requires understanding that missteps are part of the learning process. Not only do setbacks not define you, they are opportunities to grow and learn more about how you and the world work – both individually and together.
If a baby falls down when learning to walk, is he a failure? Of course not.
Rather than focusing on how things didn’t work out for you or what’s impossible to change, someone with a growth mindset always remains focused on what is workable. They keep their attention on their actions and the things they can control to get a different outcome next time.
To cultivate this mindset in yourself, I love Russ Harris’s suggestion to ask yourself three questions: What worked? What didn’t work? And what can I do differently next time?
These three questions are a simple framework you can use to get your mind away from unhelpful thoughts of failure and toward positive action, shifting your mindset from fixed to growth.
Changing things like beliefs and habits is not easy. Developing a mindful practice takes effort. And working to discover healthy habits you actually enjoy takes a lot of self-reflection and a willingness to try things even without complete confidence that they’re going to work.
But it’s possible to make progress in all these areas – if you focus your energy in the right places.
I spent 15 years forcing myself to eat foods that left me unsatisfied and do workouts that made me miserable. And all I had to show for it was extra body weight and a deep frustration with myself and how I looked.
It only took a couple of months to start seeing results once I changed my strategy. After several years, not only had my effort not backfired as usual, but I had met and even exceeded my fitness goals.
But by then, that felt less important than the fact that I was actually happy. The daily struggle I’d lived with for almost my entire life had ended. My lifestyle had definitely changed.
I was eating way more vegetables, rarely bothered with processed foods, was cooking regularly and was active daily. But I adored all these things. They brought me joy and fulfillment.
My healthy habits were now an expression of self-love rather than self-hatred. I’ve now been happy and healthy for as long as I spent dieting – nearly 15 years. In some ways, the change has felt momentous.
But in other ways, it’s felt like the easiest and most natural thing in the world, like this was always the way it was meant to be. Because this is how it feels to work with your mind, instead of against it.
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