Welcome back, everybody. I am thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to have you here again, finishing out the year so strong. In this episode, we planned perfectly for this week because my guess is that you’re starting to make New Year’s resolutions or make New Year’s goals, and we wanted to talk, myself and the amazing guests that we have this week, about how you can change your habits in the most compassionate and effective way..
We have back this week with us Monica Packer. She’s been on the show before. To be honest, she’s like a warm hug to me. I just feel like it’s just sitting down and having a chat with a dear long friend, like an old friend. I love speaking with Monica. She’s just got such deep wisdom to her. And so, today, we got together and talked about how to change your habits compassionately and effectively. Because when people set resolutions or New Year’s goals, they’re just talking about creating new habits, like how can I create new habits in my life? How can I make a change in my life? And sometimes, we tend to do that in a very aggressive, critical way. And so, we wanted to sit down and talk about how we can do that in a compassionate, effective way.
Kimberley: Okay. Welcome, Monica. I’m so happy to have you here.
Monica: Oh, it really is a joy. I just love everything you do and who you are, more importantly. So, I’m excited to be here again.
Kimberley: Thank you. Thank you. Okay, so you and I were chatting, and I love this idea of preparing for the hard day, but particularly emphasizing how to change your habits that prepare you for your dark day or your hard day. Tell me a little about why that is so important to you or even how you’ve implemented this in your life.
Monica: When I think back on my history with habit formation, it was clouded for a long time with these all-or-nothing models that taught me to have good habits, they needed to look this way, and it needed to be formed in this way. It needed to be consistent in this way. And a big part of that was not only were we supposed to have an ideal, we were supposed to start with the ideal. You just decide what the habit is and then you do it for 28 days, or whatever number we all have in our heads. You get to that magical number and it’s a habit. And that never worked for me. And so, for a really long time-- well, it worked for me when I was the type A, very overachieving perfectionist. But that came at a big cost in my life. And we talked about that I think in our past interview we did together. And that cost was not one I was willing to make for a long time. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my mental and physical and spiritual health and my relationships anymore to be so performing.
And so, because of that, I thought that was the only way to, one, progress in your life and have goals, but also trickle down to habits. I just thought I can do the habits that are required of me for my work and for my family, home management kind of things. But for myself, that was a different story because I thought, no, these are the habits I want, and they’re so beautiful and amazing and would be so helpful in my life. But in order to get there, I can’t do what that requires. I can’t, so I just didn’t.
But then when I got back into habit formation a few years ago, which was not a plan of mine, but it just happened naturally as I was really working on identity and fulfillment in my life, I realized those two areas had to be supported with habits to just even give me the time and the energy to carve out what I needed to for those two areas of my life. And as part of that, I had to figure out habits in a new way.
I know this is a really long answer to your question, but the nutshell version of this is that a lot of us, if not all of us, are set up to fail with habit formation in the way that we’ve been taught since we were little kids. I mean, even that number thing I said alone, like how many days does it take to form a habit – we all have a number because we’ve been taught a number. But that number is not realistic for most people, especially if you’re in a caretaking role or in any kind of position or season of life where you have to be more reactive in nature to your responsibilities. Every day is different. Every season is different too. There’s that kind of flexibility that makes it so you have to do habits differently.
And so, what I’ve learned over the past few years is that, instead of starting with an ideal version of a habit, and that being “This is my habit,” those are only ideal. Those are only possible for those best of days kind of days. When you get really good sleep, your routine is really set. It’s more predictable. And that didn’t work for me, didn’t work for most of the women I work with. I work with primarily women. So, instead, what we want to do is both start with what I call a baseline habit and always have that be the foundational habit we come back to on our worst of days.
The baseline habit to me is, the ideal is the highline. We definitely want to have the ideal in mind, like this is what I want ultimately. But the baseline is your foundational way to get there. It’s the form of the habit that you can do on your worst of day, when you’re really tired, when you’re going through a depressive episode, when a kid feels really sick during the night, whatever it is. And having that baseline version isn’t you lazying or-- what’s the word? It’s not you being lazy, it’s not yourself saying, “Oh, I’m just going to get my permission to not do the habit.” It’s no. This is my best-of-day version today on this worst-of-day. This is the best I can do on this day. And because I have this version of it, not only am I able to create a habit faster, like I don’t have to wait for a perfect 28 days, I also have something to always fall back onto on those days where I’m not having an ideal day. And that gives me the consistency I need to not only have that habit and what it’s going to provide for me, but also have the foundation to build on, so it gets higher and higher. And boy, I don’t even know how long I just talked
Kimberley: No, no, no, no. I have lots of questions. So, what does this look like? I love this idea – the baseline habit first. Let’s go way back. So, I think you’re referring to-- and let’s talk about what society tells us habits should look like. Now, I don’t actually have this correct, I think, but I think there’s a really famous book about habits that’s like one of the top Amazon selling that says, is it 60 days? What is the book actually saying?
Monica: Well, I’ve read every book and habit formation, so I’m trying to think of which one it is. They probably say 21, 28, or 100 days. Sometimes they say more than that. But yes.
Kimberley: Okay. So, listeners have probably read one or more of those as well, which is cool. So, let’s just acknowledge that that’s being said as the standard, but would you agree that that’s the standard for maybe people who don’t have a mental illness or people who have a kid who’s suffering? Would we agree that that’s for those incredibly lucky people or privileged people, or what would we say?
Monica: That was exactly the word I was going to use. It is a great standard and it’s a privileged standard. And it doesn’t even have to be about demographics. We can look at privileges that way in terms of gender, socioeconomic and race, and all of that. Those are all factors of course. But I would just even think about, if you’ve read those books and you learned so much like I did years ago, and then you tried to implement them and then you failed, whether it’s sooner or later, then you qualify. You qualify as, that doesn’t work for me
Now, consistency does still matter and we can talk about that, but it’s also not in the way we’ve been taught. So, there are seeds of truth that can apply to everyone in these methods that we’ve learned from and that have been so popular the past few years, but not so broadly prescribed to the general population. It’s not fair. It’s just, that’s the biggest place I actually start when I talk about habit formation, is helping people understand you’re not bad at habit formation, you’re not broken, these methods are broken for you.
Kimberley: Okay. So, that’s really helpful. And I’ll tell a story about that. I actually want to hear examples for you. I like this. I’m a pretty highly functioning person personally, but I think what’s-- but I also have a chronic illness. And by default, I think I’m actually doing what you’re talking about, but you can actually correct me maybe. I’m actually here to learn here. I’m definitely loving it. So, I have the things I want to get done on the days I don’t feel well and that looks a whole lot different to the things that I expect myself to get done on the days where I do feel well. The base, you called it a baseline habit. It’s more about expectations, I think maybe. My expectations on when the days I don’t feel well are like the basics. Is that what you talk about? Is that what you’re meaning when you say baseline?
Monica: So, let’s break this down just a little bit. One, starting with the idea that habits should be supportive. That’s their purpose. They’re not balls and chains to our lives. They shouldn’t be about the prescriptions.
Kimberley: It’s not a checklist.
Monica: The checklist, no. That’s the shift I can see you’ve already made, is these habits are there to support me. They’re to support me on my best of days and my worst of days. So, with that first breakdown, then baselines come in to any to-me supportive habit, personally supportive habit, whether that’s exercise, meditation, journaling, even getting up early, deep breathing, stretching, whatever those are to you. These grounding stabilizing habits, having those baseline versions is what helps you have the consistency you need to show up on those days where your expectations need to match your reality better.
Kimberley: Right. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Okay, so let’s talk about they have to be attached to the reality. So, what does that look like? Okay. We’ll call them-- well, how will we say it? “Hard days” and “easy days” or how will we--
Monica: I always say “best of days” and “worst of days,” but that’s really extreme language and I always preach against extremes, so maybe I shouldn’t be using that. But whatever you’re comfortable with.
Kimberley: Hard days and not hard days. Let’s do that.
Monica: That sounds great. Because it doesn’t have to be like, you can only do the baseline if it’s the worst day ever. It’s just less-than-ideal day.
Kimberley: Okay. So, what does that look like?
Monica: Okay. So, let me give you a real-life example of a seasonal shift where my reality shifted, had to shift my expectations and the way I was showing up to the supportive habits. And this is more of a personal example. This summer, I was really sick with morning sickness, like really, really, really sick. And it went on for four months straight. And I’m still sick, but I’m better, way better. But during that time, I was still able to keep up my supportive habits, my most important ones, of exercise, of meditation, of journaling for my children, and of reading. But those supportive habits looked way different than my spring version of them before I got pregnant and my fall version now where I’m feeling better. I’ll take one of those examples.
My exercise was I used to go for an hour-long walk and then do a strength training exercise video or something like that. It just turned into-- my baseline version of that was 20 minutes of slowly walking around my block. I didn’t even go far in case I needed to go home sooner. But that still was supportive enough for me to have the time alone that I needed to be able to show up to other things.
Another example of this is, journaling for me typically looks like I have this journal for my kids that takes just a few minutes, and then I have a journal for myself that also just usually takes about five minutes. I decided journaling for myself could wait. So, I only had the two-minute version of journaling. And that still meant I would journal throughout all that time. And now what’s great about having those baselines is once the fall came around and I began to feel better, I was able to pick up my habits more in ways that match my reality.
So, baselines, like I said, they are our less of ideal, less than ideal versions of the habits that can-- they give you the flexibility you need day to day, but season to season. So, as part of that, an important thing for women and men who are listening to know-- sorry, I’m used to talking to women, so I apologize for that. But an important thing to know is that your baselines can grow.
Now my baselines even are different than the summer. They’re just a little bit more time intense or energy intensive than they were. Your highs get higher and your lows get higher too. Your baselines even grow. So, the less-than-ideal versions can grow too, and they have.
Kimberley: That’s awesome. And it’s funny as you’re talking about that I’m thinking of my patients. If we can keep the black-and-white view of it, like you either do it perfectly or you don’t do it, there’s often this shift. It’s like, “Oh no, Kimberley, I did really great. I did all my exposures this week,” or “I didn’t do any of my exposures this week. It’s been a ‘hard week.’” But then there can be a shift to, “Oh, I had such a hard day, so instead of doing all my exposures, I just did six minutes.” And I think that’s what you’re saying in terms of it being a baseline habit of like, they gave themselves permission for it to not be perfect so that even on their “worst day,” they were still able to get in that treatment that they know is going to help them for that supportive work. Is that what you would think of it as?
Monica: Mm-hmm. And I have a daughter who has generalized anxiety disorder. She’s on the spectrum as well. So, we have a lot of different things we need to keep up on in order for her to feel supported in her life. And even for her, we have baseline versions of these things. So, that way, in a day where she’s really struggling, we still have a way for her to feel supported without that all-or-nothing model, just taking off the table altogether.
Kimberley: Right. So, what kind of shifts would one have to make to create a baseline habit plan? Would we call it a “baseline habit plan”?
Monica: Oh, yes.
Kimberley: Is this an intentional plan? Tell me.
Monica: So, first, you need to start with some small, internal habit changes, and that’s something we alluded to. Just pay attention to what your own habit story is. How did you grow up thinking habits should be formed? How do you currently think they should be formed? How do you view your capacity to form habits? And how are all of those things actually connected to you being taught habits in ways that actually are not right for you and that’s okay? Having that internal shift to one own, “Oh, I’ve been following the wrong model. So, I’m not broken and I’m capable of forming habits.” And also, the second shift there is just the supportive one. That’s the shift. It’s not about the shoulds and prescriptions.
Now the external shifts is, I mean, that’s where we could break down. I could talk to you for an hour and a half about that, but you mentioned a plan, and that is what I help people do, is you do need a plan. And what that looks like is actually way simpler than maybe Pinterest would show you about a habit plan. You start with casting a vision of an ideal habit that matches a need you have. So, you can think more generally first like, what’s the supportive habit I need? I need to wind down at night, so what does that look like for me? And you cast a vision of what could that entail. And then what you do is you take that version and you make sure, one, it’s supportive. So, it’s not about a should. You make sure it’s really small. So, it needs to be-- well, we talked about the baseline version of that, but small is like broken down. So, not a full routine yet. We’re just starting with the first step. Simple is your baseline version. That’s like, what is the simplest version of even the small habit that I can start with?
For an example, meditation habits, maybe you have a whole nighttime routine ideally that you would like and you know what that looks like. But you’re going to start small with just the habit of meditation at night. And then from there, you’re going to start by making it simple, and that means what’s the baseline version of that? The easiest version of this habit is one deep breath. That’s my baseline for meditation. And that actually was one of my habits during the summer. I still meditated all summer, but it was usually just a deep breath or 10 at night as I was falling asleep and just trying to clear my mind.
So, we have supportive, small, simple. And the last thing here is specific, and specific means you don’t just say, “I’m going to have this new habit and I’m starting it tomorrow.” That’s not specific. You need to have it tied to an already existing habit and form what I call a when-then pairing. So, get clear about, okay, what already happens at nighttime that I can attach this new habit to? And they might be things-- actually, not even might. Most of the time, the existing habits are things you don’t know are habits because they are habits.
Kimberley: Like brushing your teeth.
Monica: Yes. Dress in the bathroom, brushing your teeth, getting ready for bed. Or mine at night, honestly, a lot is just starting the dishwasher. Who knew? Oh, that’s a habit. I do that every night. So, it’s something like identifying what’s an existing habit around that time and attaching that supportive, small, simple habit to. That’s your habit plan.
Kimberley: Interesting. So, for those who-- let’s say, I’m going to offer the listeners. Let’s say, most of the people who listen, their goal is to face a fear. That’s my crowd. That’s my people. We face our fears.
Monica: Love it.
Kimberley: So, let’s say we’re trying to increase our ability to face a fear every day. So, what you’re saying is, find a habit you already do and attach it to the time in which you do that. So, let’s say if your goal is to do an exposure – that’s often the biggest form of facing fear – in order to get it to be a daily thing that you’re consistent with, you would find a time of the day that you would be already doing something. Often I’ll say, as you drive to work, you could do it while you’re driving to work. Is that what you’re saying?
Monica: Yeah. You’re nailing this. Exactly.
Kimberley: Okay. What if you don’t want to do the habit, but you know you should because it’s supportive?
Monica: So, this is going to-- you just did the biggest disclaimer there. If you truly love the result and the result is what you need in your life, shoulds can still be chosen. We don’t have to totally take shoulds off the table. And there’s a lot of that kind of talk, I think, out in the personal development world like, “No shoulds.” But honestly, I don’t feel like doing a lot of the things I need to do most days responsibility-wise. They are shoulds. But they are chosen because of the results or because of the benefit or what I know my responsibilities need me to do.
Shoulds can be chosen. So, if you’ve deeply truly chosen the should, which is the first step, then you have to get clear about your baseline. And ask yourself, is this actually a baseline? Because it needs to be so small and simple that you can do it even when you don’t want to. That’s how small and simple it needs to be. And once you do that, you get the momentum, which is a whole other topic. And you might organically be like, “Oh, I can do another deep breath, or I can spend another minute on this exposure,” and ride that wave if you feel like it.
Kimberley: Right. And so, what I would offer to people if I’m going off of your example is, on your baseline day, on your hottest day, you could purposely have a thought you don’t want to have, and that’s it. That could be your baseline. Or another would be, let’s say there’s something you avoid. You could just do it for one minute, be around that thing you avoid for one minute. Is that what we’re looking for? Like one minute?
Kimberley: Good. Baby steps.
Monica: Yes. And don’t underestimate the power of these baselines. One of the biggest powers is momentum that I mentioned, but the other biggest one that honestly to me might even be more weighty than the momentum is the confidence. It’s the identity shift and how you view your capacity to form habits, and your capacity to follow through with the things you say you’re going to do for yourself.
Kimberley: Right. Isn’t that such a big piece of it? Like how many times have I-- let’s say a client has panic disorder and getting on the elevator is so painful because they’re so afraid of having a panic attack on an elevator, for example. And they’re standing at the doors and they’re saying, “I can’t. I just can’t do it.” That’s that confidence piece, right? Because we know we can. We could actually argue like, “No, you just take one foot and you put your foot on the elevator and then you put the other foot on the elevator and you’re in the elevator.” I think that that’s an interesting piece. And I talk a lot about motivation, but what you are bringing to the table, and correct me if I’m wrong, is there are many ways in which we could get motivation and momentum and confidence, but habits is another way.
Monica: Yes. And for me, these baseline versions are, go to a bigger picture concept that I teach in my community of creating momentum instead of waiting for motivation. And it’s just physics. It really is just using physics here. But like you said, it’s the confidence piece. It’s the identity piece of being someone who can face fears, of someone who can show up for themselves, even on the hard days, on all these levels that we’ve talked about. It really helps. The identity piece too is really important.
Kimberley: Right. Okay. So, you’re having a hard day. You originally, when we were chatting, were talking about the dark days. We call them a dark day, a hard day, the worst day and all the things. On the days where that’s the hardest of days, the darkest of days, we usually have a lot of thoughts about our capacity to do hard things on the dark day. I know we touched on this, but what is the mindset shift to allowing yourself to be in a baseline day? I’ll give you a personal example. When I have POTS, when I’ve massively relapsed, the day before I could walk three miles, no problem. And on my relapse days, I am lucky if I can get around the block. Lucky. That is lucky. And so, what needs to happen there to give ourselves permission to-- because I’ve actually been the person who goes, “Nope, I refuse this to be a bad day. I am going for that damn three-mile walk,” and then all hell gets broken. It’s horrible. There’s consequences to be paid for pushing myself. So, is there a piece here about the permission? That’s the main last piece I want to ask.
Monica: Oh yes. This alone takes a tremendous amount of courage. People, they think, “Oh, what? Habit probation takes courage?” Yeah, it does, especially if you’re doing it differently than the way that you’ve been taught. And this is where I would go back to something about proving yourself wrong. Doing something in a different way as a way to bolster your confidence and also your know-how, but to say like, “Maybe I can just try to see, I can just prove my old self wrong here. Does this still help? Is it still a way to show myself I care about myself?” on your really bad days where you’re recovering. Is this stretch still giving to your body? Is it still saying “I see you” and “I love you and I’m trying to help you and I know you’re trying to help me”? Maybe you can’t even do that block, but you can do a sense salutation or sorry, that’s the movement I keep doing over here, like what is she doing? That’s the movement I keep doing.
What I would help people do who are stuck in that all-or-nothing mindset, it’s so hard to let go of. Believe me, I know. Adopt the mindset of curiosity of what would it look like to try this out? Can I prove myself wrong? And I would also get a little logical and look back on your past and say, “Overall, how has this all-or-nothing model served me? Has it helped me more or hurt me?” For the high majority of people, high majority, it hurts more than helps.
Pay attention to the price you have paid in the past for the all and just acknowledge it takes real strength to do this. That’s one thing-- I had a client say this years ago. She said it takes the greatest of courage to do the smallest of things. And that’s where I would end. Just dare to have that courage to try the smallest of things and to try them again and again and again and see over time. You’ve got to give yourself that time to see how it can prove yourself wrong overall. And that these small ways we invest in ourselves, not only add up, but they count in the moment too.
Kimberley: Right. So beautiful. I have one more tactical question before I let you go. So, would you have people have a breakdown of all the steps to create a habit plan? Meaning, let’s say the goal is to get-- a lot of people here are working at developing a good exposure plan. Let’s say we’re goaling towards 30 minutes a day. Would you say, “Okay, on the dark hard days, we do two minutes. So, that’s reserved for the dark hard days. And then from there, we’re going to work at two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, six minutes. And then by the end of the month, we want to be at nine minutes.”? Would you break it down like that or is that actually the opposite of the plan here that you’re trying to go for in terms of a supportive plan?
Monica: So, the bigger question I believe you’re asking is, how do we build, do it strategically or what does that look like? I would say that depends on what the habit is and the purpose of the habit. So, if this is more of like a therapy-based habit that you’ve been working on with clients, I would say it might be helpful to have that game plan. Perhaps not based on a certain time, but more about how consistently they’re able to perform the baseline version, and from there have the foundation they need to build.
In general, though, for most habits, it goes two ways. You can either maximize or add. You can do longer amounts of the habit or more intensity, that’s maximizing, or you can add. That means you add another step to the bigger routine you want. And I find that can go two directions. One, strategically, you can think like, okay, this is my game plan. Maybe I don’t have an exact deadline, like in two weeks. It’s more organic feeling. It’s more intuitive. I feel strong enough. I feel like I’m in momentum. I feel like I have the structure I need to add or to maximize. But yeah, it still can be done strategically. But most of the time, it just happens organically. You just are able to-- that baseline rises, like we talked about. And as a baseline rises, that means you tend to have more like normal days in between days where you can do a step or two above naturally and organically.
So, that depends. But ultimately, I think, have trust in yourself to know what you need for a specific habit. Do I need this to be strategic or am I okay to do this more intuitively and organically? But no matter what, starting with the ideal in mind is what gives you the target that you are headed towards.
Kimberley: Right. And that you can, any day, even if you’re on your way up to the strategic plan, you can rely on your base plan if needed. That’s your backup.
Monica: Always, always. And even over time, as your baselines rise, you still have that under baseline you can always fall back to. If seasons change, your life change, circumstances change, your health changes, those are always there for you.
Kimberley: Right. Love it. All right. Tell us where we can hear more about you.
Monica: Well, I am a podcaster on About Progress. We’re a personal development show. We don’t just talk about habits there. We talk about a lot of things. And I’d love for them to come and listen. And I do have a course on habit formation and it’s for women. I know there are men listening here, but it’s primarily for those who identify as women because of the bigger thing I have to teach about why habits spell in particular for women. So, it’s called the Sticky Habit Method, and they can go check that out at aboutprogress.com/stickyhabitmethod. And it says sticky habit because you form habits that stick.
Kimberley: Nice. I love it. Oh my gosh, it’s so wonderful to have you. Like I said, your episode about perfectionism that we’ve done is a really high-rated episode. If you want to go back and listen to that, that would be cool too. Yeah, absolutely.
Monica: That’s really the heart of all my work, including habit formation. Who knew I would even get into habits, but we’re here.
Kimberley: I love it. I love it. Thank you so much for coming on. I’ve loved listening. I’ve been the student today as well, so that was awesome.
Monica: I love that. Thank you.
Kimberley: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
STICKY HABIT METHOD https://www.workinprogressacademy.co/sticky-habit-method
FREE HABIT CLASS FOR WOMEN https://workinprogressacademy.mykajabi.com/women-habits-class