Getting Stuck in Negative Patterns

For the most part, each and every one of us lives our life by putting it into some sort of pattern. From minor things such as how we style our hair in the morning, to basing each of our days around the same set schedule. Some people are even so predictable that they eat the same food each day. While there are a lot of positives involved in basing your life around a routine schedule, there are also a couple negatives, a big one being that you’re often left feeling burnt out and uninspired.

I’ve noticed with myself that I can very easily fall into a certain role or mode of thinking and not even realize it. Just as people’s emotions can vary all the time, so too can these roles they fall into. Have you ever noticed how for a week or so you’ll be all psyched up to go the gym, work out and start your new diet of eating healthier, and then the very next week you find that you haven’t been to the gym in days, you’re eating junk food around the clock, and you have almost no motivation to exercise? Not only is it debilitating, but it’s also a bit confusing. I mean… I was excited to hit the gym every day last week, and this week suddenly all I want to do is sit in front of the couch. What gives?

What gives is our motivation, obviously, but there’s something a bit deeper than that at work too; something that’s constantly around us but rarely do we recognize it: our environment.

Your environment plays a bigger role in the development of your habits than anything else in your life. Not only is it a dynamic aspect of your world, constantly changing and evolving, but it influences you in so many ways, consciously and subconsciously, that it’s hard for you to do ANYTHING that isn’t in some way or form affected by your environment.

When I was in college, I had begun developing what was known as the lazy pattern. I’d stay up late, sleep in late, not really feel like studying, and lounge around all day doing nothing productive whatsoever. At the end of the night (or early morning I should say) before going to bed, I’d look back over the day and feel like it was wasted. I’d sort of make mental excuses as to how it “slipped away from me,” as if something had come up that I had no control over. Of course, not only was I lacking productivity, but at the same time I was beginning to lack motivation. Procrastination. When it came time to do something, I’d make excuses and find a way to push it back a day or so, and then I’d promise myself that the next day it would get done for sure. More often than not, things only got done because I had waited so last minute that there was no other choice but to complete them.

Usually this cycle would last a week or so, and then I’d switch into the motivation pattern. I’d get up early, knock out my studying, make time to exercise, and then when free time came along I’d spend it doing something constructive. I didn’t slouch around, and as a side effect from all this positive energy, I was eating healthier too. Usually after studying, working out, and then eating a nutritious meal, I’d feel like I had accomplished a great deal — which I had. Unfortunately, as soon as I was beginning to feel good about this pattern, seemingly out of the blue I’d switch back into lazy-mode, and all that motivation I previously had seemed to disappear. I could try and force myself back into that pattern, but it just didn’t feel natural. Even if I told myself that I was going to exercise and knock out all my studying, it felt forced instead of authentic.

Comfort Zones

Even though I thought I had total and complete control over myself, in reality I didn’t, or rather, I didn’t actually know HOW to gain total and complete control over myself. As much as I thought my pattern of laziness was due to a lack of motivation, and it partly was, the reality was that I couldn’t stay out of my comfort zone for much longer than a week. I could never stay outside of it long enough to make the full transition from being lazy to being fully motivated on a daily basis. You can probably recognize this in your current life, as it seems that anytime you fall into a positive role, before long you’re back at your old ways. It’s not so much that you can’t succeed at your new role, as you’ve seen that you can, but you can never seem to stick with it. Before any of the positive changes become a habit in your daily life, they’re washed away and no longer feel valid.

Obviously, just as we can fall into a negative pattern, so too can we fall into a positive one. Instead of thinking of it as being a transition, as in something you have to consciously work at, think of it as broadening your comfort zone. All too often did I view these patterns as “transitions,” something that I had to consciously work and fight towards, when in reality I should’ve just let them be.

How do you broaden this comfort zone, allow yourself to get out of these negative patterns, and replace them with the patterns that you want?

By adjusting your environment. Sure, maybe you can’t change the house you live in or who your neighbors are, but you can certainly change what you decide to surround yourself with. If you’re on a mission to improve your diet but all you’ve stocked the house with is potato chips and fatty pizzas, then don’t complain when you can’t keep confined to this meal-plan you’ve laid out for yourself. All too easily do we fall into patterns of comfort because we’re so accustomed to our surroundings. Not only that, but certain images or actions may leave a mental trigger stored within our mind. For example, I used to love drinking coffee at night (decaf) just because I thought it tasted so good, especially in the cold of winter. Any time my environment fell into that guideline (cold winter night) I’d feel the need to go out for some coffee, usually at the late hours of 10pm-11pm. Even though I didn’t really need this coffee, and I’d been drinking it for about a week straight now each night, I still felt some sort of urge to have it even though it wasn’t that important. These are more obvious examples though, but what happens when we’re confronted with something that’s not so obvious?

Why would I decide to be hard working one week when it came to school, and then the next week fill in the shoes of a total slacker? I was still studying within the same room, I still had the same classes, and I wasn’t being burdened with any additional emotional strain or stress, so what was the problem here?

The problem, once again, was my environment. My comfort zone if you will. As soon as I had pushed myself far enough that I was no longer within my comfort zone, I came running back to my old ways. Instead of viewing this as a mechanism of growth, a way in which I could learn to EXPAND my comfort zone, I looked at it as a negative aspect, a PROBLEM that had to be dealt with. Subconsciously, the problem was me and my inability to adapt, consciously however, I viewed the problem as being something else. If I started working hard on school, after a week or so I’d use the excuse that I had been feeling burnt out as a means for me to return to my old ways and not feel guilty about it. In reality, what I should have done is realized that if I was able to accomplish a week’s worth of hard work in my studying, then two weeks should be no problem at all.

Adjust Your Environment

To get out of a negative pattern that you’re stuck in, or to better reinforce a positive pattern that you’re happy with, you need to adjust your surroundings, your environment, which in turn is going to shake up your comfort zone. What if you’re a smoker trying to quit, and every morning before the commute you like to stand on the porch and have two cigarettes? Now, instead of having those two cigarettes on the porch, maybe you have one right when you wake up and one right before you leave, and not on the porch either. Even though you’re still having two cigarettes, it’s certainly not going to feel as enjoyable, or retain that special moment that having two on the porch did. Granted you’re still putting nicotine into your body, but you’re stretching your comfort zone by adjusting your schedule, your environment.

Think of your comfort zone like you would a muscle in the body. You want to work on stretching it at least 3-4 times a week, if not more. The more you stretch it, the more comfortable it becomes when it’s in that new position. Before you know it, what caused you pain when you were stretching it a year ago, now feels perfectly fine and normal. Of course, if you become sedentary and go long periods of time without stretching it, then it’ll eventually begin to shrink back to its old ways. That’s exactly how adjusting your environment is with your comfort zone. Your environment IS your comfort zone; it’s what you choose to surround yourself with and how you choose to react to those surroundings. The larger that comfort zone, the more room you have to work comfortably in. If you’re constantly falling into a pattern where your house is a mess, change and adjust the way you do things until you find a pattern that works, and stick with it until it becomes comfortable and normal to you. All of us have a tendency to shy away whenever something comes up that requires hard work or takes more effort to do than we think needs to be exerted.

When you get home from work every night, if you constantly find yourself plopped in front of the television when you’d rather be working out or reading a book, then adjust the cycle in which you do things. Push out the boundaries of your environment, of your comfort zone. Adjust your routine, your schedule, and stick with it until it no longer feels forced. I remember growing up, my parents used to always make me do lawn work every Saturday morning. Cut the grass, clean the gutters, clean out the pool, rake the leaves, sweep the garage, etc. By the time I finished these chores, I’d tell myself that I was going to put in some time studying or catching up on schoolwork. The reality however, was that I’d go inside and watch TV or end up running off to a friend’s house and never actually get around to accomplishing anything. Mentally, I’d blame my parents for this, saying how because they made me waste my time doing chores outside, I now had no time to put towards studying. Of course, if I started these chores at 8am and finished by noon, that still left me with the entire day to put towards studying, so I really had no reason to be upset. After finishing up, when I’d head up to my room to study, I’d look at my books and notes and feel no motivation whatsoever to even touch them. I’d procrastinate and find reasons to put it off until later, until eventually it only got done because I had no other choice.

There was a distinct pattern here of course. Each week that I tried to study after doing my chores, I never actually successfully accomplished it. I never broke out of my COMFORT ZONE. I’d see my books sitting there, but I’d decide that watching TV or sitting outside was much more enjoyable and interesting. I’d eventually start to feel frustrated with myself however, because I KNEW I was supposed to be accomplishing these things, but instead I wasn’t. It was hard to fully enjoy myself knowing in the back of my mind that I had other obligations to fulfill. In my current environment, it was pretty obvious that if it had taken this long to accomplish my studying, it probably wasn’t going to happen, at least with the way things were going.

It wasn’t until one day I decided to start studying outside on the front porch that I was actually able to be a bit more productive with my time. I have no idea what spurred this decision in me, but once I started studying outside on the porch, adjusting my environment, I was surprisingly able to accomplish a good deal of school work. Initially it felt a bit weird to be outside, nothing threatening of course, but it just didn’t feel right. I’d always done all my studying up in my room, so this shift of environment sort of re-energized me a bit, helped to put a new perspective on my thoughts. Even though I didn’t have as many things in my surroundings to distract me, I still wasn’t being as productive as I could’ve been. A lot of times I’d turn on the radio and start jamming, and I even went through a phase where I’d start smoking cigars out there almost every day. (don’t ask why) I’d still get some studying done, but it became sort of rushed, this way I could justify having a cigar and simply wasting time.

I never actually got productive until a friend of mine asked me to help tutor her in the library on campus. Once I got there, I helped her with her work, but also brought some work of my own, figuring that if I was going to make the trip, I may as well spend some time doing my own studying. By this time I was REALLY out of my comfort zone. That isn’t to say the library made me uncomfortable or anxious or anything like that at all, but rather it didn’t afford me all the usual things I was accustomed to having. There was no TV laying around, no radio to crank up, nobody to sit and BS with, and certainly no place to hang around smoking a cigar. When I got there, the only thing my environment really afforded me the luxury of doing was actually studying and actively working on school assignments. Of course, upon realizing this I knew that as long as I continued to go to the library when I had to study that I could remain productive. This of course took some willpower too, because each Saturday when I finished doing my lawn work, I had to make sure I actually got to the library and didn’t make a pit stop to the television or cigar box. Over time this became routine practice for me, and studying in the library no longer felt different. It didn’t feel foreign or weird; it became a part of my schedule. Because I stuck with it long enough, my comfort zone stretched itself enough to accompany the library as part of my weekly routine.

From Patterns to Roles

Even though this is just one example, you can see how this applies to multiple aspects of your life. I was also successful in my studying because I made sure that I adjusted a pattern instead of a role. What’s the difference? Patterns makeup one specific aspect of our schedule. So for me, adjusting my study schedule on Saturday afternoons was a pattern. Just like deciding you want to incorporate exercise every evening is a pattern. A role defines a series of patterns. If you decide to start exercising every evening, then you decide to adjust your diet, and then you decide to stop snacking after 9pm, that’s a role change. You’ve completely re-sculpted a particular area of your life.

Generally a role change is what most people opt for, and also a large reason why they fail along the way. A role change requires such a large scale change in your environment and such a drastic stretching of your comfort zone that it almost seems impossible to accomplish. It’s like if you had never stretched in your life and all of a sudden somebody asked you to do the splits. It just doesn’t seem possible, and chances are you wouldn’t even attempt it. In order to change a role in our life, we need to first change the patterns that makeup that role. If your ultimate role change is to transform your body from being overweight to lean and mean, then you would start out by changing certain patterns over a course of time, only adjusting each new pattern when the previous one became natural to you. If you at first decided to take up exercise, don’t stress on not snacking after 9pm if you can barely stay on schedule to exercise in the first place. You wouldn’t worry about your snack habits until exercise became a routine part of your day. Not something you had to consciously force yourself to do, but something that was a natural part of your cycle.

So just to recap on what’s needed once you’ve decided to consciously break out of a negative cycle you’re in, or to reinforce a positive one:

– Determine what pattern needs to be adjusted
– Determine the correct environment for the new pattern
– Once you’ve discovered what works for keeping this new pattern going, stick with it until it becomes a part of your comfort zone, orno longer feels forced
– Repeat above three steps for each new pattern
– When you’ve finally adjusted all the needed patterns, step into your new role and feel successful with what you’ve done.

Even though it seems fairly simple, it’s rarely that easy. When you do this, you’re not just providing a temporary fix, rather you’re stepping out of your old shadow and into your new self. You’re completely shedding yourself of that behavior which was holding you back, and instead you’re consciously moving forward with your life.

Few things feel as good as stepping into a new role and realizing that it no longer feels forced, instead it’s become a part of your daily routine. You don’t have to psych yourself up or perform motivational exercises, instead you’re truly able to move into that new role and feel confident about it. Not only that, but finding new roles for yourself is fun, and it’s something I routinely do that helps to keep my day to day activities a bit more exciting. That is, instead of accepting defeat, I constantly challenge myself to see how I can better in certain areas. It doesn’t have to be major things, but I like knowing what aspects of my life I can refine. A big one lately has been my own personal exercise program. I used to not be much for cardio, but now I love doing basic workouts such as jump roping or going for an easy jog in the morning before I continue on with yoga or weight training. Even if you think your current life is fine and that nothing needs adjustment, challenge yourself by seeing what patterns you can improve on.

What do you REALLY have to lose?