Installing a new habit and breaking an old one

by Dr Stephanie A. Burns

Introduction

As part of the original Goal Achiever's Program (and now the Labyrinth online course) I had been teaching the students how to install new useful habits and to break existing useless or undesired habits.

 


In the context of the goal achievement having strategies for this type of learning is useful because some goal activities are suited better to being a habit than to being an activity which requires active motivation.

In this context the students decided what activities they wanted to become part of their life for a long period of time, or for which they would need to do with high frequency. Who wants to have to motivate themselves each time they need to drink water, or take a walk, or stretch, or write another piece of the book? These repetitive long-term activities are less likely to be avoided, forgotten or abandon if they become habits.

Making an action a habit requires very little knowledge of the cognitive activity of motivation I discuss in the other articles on the topics of achievement and motivation, but having those at the ready can add an additional layer of support for habit building.

What is a habit?

Habits are those things that you do without thinking - things like:

setting the alarm
cleaning your teeth
doing the laundry
feeding the dog

 

  What should be a habit?

Only those activities that you either want to do for an extended period of time, like many months or years, or activities you want to do frequently - say one or more times a day even if for only a few weeks.

 

 

Why would we want something to be a habit?

The most significant consequence of NOT making something a habit is that these activities would stand a good chance of not getting done, either because we forgot about it or because, having remembered, we lack the ability to motivate ourselves at the time of the remembering to take the action.

It takes energy to remember and then motivate a new action. Habituated actions are far less energy consuming.

Think of the benefit, if in addition to having habits for the mundane chores in life, you also had a habit of getting up a few minutes earlier in the morning. Perhaps a habit of eating a proper breakfast, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, saving a little money every week, paying your bills on time, drinking water throughout the day, staying in touch with friends, exercising, stretching, reading a little everyday, relaxing, writing in a journal.

Imagine you actually did these activities without thinking about it or without the hemming and hawing and mucking about in your mind that goes on when trying to decide to initiate an action.

 

The core strategies for building new habits.

Unless you have observed your own behaviour while learning it is unlikely that you have made explicit the wonderful capability you have for creating new habits.

Many people I meet do not know that learning like this is even an option. What likely comes to mind when the subject of habits is presented is of all the bad habits they have that they are behoved to break!

To create a new habit there a only a few steps and these are steps we all possess the firepower to do.

1. You have to decide on what you want to be a habit. It is important that you be as specific as possible. A habit of drinking more water is problematic whereas a habit of drinking 6 glasses a day is easier to install.

2. You have to set up triggers to help you remember the action at the time you want to do it.

It is hard to install a new habit if you keep ending up at the end of the day remembering that you were meaning to take the stairs at work instead of the elevator.

 

 

 

During the time before the action becomes a habit (perhaps the first few weeks) you will need to use external triggers or reminders. Make it easy to remember what you are trying to do.

Alarms, notes, friends to call you, rubber bands on your wrist, padlocks or obstacles.

Rituals support remembering - do it in the same place, same time, same surroundings if possible for the first few weeks.

3. Once you have remembered you have to be able to motivate yourself to act. Before we discuss how to do that we should discuss the issue of repetition.

Installing new behaviours of any type take repetition over time. How much repetition and for how long depends on what it is you are trying to install.

 

I was very happy I had a good set of strategies for making new habits when Nugget turned up in my life!

 

One consideration is the size of the action. For simple habits of short duration - getting up earlier, making lunch for your children the night before, doing a load of laundry every morning, saving small change everyday, riding your bike to work, writing in a journal - you would do the entire action. For activities of longer duration you will need another step.

Let's say you want to go for a walk every morning for one hour. Great habit, but hard to do because of the component of length of time needed. To install these types of habits is to understand that the habit you need first is to get up and get out the door. The thought of an hour walk can undermine your best efforts to fight the avoidance strategies from kicking in. You can circumvent this by installing the habit of getting up in the morning and heading out the door.

Keep the walk short in the beginning, say ten minutes. Do that everyday for a couple of weeks until that habit is firmly installed. Then expand to the hour of walking - that will be the easy part. Also, by doing this you add a wonderful natural motivation component - that of anticipation. We are highly motivated to do things we are denying ourselves. So, if you say ten minutes a day, don't do twenty minutes. You will bungle the motivation that comes with anticipation.

 

 

 

This goes for any habit that you are creating that is being built over time - like doing 20 push-ups or a hundred sit-ups or saving money.

Start very small, get the habit of starting handled, then build. This also applies to habits that have multiple actions. Let's say you want to begin preparing food at home, instead of always eating in coffee shops on the way to work or ordering in for dinner.

This is not just a single faceted action. We have to install habits for checking what's in the fridge, stopping at the shops, getting from the lounge into the kitchen, preparing the food, preparing for cooking, doing the cooking, setting the table, cleaning up.

Any one of these actions could keep you from succeeding in installing this large habit!

Each new action requires motivation and there are a lot of opportunities to quit before dinner is ever made. A second consideration is the number of repetitions. An action you will take everyday or even many times a day will take only two to three weeks to install. An activity that you will only do once a week but have decided should be a habit because it is something you want to do for a long time can take up to twelve weeks to install. For instance, taking the kids to the library every Saturday or having one night a week without television may take awhile - why because it is easier to forget, there is less repetition and it is a larger activity that can more easily engage our natural avoidance strategies. But that is not to say that it is not worth the effort to create these types of habits.

Installing a habit is not energy free. It costs you the commitment to the action for the few weeks it takes. It is a 'whatever' it takes to not miss (of course, if you do miss - don't beat yourself up, life is long and there is more than enough time to get it right. You learn from each attempt. Just make the next attempt now, not later).

 

Call on a friend.
Do whatever it takes!

Now, back to strategies for motivating yourself to take the action.

This is no hold barred. You may well need every trick at your disposal. Such as:

 

 

Asking a friend to come by every day to do it with you.

Promise yourself a reward for each action.

Find someone you would not want to disappoint and make a promise to them.

Think hard about how bad you will feel if you do not do it.

Remember why the habit is important - what is the long term benefit.

 

Notice every positive step and change, no matter how small!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make it hard to not do - set up obstacles and barriers so it is almost impossible to not do.

Block your on-going movement.

Or, make it easy to do - put it in your path.

Delay the decision to not act - tell yourself to just start and then decide if you want to continue.

To break a habit make what you are doing very hard to do.

Remember to pat yourself on the back for every success in the right direction no matter how small.

Notice and acknowledge what is working

Spend the time you beat yourself for not doing what you should be doing by doing what you should be doing.

Look for the smallest of improvements in your actions.

One less is one less, one minute more is one minute more.

Celebrate all successful behaviours no matter how small the change.

It all is in the right direction and changing behaviour is hard.

Acknowledging what you have done

Get off the fear of looking silly. It is not useful and none of the people who care about how you look are going to be important to you in the future. Don't make decisions that relate to getting what you want be dependent on the thoughts of others.

 

 

DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO DO THE TASK FOR THE FIRST FEW WEEKS.

This is NOT EASY, but the reward is worth it. In a few weeks you will be doing it WITHOUT THINKING ABOUT IT. IT IS JUST SOMETHING YOU DO LIKE FEEDING THE DOG.

 

Make the bad stuff hard to get to
and the good stuff easy!

 

It's easier to start your exercise if you sleep on the treadmill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting a $2 coin in the bank everyday is an excellent new habit challenge!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you truly want a high quality learning experience to bring these strategies into practice in your life you can participate in the
Labyrinth online course
.


You can participate from anywhere in the world.

Strategies in action - here is how it works

You want to start carrying a bit of cash and not using your credit card.

Make it hard to do. Freeze your credit card in a block of ice.

You want to walk or jog each morning to start your day, but by the time you get up and move around you don't feel like it.

Make it easier to do. Sleep in your jogging clothes, socks included, shoes optional.

You want to stop biting your nails, but don't remember that 'til you're doing it.

Make it hard or uncomfortable to do. Coat your nails with bitters, put bandaids over the ends, put a sugar free lollypop in your mouth.

You want the habit of waking up 20 minutes earlier but keep pushing the alarm snooze.

Make it hard to stay in bed. Move the alarm, set the lights on a timer, set the TV on a timer.

You want to learn to save money for a long term goal, but never get to the bank and it always seems too small an amount so you spend it.

Get in the habit of putting a little bit first. Start by putting a 2 dollar coin in a bucket in the kitchen.

You want to think before you grab something from the fridge.

Make it easy to remember and hard to do. Put a padlock on it - and give the key to your spouse so you have to ask - you'll remember, and you will think!

You want to walk the stairs at work but keep taking the elevator.

Make it hard not to do. Tell everyone at work and ask them to say 'booooo' to you if they see you in the lift. Don't worry they won't ever have to be embarrassed to say it, because you won't get in the lift if you did.

You want to fold the clothes, but they sit in the laundry out of sight until you walk in there next time.

Make it easy to remember and hard to not do. Take the laundry and put it on the dining table, the lounge, in the bathroom sink.

You want to stretch while watching TV but once you sit on the lounge you don't move.

Make it easier to do. Move the lounge into another room and put a mat on the floor.

You want to move more, your annoyed at your inactivity.

Make it easier to do. Take your TV remote to work and leave it there.

You want to drink water through out the day but forget to go to the cooler or can't be bothered.

Make it easier to remember and do. Get a jogger's water bottle and belt.

You want the habit of walking an hour everyday.

Create anticipation for the desired behaviour by denying the opportunity to do more. Start small walks for 10 minutes everyday 'til it's a habit, then expand the time, slowly.

Take the challenge

I would like to challenge each and everyone of you to install a new habit. One that may be useful, but more importantly to learn from the experience of using these strategies. You might pick up on one of the examples above or choose something unique to your own desires. I would like to encourage you to then initiate another action - write to me and tell me what you did.

In closing ...

This is a valuable tool for achieving some very important life goals, like maintaining your health, your flexibility or your finances. Keep it simple for the first go. It is just to learn about the process of creating a habit. Once you know how, then you can tackle bigger things.

I would like to suggest just a couple of key thoughts to take away.

The only way to fail to this is to fail to initiate the first action.

Acknowledging successes count. Admonishing yourself for failures is useless.

Never think you are bad, or weak, if this is hard. Behaviour is based on innate tendencies and you are following well ingrained patterns in humans. It is just that as a human you have options about your approaches and can choose useful ones over useless ones.

Good luck, and I look forward to hearing your stories.

 

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