How do you change habits…with or without effort?

During a recent walk in a Redwood grove near our home, I watched my 11 year old Bernese mountain dog, Dharma, navigate the terrain strewn with fallen branches and leaves. Glancing up, taking in the majestic trees soaring skywards towards a vanishing point, my gaze kept swiveling back to Dharma, with her dramatic thick white, black and rust colored coat standing out in the muted forest colors.

Bernese mountain dogs average lifespan being just 7 years, she was now at 11 1/2, clearly not eager to leave this life. Led by her nose and sense of smell, she ambled along slowly, inhaling what were no doubt to her stimulating aromas from the forest floor. I couldn’t help noticing however, she moved far more cautiously than when younger, picking her way among the tree stumps and other detritus.

Despite a body lacking in youthful flexibility, she continued to exert effort, even with her gammy leg, to reach the next enticing smell.


As I observed her being engrossed in her habitual sniffing, I pondered the issues that clients tell me become obstacles to being able to sustain what habits they want to cultivate or adhere to.


Most commonly, I hear about new, healthier habits being started. After a short period of time, these new habits drop off. Not many of us like to admit having started a new habit, but then are able to confess to losing momentum until quite some time has passed, long enough to warrant it being history.


An exercise program is frequently quoted as being in this category, along with healthier food choices. For my both my clinical and coaching practices, I contemplated new perspectives I could offer in order to help my clients instigate better self-care choices. Ones that will become enduring.

So rather than reviewing my “standard” tied and true behavioral change suggestions, as  I watched Dharma, my mind entertained the notion of what could I learn from my dog?


I happen to be one of those people who ardently believes our pets are tremendous teachers, if we could just absorb their lessons!


Her behavior hadn’t changed since she was a puppy. But as her aging body cooperated less, her mind continued its relentless investigation of smells. Granted, I doubt whether she exerted much mental effort, relying more on instinct. But clearly, more physical effort was needed.


As humans, blessed and cursed with an unruly, restless mind that seems to have a mind of its own, it’s mostly about what we choose to do.


Wise choice means being able to effectively weight up the pros and cons of various options. Educating ourselves as to what they are allows for informed decisions. Even learning the ‘best’ way to implement the winning choice can be done…but what happens after that?


Initially, novelty and desire for something different carries us through the early stages of a new habit. But once that lessens, as it inevitably does, many of us power on through, or utilize increasingly more effort to not slip back into old ways.


I’ve been there, gritting my teeth and intent on maintaining what ground I’ve gained. Maintenance becomes the mantra.


But wait, maintaining? Or should it be sustaining…? And what difference does it make?


Turns out, there is is difference.




Maintaining something takes effort, lots of it. It’s not a smooth experience, as much as constant exertion, a slog which turns out to be draining energetically.


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Sustaining, on the other hand, moves along well-oiled tracks. An occasional nudge, a check-in or monitoring with a light touch to ensure all is going well.


Sustaining generates its own volition. No heavy lifting required.


Learn to tell them apart


Contemplate how they feel different in the body, in the mind.

With maintenance, notice any gripping in the mind, clinging to an idea. Often it shows up as tightness, clenching, determination to the exclusion of all else. Granted, there are times that it gets us through something. But at a cost to overall balance.


Alternatively, contemplate sustaining a habit. It has a lightness, an ease surrounding it. Less gripping, more spaciousness, flow. It seems to float rather then being driven along.

It still needs attention, but a tad less. And a lot less hard-driving effort.



If you notice how much energy you use to continue with a new habit, that your mind or body grips, clings, feels smothered, try connecting with your breath. Take two or three deeper breaths whilst keeping your attention on the breath.


Mentally picture yourself effortless achieving where you hope your new habit will take you. Imagine yourself in a large roomy space rather then crunched up in a tight one. Loosen your mental grip on the habit, approach it lightly, see it as surrounded by spaciousness, working effortlessly on your behalf.

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  1. Paul says:

    Dharma’s mom,

    Once again, I’m drawn in by your wonderful story telling . . . drawing important lessons from every day life & providing helpful guidance to light the way.

  2. susanne gray says:

    Now that resonates to my way of seeing the world! Thank-you.

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