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The Neuroscience of Bad Habits and Why It’s Not About Will Power

Why are bad habits so hard to break? What if the bumper sticker “Just Say No!” actually works against us? If willpower were the answer to breaking bad habits then we  decisionswouldn’t have drug addiction or obesity. There’s something going on in our brains where we literally lose the ability for self-control, but all hope isn’t lost.

Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls the phrase “Just Say No!” “magical thinking.”

It appears that dopamine is one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure center of the brain. At the most basic level, it regulates motivation — it sends signals to receptors in the brain saying, “This feels good!”

Whether you’re a heroin addict and you see an association to heroin, you’re a caffeine addict and you see a cup of coffee, you’re a Smartphone addict and you see another person pick up their phone, or if you’re hungry and you see some good-looking food, your brain rushes with dopamine and that is now caught on brain-scanning machines.

The fascinating thing is that Volkow has found that  the images alone affect the rise of dopamine in our brains. So if we pass a McDonald’s and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling will unconsciously drive the motivation to go in and get a Big Mac. It’s a conditioned response. The same goes for anything including most likely our relationships to our phones.

A blue button with the word Change on it

What can we do?

It makes sense why more and more addiction centers are integrating mindfulness into their curriculum. Mindfulness practice has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex and cool down the amygdala. This gives us the ability to widen the space between stimulus and response where choice lies and access possibilities and opportunities we didn’t know were there before. This is crucial when it comes to our addictive behaviors to take a step back, “think through the drink” and recognize the various options that lie before us.

We can learn to step into the pause, notice the sensation of the urge that’s there and as the late Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. said, “surf the urge” as it peaks, crests and falls back down like a wave in the ocean.

One place to start is to just get curious about the pull you feel to whatever you think you’re compulsive with. An easy one besides some of the arguably more destructive habits (drugs, alcohol) is our phones.

Today, be on the lookout for what cues you to check your app. Do you see someone else doing it? Are you waiting somewhere and there’s something uncomfortable about waiting? Is it a certain time of day or place?

Training your brain to recognize this cue can help you get some space from it to ask, “What do I really want to pay attention to right now? What matters?” As we get better at recognizing that space between stimulus and response and making the choices that run alongside our values, like riding a bike, it will start to come more naturally.

Just because our brains have been altered by our compulsive behaviors, doesn’t mean we’re destined to fall into the same habits. With the right skills, community and support we can learn how to break out of routine and into a life worth living.

By Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. 
 
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Why ‘2-minute Mornings’ Might Be More Effective Than New Year’s Resolutions

A fool-proof way of sticking to your New Year’s resolution

Author Neil Pasricha takes us through new ways to cultivate happiness and success in 2018.

Neil Pasricha would like to see the end of New Year’s resolutions.

The motivational speaker and bestselling author of “The Book of Awesome” and “The Happiness Equation” says the problem with resolutions is that they tend to be vague and are thus doomed to fail.

“I don’t think resolutions work. I know they don’t work from the research, and I don’t think they’re doing us much good because if you start a resolution and you fail, you just feel worse about yourself,” he told CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday.

The reason that most New Year’s resolutions fail is that they are just goals, not specific plans of action, Pasricha believes. What we need instead are systems that will force us to change our bad behaviours and create new habits.

“Systems beat goals every time,” Pasricha said, and added that if we truly want change, we have to force ourselves to change.

“So if you want to lose 10 pounds, maybe sell your car and walk to work. Now you have no car, so the system is, how will you get to work?” he explained. Any plan that regiments us into new habits will eventually force a shift in behaviour, he said.

One change in habits that Pasricha recently developed for himself is what he calls “two-minute mornings.” Every morning, Pasricha forces himself to take two minutes and “invest” them into reflection and planning out the rest of his day.

“The way I look at it is we are awake for about 1,000 minutes a day. My challenge for myself is to take two minutes to make the other 998 more effective, more productive and more positive,” he explained.

During those two minutes, he forces himself to write out the answers to three prompts: one for looking back; one for being mindful of the right now; and one to look ahead to what’s next. They are:

“I will let go of…”
“I am grateful for…”
“I will focus on…”

The first prompt is a time for some unloading of stress and guilt and a little self-forgiveness– not unlike what Catholics engage in when they step into a confessional.

“We all carry around anxieties and stresses. All of us do. If you think you don’t, you’re lying,” Pasricha said.

By reflecting on what needs to be let go, we can unload some of the stress we needlessly place on ourselves, and perhaps stop comparing ourselves to unfair standards.

The next prompt is designed to move away from guilt, stress and negativity and place the focus on all the things that are good about our lives right now.

Even though we live in a time of great abundance, with longer lifespans than ever, more technology, advanced health care, and less warfare, we’re more stressed and anxious than ever, Pasricha said. By focusing on what we’re grateful for, we can remind ourselves how lucky we are.

“If you focus on the positive, you’ll keep looking for it every day,” Pasricha said.

Finally, he said it’s important to set three small, achievable goals a day. Things such as: calling or emailing a friend; going for an evening walk; being friendly with cashiers and asking them about their day.

The aim is to create bite-sized goals that you then check off as accomplishments at the end of the day

“Take the endless list of things you could do, and narrow it down to three things you will do that day,” Pasricha advised.

Angela Mulholland, Staff writer   @AngeMulholland     December 27, 2017
 


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How to Change Your Life at Any Age

At some point during your adult life, it’s normal to find yourself feeling like you’re in a bit of a rut. Big changes may need to happen at any age — whether you’re dealing with a quarterlife crisis, a midlife crisis or even a big adjustment to retired life.

Life is a journey that’s constantly flowing, regardless of the number of candles that will be on your next birthday cake. For you to stay in the same place forever would mean to resist growth. And that’s what we’re all here to do anyway — we’re here to grow.

Big life changes don’t happen overnight, and making too big of a change too fast can backfire. So here are a few small changes you can incorporate into your current daily routine. Within as little as a few weeks, you’ll start seeing hints of change — and within a couple months to a year, it will really pay off.

Avoid distracting yourself for at least 20 to 30 minutes first thing in the morning.

The first half hour or so after waking up is when many people are in their most vulnerable state. Sticking to a habit out of going from still half asleep to immediately checking email, turning on the morning news, wrangling the kids out of bed or even just thinking about everything that gets done that day is a surefire way to keep yourself in a reactive state of mind rather than an intentional state of mind all day, every day.

Research has shown that as people age, their brains become better at functioning best in the morning. By taking as little as 20 minutes to do nothing more than maybe grab your coffee/tea and jump in the shower, you can use those initial moments of wakefulness to mindfully tune into yourself so you can decide exactly what you want to be intentional about that day.

Start meditating daily.

If you want, you can use your distraction-free morning period to meditate. Meditation has been shown to change both the brain and body over time — so much so that it can have anti-aging effects.

Imagine how your life could change if you could free yourself from what already happened in the past and what you’re worried about happening in the future. Meditation facilitates this by helping you ground yourself in your physical body as well as in the present moment. If you’re hesitant about starting a daily meditation practice, check out these five easy ways to meditate if meditation scares you.

A blue button with the word Change on it

Organize your thoughts and feelings by writing in a daily journal.

You can learn a heck of a lot about yourself just by doing a big mind-dump on paper. Never mind proper spelling or grammar — just put pen to paper and let your hand write whatever comes to mind.

Handwriting has been scientifically proven to be more beneficial than typing. Consider writing in the morning to help you be more intentional about your day, or do it at night to reflect on what you achieved and what you learned that day.

Shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Stanford University researchers Carol Dweck teaches us that there are typically two types of mindsets. An individual who has a fixed mindset believes that their potential is only as good as the traits they were born with while an individual who has a growth mindset believes that their potential can be developed through learning and effort.

After we finish school and become adults, many of us unconsciously commit to a life without as much learning because we’re so busy with our adult responsibilities. And yet, learning is how we grow. Commit to a growth mindset to get back on track with learning new things, which will help to inspire change.

Spend time around people who possess the qualities that you want for yourself.

Motivational speaker and self-help expert Jim Rohn has a famous quote that says: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If you feel like you’re in a rut and having a hard time making significant change, perhaps it would be worth taking a look at whose energy is rubbing off on you and contributing to your subconscious “stuck” feeling.

You don’t have to stop hanging around those people, but it wouldn’t hurt to connect with new people who have the personality traits, skills, knowledge, experience and interests that you want to embody as well. Consider getting a mentor, getting involved with a club or even doing something as simple as joining a Facebook group to find people whose energy you want to match.

Don’t worry too much about getting it wrong. Your newly adopted growth mindset will help you see that there are no wrong changes to make and that every change has a lesson to teach you in a valuable way that will help you grow.

By: Elise Moreau           September 1, 2016         Follow Elise at @elisem0reau
source: www.care2.com


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How To Let Go Of Unneeded Attachments And Experience True Freedom

August 2, 2015   Steven Bancarz

              “Attachment is the root of all suffering” – Buddha

We all want to be free and feel free, but what does this really look like?  Most people imagine it looks like something along the lines of being your own boss, not living by the alarm clock, or leaving the ratrace.  The truth is, freedom is more of a mental state than anything else, and you can be working a 9-5 job and be absolutely free.  You can also be your own boss and be totally enslaved.

It all comes down to your intentions, your desires, and your level of attachment to particular outcomes.  Are you resisting your heart and resisting life, or are you flowing with them both and embracing each moment?  For the last year and a half, I have been my own boss.  I have also been more of a slave than ever before up until recently, not because of my lifestyle, but because of my mentality.

Here are 5 attachments we need to let go of to experience true freedom in life:

1) Societies expectations

Your dad wants you to get a good education.  Your mom wants you to find a nice girl or guy to marry.  Your teachers want to see you land a 9-5 job.  The media forces down your throat what the “ideal” life is and wants you to spend your life chasing after the “American dream”.  All of these outside influences keep you trapped in a state of mind that is plagued by the constant need to impress someone or live up to expectations that have nothing to do with what YOU really want to do as a person.

Maybe you want to drop out of school and start your own business.  Maybe you want to be single, and you are content without having very much money or material items.  The world around you is constantly trying to make you into someone you are not by imposing their expectations on to your life.  This creates a program in your psychology that keeps you constantly trying fulfill these expectations to feel like you are “successful”, when in reality you are spending your energy trying to make a mark in someone else’s consciousness to gain their approval.  To be free is to live for yourself.

2) Your past

Your past doesn’t define who you are.  Contrary to what people around you may tell you, you are not defined by your sins, achievements, mistakes, successes, or failures.  Anything you have done in your past, whether it is good or bad, will prevent you from evolving if you are attached to it.  If it is bad and you are attached to it, you are going to cause yourself depression and self-hate over something that no longer even exists.  If it is good and you are attached to it, you are projecting yourself out of the present moment and into a memory-stream.

Your past is meant to act as a guide and a compass to serve you, but we are told by the world that we are the sum of our history.  When we apply for a job, we are expected to provide a resume.  We are also expected to provide a kind of resume to the world when we are discussing who we are as a person.  When we see an old friend we haven’t seen in a while, the first thing that often comes up is “What have you been up to?”.

This translates into “What have you done or accomplished within your recent past?”, which keeps us attached to the past and reliant on it for our sense of identity and worth in the world.  Whatever you have or haven’t done in your past, it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t define you.  The only thing that matters is what you choose to do with this moment moving forward.

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3) The need to impress others

The need to impress others ultimately comes from our egos, which are products of millions of years of evolution.  It has created a spirit of competition within us that keeps us enslaved to the constant need to outshine other members of our species. The species that are fastest, strongest, and most adaptable are the ones that carry over into the next generation and reproduce, and this is the purpose the ego has served us in our past.

This is not needed in a modern society of rational human beings, but the sense of needing to compete with one another ultimately stems from an archaic part of our brains that is still wired through millions of years of evolution.  This translates into competing for “likes” with other people on Facebook, comparing cars, bank accounts, or physical fitness levels. It manifests in the need to be recognized, the instinct to compare ourselves with others, the need to make impressions on others, and so forth.

Being free from your ego is the key to being free from feeling like you have to outshine other people.  Live for yourself, and be true to what you want in life.  A lot of people work at jobs they hate to buy things they can’t afford to impress people they don’t even know, and this all boils down to being identified with the ego.

4) Fear of the future

Fear of the future stems from us projecting our attention away from the present moment and into an undesirable hypothetical moment that doesn’t even exist.  Because our attention is consumed with that undesirable hypothetical moment, emotions begin to generate within our energy field that correspond to those thoughts.

There is nothing scary about the future.  The future is only scary of we anticipate failure and pain, and we would only anticipate failure of pain if we lack confidence or self-esteem in the present moment.  The key to overcoming fear of the future comes in two parts.  First, we have to keep our mind and attention concentrated on what is happening within the present moment.  Secondly, we have to overcome any feelings of disbelief we have in ourselves.

The future is nothing to fear. It is just another present moment just like this one.  If we can learn how to tap into the present moment and make it as awesome as possible, our future is guaranteed to be as awesome as possible since the future is just an extension of the present moment.

5) Relationships that aren’t worth it

Relationships come in all shapes and sizes.  Romantic partnerships, friends, family members, co-workers.  Sometimes, we remain in relationships we know we don’t want to be in simply because we don’t want to hurt another person.  In other words, we maintain relationships and friendships with people out of a feeling a guilt.

If you are staying in a relationship that isn’t worth it because of guilt, then you are attaching yourself to an unhealthy situation out of fear.  So many people put up with unhappy marriages and relationships out of fear, forgetting that life is too short to do anything but follow your heart.  Let go of fear and give yourself permission to follow your heart.  Being free means being free to expressive yourself, say what you mean, and feel what you feel, even if it means it may make someone else unhappy.

You are not free in life until you are free from all attachment.  You can still work hard, be ambitious, and be in relationships without being attached and dependent upon a particular outcome to rectify your existence.  Just as much as we pursue money, education, and health we should pursue freedom.   Am I following my heart?  Am I living for myself or for my parents? Am I being true to what I feel each moment?


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The Psychology Of Habit: Why We Become What We Repeatedly Do

BY BRIANNA WIEST

Understanding whether or not our personalities are fixed or malleable – and to what degree – has been the question philosophers and neuroscientists alike have spent years trying to understand. It’s comforting to attribute our most debilitating qualities to just being “who we are.” It lets us off the hook, it helps procrastinate change. Yet, when we remain unconscious of the fact that we can change our natural inclinations to the point that we can actually change the way our brains fire off response signals, we will simply be continually living out patterns that we developed in youth, and never grew out of.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together” is the single sentence that can sum up Hebbian theory, Donald Hebb’s idea that with repeated activation, neurons connect themselves to be engrams, or permanent restructures of the brain. The modern term is neuroplasticity, and the idea is that the brain can create new neural pathways to adapt to its “comfort zones” is likely one of the most crucial and underutilized concepts for self-actualization.

In other words, what you do, you become. You end up where you’re headed. If your life ultimately amounts to what you do each day, then real change lies in the adjustment of small habits. This isn’t always instinctive, though. It’s a common belief that habitualness is born of monotony and lack of character. Many philosophers even idealize a habit-free existence. Alva Noë at NPR believes this is a mistake. She argues:

Goethe said that architecture is frozen music. Actually, architecture is frozen habit. A habit-free existence would be a robotic existence; it would be one in which nothing could be taken for granted. But if nothing can be taken for granted, you can’t get started on anything. How could you talk, if you couldn’t take your own fluency, that is to say, your own habitual mastery of words, meanings, and ways of talking, for granted? How could you read the newspaper? Imagine that you had to think about and decide where to put your feet in the morning! Without habits nothing recognizable as a human or even animal form of life would be possible. To have a mind like ours, you need habits like ours.

Essentially, it’s not about trying to eliminate our habits and inclinations, but structuring them to serve our ultimate goals.

If you want to be a creative, you must train yourself to be comfortable with creating. If you no longer want to play out your relationship to your parents in your relationship to your spouse, you must train yourself not to. If you want to more easily release negative thoughts or care less about what people think,  you have to choose to do so until it becomes second nature.

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Our deepest internal battles, it seems, may simply be our conscious choice-making riding up against our current neurological structure.

Psychologist and philosopher William James wrote Habit in 1887, and was one of the first  to explain how behavioral patterns shape what we refer to as character and personality more than we think. In one of the most beautiful passages, he explains the gift of habit like this:

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the ‘shop,’ in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

Yet, despite all of this, there is something inherently appealing about making profound, sweeping change. We imagine how happy we want to be, yet cannot fathom how writing down one thing we’re happy for each day could possibly create that much change. Yet, it’s essentially a momentum effect. It’s the same concept of why decluttering is important, or why subconscious biases control your life more than your conscious choices do: what you expose yourself to repeatedly shapes who you are. Here, B.J. Fogg explains exactly how that happens.

You have more control over your life than you think you do. Often, it’s not about struggling to discern what you can’t control – but actually wanting to take control of it. When we assume that we’re treading uphill against our inclinations, it makes adapting to new ways an almost impossible feat. When we recognize that our responses will build and physically regulate themselves, we realize that it’s not a matter of whether or not we can, but whether or not we will have the discipline to do.

Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thoughts as, for example: Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible. – Marcus Aurelius


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How to Change Your Life, Even If You’re Terrified to Do It

by Shannon Kaiser     January 24, 2016

This post is part of a series by Shannon Kaiser called Live Your Life — a primer on finding your passion and living with purpose. Each day this week, we’ll post one article offering the foundational elements you need to go deeper in the search for your life’s true meaning. When you’re ready to take the next step, check out Shannon’s course: Get Unstuck: How To Find Your Calling & Live A Life With More Meaning.

I spent my twenties in a career that I thought I wanted, but eventually it suffocated my soul. I was climbing the corporate ladder in advertising, but my life lacked real passion and meaning. I was terrified to change my life. I thought, “What would I do for a living? Everything I worked for led me here; this is what I wanted. Now, I have to tough it out and go through the motions.”

I continued this path until I couldn’t ignore the truth any longer. It took a formal diagnosis of clinical depression for me to wake up and see that I needed a change.

Flash-forward to today: I am living my dream life as a writer, coach, and course leader. I am depression-free, and I live a life with passion and purpose.

It can be terrifying to move forward and make a change. I get it. I’ve been there. But the reality is that you don’t have to change all at once. All you have to do is be brave enough to make one small change, one day, one moment at a time. Courage is what will pull you into a happier life.

There are certain small steps you can take today to help you change your life and make a better tomorrow, right now.

It’s important to identify the difference between change and transformation. As psychotherapist Teri Cole says, “We all say we want change, but with change you can always change back. What we really want is transformation.” When you transform, you’ll never go back to your old way of living. So as we sail gracefully into the new year, let’s begin our transformations with these easy steps:

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1. Clear out clutter.
Stuff can pile up and add unnecessary stress to your life. Physical stuff, emotional stuff, and even mental clutter can prevent you from moving forward. Remember, one small change one step at a time can make a profound difference for you, so as Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests, ask yourself if your stuff brings you joy. If you don’t feel happy, it’s time to chuck it. This includes people, jobs, habits, and objects.

2. Nourish the nudge.
You may feel stuck, but focusing on the negative won’t fix anything. If you want to truly change your life, start to pay attention to the inspiration and insights you get — nudges from our inner guide cluing us into what to do next. Even if you don’t know what you want, focus on nurturing and nourishing the nudges that come to you. This could be as simple as following through on the inspiration to go to a bookstore and get a new book, look at YouTube channels, or call a friend and ask for advice.

3. Follow your joy route.
My pivotal moment of transformation came when I decided to make joy my priority. I asked, “What brings me joy?” and made sure I did it every day. This led me to adopt a dog, who helped to pull me out of depression and inspired me to leave the corporate world and work from home. I pulled out my bucket list, updated it to include only things I really cared about, and decided to start checking things off. As I checked things off, I discovered more about my authentic self.

4. Visit your future self.
Visualizing yourself happy and healthy is a key component to manifesting. When I first left my corporate job, I would fall asleep picturing myself as a published author and a travel writer working and writing from all over the world. Today this is my reality. You have to picture it and believe it is possible in your mind before you can achieve it.

5. Find a mentor.
Finding a person you respect and admire to help light the path is key to long-term success. Look for people who have what you want — they can show you the way there. The world’s top life coaches, authors, and CEOs have mentors, coaches, and experts helping them. Mentors help us learn the way on the way, and propel us forward much faster.

If you feel stuck, paralyzed by fear, know that it will evaporate when you take action. Action brings clarity and confidence. The more action you take, the less fear you’ll feel.


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5 Ways to Create Lasting Change in Your Life

Posted: 08/20/2015 

When you think about how hard it is to make changes in your life, you’re tempted to give up before you even start. It’s easier to coast through a good enough life. Everywhere you look, another person or situation trying to convince you a mediocre life is perfectly fine.

In one of her songs, Taylor Swift says, “People throw rocks at things that shine.” Marianne Williamson is famous for saying, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”

Society has conditioned us against stepping out and claiming the kind of life we want to live. Life is short and time can never be recovered. Each moment is precious and should be lived to the fullest. Here are five ways to create lasting change that leads to an amazing life.


1. Start with the inner work. Real change starts within each of us. There are struggles and self-limiting beliefs that we have to battle before we can move forward. Take some time for a self-examination of where you are and where you want to be. Address that little voice in your head that gets uncomfortable at the thought of stepping outside of your comfort zone.

2. Be honest with yourself. For the inner work to manifest, it starts with honesty. It’s too easy to lie — especially to ourselves. Real change starts with getting honest about the things that have held you back in the past, and what scares you about the future. Change lasts when you get honest and stay honest. You will have setbacks, and the honesty helps you keep from covering up what will help you.

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3. Focus on one step at a time. When you look at the big picture, it’s easy to get discouraged at everything that needs to happen to create change. If you want to lose 50 pounds, it seems daunting. If you want to leave a job you hate, you get 100 thoughts of all that needs to happen. The best way to approach lasting change is to focus on your next steps. Don’t look at the big pictures. Instead, break this down into bite size goals that you work on every day.

4. Forms habits. Lasting change is most successful when you focus on creating habits. Habits are making lifestyle shifts versus quick wins. You incorporate the changes you want to make into your daily routine. You focus on changing how you think about the things you want to change, which affects the actions you take.

5. Stay accountable. Having support in your life can be the difference between success and failure. As much as we want to try this alone, having someone to get honest with you or hold your hand when you stumble, is crucial. It can be family, friends, or a support group, but stay accountable to avoid giving into excuses.

I realize this is all easier said than done, but I hope you realize how important this is. The death of my father and grandfather were my wake up call. They were the catalyst to shake me out of a 12-year period in my life that could best be described as existing. Today, I’m truly living and loving life.

I don’t know what your dream life looks like. I only know you can and should do something about it. You can make your dream a reality, and it starts with creating lasting change in your life. Use these five ways to claim the life you truly deserve!