I’ve been thinking a lot about habits lately, mainly because I’m trying to create one. I’m trying to write every day for at least 15 minutes. I had set myself that New Year’s resolution last year and made it to April with it. Then it faded away and I haven’t been able to come back to it seriously.
Although New Year’s resolutions are by far the least effective way to create new habits, I’m the kind of person who needs a date to start something new.
The problem wasn’t so much the starting, it was the continuing.
Long story short, I went to look around for some inspiration on how to set myself up with a new habit, rather than a chore.
What are habits?
Everything we do in our lives is based on habits.
Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day. (James Clear)
In colloquial language, a habit is something we do without thinking about it. For example, it is my habit to eat dinner when it gets dark. It’s the pretty obvious stuff in our lives. But these obvious things make us the person we are. Without our habits, we would probably find ourselves at a loss, like something is missing.
The problem with habits is however also, that they can keep us from doing something that’s good for us. I’m thinking of exercising, healthy eating, or writing (in my case). Rather than doing these good things, our habits can keep us from pursuing them because it’s too hard to overcome them.
The tricky thing about habits is that they reward us in some form or another. Just take this:
Smoking a cigarette, snorting cocaine, or drinking yourself into oblivion are all easy habits to adopt because they light up your brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine (and a slew of other pleasure chemicals). These substances naturally reward your brain and encourage continued usage even though they are detrimental to your overall health and well being.
On a more technical level, you can also describe a habit as a loop of cue – craving – response – reward. Or, more simply, habits solve a problem with a solution which rewards the problem’s solution. And this loop ultimately leads to a habit.
How to overcome a bad habit
Overcoming a habit which seems bad for us (which each and every one of us needs to decide him- or herself!) is no easy task. The reason is that we need to first realise it’s there, that it’s a habit which is keeping us from pursuing whatever it is we want to do.
The reason for me to stop writing last year was that we moved internationally and my whole life was turned upside down. I have since somewhat settled again so I need to get out of my survivor mode and planning every day beforehand and establish a routine for myself.
A routine, speaking of it, is often very closely linked to a habit. If you live a very routine life, it will take more effort to adopt a new habit. It’s not impossible but it requires not just a shift of a mindset but also of a routine. And in my experience, that’s difficult.
But let’s get back to the bad habit. In order to overcome one, you need to understand how it was created in the first place. Which cue did I respond to with which reward?
How to create a good habit
Once the bad habit and its loop have been identified, it’s time to take action.
I always read about creating a reward in order to start a new habit and for some reason (a habit, I guess) I always think of chocolate as a reward. But rewards aren’t chocolate only. They come in various forms. So, in order to create a new habit, I need to think about a reward. For my new habit of writing every day, I’m going with wanting to have an outlet for my thoughts and to have more things on paper to publish in places.
Once the overall reward is in place, it might be helpful to break the new habit into bite-size chunks. For example, if you want to exercise more, it might be good to start with something light and easy rather than jumping into the deep end with multiple hours at the gym and a workout which isn’t fun. For my writing, I’m thinking of very small goals, like just writing every day, regardless of the content, not thinking about the audience and not focusing on the quality of my writing.
And the final piece of advice I find helpful is this: give yourself a break when you miss a day. It’s okay to have a slip-up but get back on the horse as quickly as you can. Or in my case, take a year-long break and get back into it.