I applied sunscreen in the rain, and it felt like victory.
Here’s why: I’m trying to build a habit.
Three months ago, I set three resolutions for myself as part of the research for my next book: To lose weight, to finish the first draft of my next book, and to make a habit of applying sunscreen every day. The book is about how to set and keep resolutions and it comes out in November.
Resolution #2: Apply sunscreen every day
Because of meds that keep my transplanted kidney functioning, I’m not supposed to get any sun at all. Doctors recommend applying sunscreen every day of the year, rain or shine.
But when I sat down to finalize my three resolutions, I wasn’t sure if I should even include this one. How hard could it be to simply apply sunscreen every day? This goal simply didn’t seem challenging enough to include in a book about resolutions.
Surprisingly, this turned out to be the most challenging resolution for me. It’s not that I was going out in the sun without sunscreen, but I had a difficult time of turning this into a habit. My specific resolution was to apply sunscreen every day when I take my morning medicine, plus again after I shower or go swimming, plus again before I’m going to be in the sun.
Since I was piggybacking the morning sunscreen application onto a habit I’ve already established (taking my meds), I figured it would be easy. After all, I have set a bunch of reminders on my phone and Google Home devices to make sure I never miss a dose of the anti-rejection meds that keep my new kidney functioning.
In practice, this resolution was more challenging than it needed to be. There were two reasons for this. First, I don’t like the way sunscreen feels on my face. I like the way my face feels clean after I’ve just washed it, but sunscreen makes my face feel dirty and gloopy. I use a lotion that is supposed to be good for my skin, but it still feels oily. The good news is that the more times I applied this sunscreen to my face, the less it bothered me.
My second challenge was that I have a severe aversion to waste, so the idea of putting sunscreen on my face before I actually needed it was difficult for me. Why put on sunscreen if was raining outside, or if I wasn’t planning to spend any time outside? Or worse, if I took my meds right before I was planning to have a shower.
While this line of thought rationally made sense, it was also getting in the way of me forming a habit around sunscreen. I knew from my book research that building a habit is about establishing a pattern in the brain’s fast, automatic processor, but I was relying too heavily on the slow, reflective processor. Giving up reason to blindly chase my resolution was difficult, but essential to my success.
I also realized that my problem was that my resolution of “apply lots of sunscreen often” was in contrast with my deeply-held “don’t waste” belief. Once I understood this conflict, I was able to make a decision that avoiding skin cancer was the more important goal, re-commit to my resolution, and forget the things that were getting in the way.
One week before the deadline to my resolution, I was doing better. But I still wasn’t perfect at applying sunscreen without fail each time I took my morning meds, got out of the shower, or was about to go outside. In general, I’m a believer that perfection is the enemy of progress, but when it comes to habits, I know that establishing a consistent pattern is what makes them stick. Over the last week of my resolutions goal — and in the weeks since — I feel like I’ve done better at establishing this as a habit. The real test comes over the next few weeks as we move from sunscreen season to fall here in Canada.
But the other day when it was pouring rain outside and I automatically reached for the sunscreen after taking my meds, I knew I had been successful in establishing my habit.
What I learned along the way
Learn from mistakes. During the first 11 weeks of my resolutions experiment, I went white water rafting with my son. Although I applied sunscreen regularly, wore a long-sleeved shirt, and used a helmet to protect my head from both the sun and an accident, I got a burn. I got a small burn on my thighs and a more intense burn on my wrists. The outcome here was not ideal — since I’m not supposed to get any sun, let alone a burn — but I decided to look at this as a learning experience. In this situation, after all, I had followed my sunscreen plan, but made some mistakes. Although it was nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the water, I should have worn long pants. Even 60 SPF waterproof sunscreen, applied regularly, wasn’t enough to protect my legs from the intense UV. My second mistake was to assume that my long-sleeved dry fit shirt would protect my wrists. As I paddled, the shirt pulled up and I got a burn. Since that day, I’ve made sure to include my wrists when I apply sunscreen.
Thinking can be harmful for your habit. When trying to establish a habit, the key is to respond to a specific cue with a specific routine. Every time. No questions asked. My mind kept getting in the way by offering up reasons why I didn’t really need to apply sunscreen in a particular situation — like when it was raining outside. It’s not that my mind was wrong; it was just getting in the way of me forming a default habit.
Peaceful resolutions matter. Resolutions need to be peaceful, that is, they need to be in harmony with your own core values, and they need to be in harmony with each other. But I discovered that applying sunscreen regularly was in contrast with my core belief of “don’t waste.” At first I thought “don’t waste” was a value, but I realized it was more of a self-limiting belief. Perhaps deep down, I believed I didn’t deserve all that sunscreen. When I weighed these differing objectives, I realized that this was a situation where doing whatever it takes to establish a new habit was much more important than not wasting sunscreen.
The other resolutions
And what about the other two goals, related to weight loss and finishing the first draft of my resolutions book? I shared the results of my weight loss goal in this post, and I’ll update you on my writing resolution in an upcoming post.