I’ve always researched what it takes to make changes in life, and what make them stick. I love finding out more about habits – making good habits stick, and breaking bad habits. Discovering how to overcome our addictions is so fascinating to me that I’ve made a career out of it. I work for the health service as a smoking cessation advisor, where I’ve learned that nicotine addiction isn’t as big a problem as the habit of smoking! I also write articles for this website about making a better and healthier life for ourselves (impossible without good habits) and I love being a holistic health coach, where I support others in their quest for better habits.
And of course – I’m interested for my own sake. As someone who tends towards laziness and procrastination, I’ve worked hard to find out what I can do to change those for the better. It’s still a work in progress! But it means my knowledge of habit formation is quite large by now!
In this post I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned through the years to make changes and how to make them stick, as well as getting rid of the bad habits.
I love to read in-depth about anything that’s new to me, or currently holds my fascination. To me, this is a key part of forming a new routine or habit. The more I know why I’m doing something, the easier it is to do it. It helps to build a big 3D image, full of both reasoning and emotion. This fuels me to do what I want to do. If you want to eat better, then read or chat with someone who is in the know about why certain foods aren’t good for us, and why others are touted as beneficial. Find out for yourself how a food can negatively impact your gut for example, and you will know from a deep down, core knowledge about why you’re doing what you are doing.
MAKE IT BRIGHT.
In habit formation, and changing of ones we don’t like; it helps to create something called a bright line rule – which originated as a legal term for a clear standard. Bright line rules are the Never and Always rules. We simply don’t do something and there’s no need to waste energy in debating it. Or we do something and we don’t argue with it. It helps to work out what bright line rules you are most likely to stick to. Ones that are clearly defined, in short and sharp ways are the ones that work best. One we all share is to always brush our teeth in the morning and evening. We don’t think about it. We may be tired sometimes, but we do it anyways because the rule doesn’t need debating. We’ve worked out for ourselves why we have it, so here’s the rule. For our other habits we need to further define what the rule is. Never smoke is a perfectly fine rule, in our clinics we call it the ‘not a puff’ rule which is clearer still. Some rules work better as bright line rules, and some others don’t. For example ‘always write’ is too massive and too vague, but ‘Never check Facebook when writing’ is far punchier and effective.
PLAN IT, OR ELSE.
Here’s a biggie for me! I get cloudy around organization, but planning and writing is key. I’ve found a few ways to help. To plan is to get clear on why, what, how and when. So I’ve found that it’s a brilliant idea to write down (in a lovely notebook) all the big goals we want for the year, and the near future. The 5 year plan stuff. We write down what we need to achieve those goals in terms of both steps and skills. For example, doing a video blog would need the step of ‘find software’ as well as the skill of ‘confidence’. Because I like the ‘why’s’ of doing stuff, having all this written down lets me go back and reassess why I’m doing some teeny thing that doesn’t look anything like my big goal, and then I remember – it’s for the greater good.
The next kind of planning is a weekly plan or daily plan. For this you most definitely need a desk or nearby wall calendar and/or a diary. For the week, you write down what you want to get done that week, and then each day you can sit down in the morning and take 5 minutes to create a to do list which you prop up in a prominent place. Writing down times is really effective. So from 10-13.30 you will not check e-mail (bright line rule) and you will write, research, or other.
WHO ARE YOU?
Figuring out what your personal rhythm is can help in habit formation. For me; I’m clearer headed in the morning, so I do more writing based work then. And in the afternoon I do things that don’t need such heavy brain engagement such as art work, gardening, reading etc. You might be the other way around.
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before has defined 4 personality types. Whether we can say we fit into one category or another (or not), doesn’t devalue the importance of knowing who we are. According to Rubin, some of us like to have accountability to other people and some of us resist all expectations. Others want to know why, and others do what they said they would do. She has a test on her website, here, where you can figure out who you are (according to Rubin) and how working towards your goals will be easier for you when you figure out your own personal patterns.
‘Action trigger’ is a tool I’ve made use of since reading the book ‘Switch’ by Dan and Chip Heath.
An action trigger is imagining yourself doing what you said you would do. This can work if the thing is a week away, or the next day. So in bed, before going to sleep, you imagine yourself picking up your trainers from the left side of the shoe cubby (yes, be precise and vivid) and then putting on your jogging gear and opening the handle of the front door and going out into the fresh morning air for a run around the whole park. Once you’ve seen yourself do it in your head, the brain sets in motion what is needed for that action to happen. Just as our brains gear up for a fear that isn’t even there, so it can gear up to work towards what we want. (This is why writing lists is so great – you see yourself do it as you write it, and so it happens. Magic!)
VALUE IT, AND FIND MEANING.
Acceptance and Commitment therapy is a mindfulness based therapy for overcoming negative traits we have in our lives. One of their key ways of doing this, as detailed by the book ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Dr Russ Harris– is to discover what is valuable and meaningful to YOU.
For me, nature and health are valuable, but more than that, I find a lot of meaning in living my life with nature and holistic health at the centre. This makes it much easier for me to work in fields that promote those two values. We all have different reasons for finding value in things. It might bring us joy, or we have had a deep personal experience with something that’s prompted us to discover more about it, and simply put, to care about it. Family, politics, community, food, travel, design, building, engineering – whatever it is, embrace it as something that makes you who you are. This means that we can build habits that are grounded in what is valuable to us. It adds another layer to our habits. We do them because we can see how they add to our values. In the same vein, when we look at binge eating or TV watching or smoking, and ask – does this add to what’s valuable to me? We reassess them from a different standpoint.
YOUR STRENGTH IS YOUR FUEL.
We do best when we do things that are in line with who we are. So if your new habit is to speak up in meetings, then doing it in a confrontational way when you are actually a sensitive soul will not work for you. If we value action, over research, then we can tailor our habits so that they flow and flourish in that way. For me, I love theory, but I find rolling up my sleeves and doing super energetic practical things very annoying. I trained as a Forest School leader because one of my values is nature and appreciation of nature. But a bookworm like me, found it very tough to be in that environment. When I reassessed who I am, and embraced the fact that I prefer thinking, pondering and writing, then I got to share the importance of nature connection through my strength – writing! So all my habits to get me to my desk and write, flow a lot better than something that goes against the grain of who I am.
MORNINGS AND NIGHTS – THE IMPORTANCE OF ROUTINES.
A routine is a string of habits tied together in a way that makes sense.
Many of us appreciate the power of a good morning routine to fire us up for the day, but we also need a night-time routine. Jess Van Den, from Create and Thrive talks about bedtime alarms in her podcast. A bedtime alarm is a way of telling us “time to turn off devices and get ready for the bed time routine”. My bed time routine now are things that are linked around brushing my teeth. So I floss, brush, do face exercises (yes, really) – make sure I’ve done my 12 press-ups, turn off my phone and go to bed to read for half an hour. Making it clear like this helps it to flow. First this, then that. In the morning I have two alarms, 15 minutes apart, and I get up on the second one, get a cuppa going and then I meditate for 15 minutes and when I’m done my tea is the right temperature for me! Then it’s time to get into workout clothes for the day. And that’s it. They act like the little push you need to get into a cohesive flow for the rest of your day. If you work from home, I can attest that they are vital!
Another great tip from the writer Gretchen Rubin is to pair one thing with another. So I’ve now linked Tuesdays and Thursdays to jogging. I’ve made the rule nice and clear – if it begins with a T I go running! And that’s that. Wednesday is Weights (ooh I love alliteration), and Mondays and Fridays are yoga, and Saturday is a choice day, nothing or a bike ride. Sunday is a relaxing walk. I’ve paired each day with an activity and it takes the confusion out of it. I’ve also paired brushing teeth with the aforementioned routines. Some people pair running on the treadmill with watching their favourite TV programme. One thing triggers another. Squats whilst kettle is boiling for example.
The researcher Walter Mischel created the famous marshmallow experiment. What he, and his team, discovered was that young children who can wait for a treat do better in ALL areas of their life for years and years afterwards. They do better in school, at saving money, at being healthier etc.
To build a good habit – we have to have great self-control. Self-control is based in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain above our eyebrows. There we have forward planning and holding the animal part of the brain in check. It’s a muscle, and it can be worked. This is our willpower centre! When we train it – such as the young children in the Marshmallow Experiment were doing, by holding back our urges, we learn to master our impulses – and hence become fit, money saving folks!
So, if you desperately want to finish your work – push yourself for ten more minutes. If you want another cookie, wait. You can still have it, but wedge in a moment of waiting, and amazing things will happen!
Kelly McGonigal author of the ‘Willpower Instinct’ writes how important meditation is for this very reason. By training our concentration muscle through mindfulness meditation, we train our willpower muscle. We can say no and yes with ease when our prefrontal cortex is buff. So get on the mat and meditate!
Breathing deeply also turns on the recovery mode of our bodies – not the fight of flight response that comes with shallow and quick breathing. So yoga is perfect for this. It is mindful, and it encourages deep breathing. When we are calm, we are more in control. We know this – how often do we reach for what we wish we wouldn’t, when we’re stressed?! So breathe and pause.
Gillian Riley in her book, ‘Eating Less’ says the same – that by facing our addictive desire in the moment is THE key time for changing our neural pathways. So to actually create a habit, you have to face yourself in the midst of craving for a bad habit. You want a biscuit? Then don’t turn on the telly, but rather, feel yourself wanting, and craving! It will pass – and you will feel a hundred times stronger (and you will be, that’s some new neural pathways you’ve just created in that brain of yours!)
YOUR HABITS CAN MAKE YOU HAPPY!
Martin P Seligman wrote in his book ‘Authentic Happiness’ – that by doing the tough thing, the harder thing, we will build character. And it’s this character building that leads to true happiness. Indulgences and pleasures are fleeting and empty. This is not true contentment. But seeing yourself work, and achieve and pushing through even though something is hard will leave you feeling gratified. Gratification is that deep sense of rightness that comes after exerting meaningful effort. Isn’t in the best when you put your head on the pillow in the night and feel all is well? That’s contentment.
And of course, to be happy – we need to be grateful. If you can find a reason to be grateful you will discover joy. When we fill ourselves up with purpose from meaning, values, strengths and vital work – we will realize that what we think is pleasurable (eating, TV, net, shopping, smoking) are merely momentary pleasures. They give us 10 minutes of indulgence, and then they are gone leaving a trail of ill health, sore bellies, sick lungs as well as guilt and shame. So repoint your compass towards the grit making stuff, and you will find intrinsic happiness is built right into it.
YOU WILL BE YOU.
And finally, Kelly McGonigal wrote about an amazing experiment in her Willpower Instinct book. The experiment showed that we are way more likely to put our future selves through a lot more misery that our present selves. How often have you said yes to an event that happens months away, but when it arrives you are dreading it just as much as ever? We think the future us will be different. More confident, more money savvy, and has control over their lives. Well, sorry to burst the bubble. But the truth is, you will be you! Who you are now, will be you in the future. So if someone asks you to do something, reframe it. Would you do it tomorrow, or this afternoon? If the answer is no, then you are likely to want to say no 4 months down the line. The real kicker here is that our bad habits today will really punish us in the future. What would that be like? Well experience it for yourself through visualization. Imagine going to the supermarket, with knees that hurt a bit, and a dazzling collection of hard-worn wrinkles. What would it be like? Will you have enough money to buy your groceries? Will your body feel okay, or would it be in pain from years of sitting on your butt when you really wanted to exercise, but didn’t? It’s not a pleasant journey, to imagine how our failings will unfold – but let that be the motivation you desire. The likelihood is that you WILL grow old, and if you do so, then you will be lucky – but also it reshapes why we do what we’re doing now. Even though long terms gains aren’t always the best motivation, knowing that we’re securing a better us for tomorrow and beyond is incredibly important for our long term happiness.
I hope my discourse on habits has helped you today! Remember to build the habit of always checking in with yourself – “Am I doing what I said I would do?” – and you will build those actions every day until they become habit. Something you don’t have to think about, or waste energy deliberating over. You just do it, with the faith that it will make you a stronger, and happier you!