If you follow my writing, you know that I have become hypnotized by the topic of habits, lately. Recently, I wrote about journaling as a habit which can have a strong influence on your productivity, creativity and mental clarity. In another recent article, I have dealt with nutrition and fitness and how you can use apps and technology to form better habits around your health.
I am drawn to habits as they promise help in changing my life towards the better. If you are like me, however, you may still be struggling when it comes to building better habits.
These are some of the questions about habits that I try to answer for me:
How do habits work in my favor and not against me?
How can I better leverage good habits?
Why do habits even matter?
When it comes to the topic of habits, I am still learning everyday. Sometimes, I am learning the hard way.
Let me share 10 Lessons in Habit Formation with you that are helping me everyday.
The premise of habits
Habits are said to make life easier. There are people who thrive on good habits and who use them as a magic wand to live successfully and fulfilled. These people seem to be in control of everything.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could be more like these people?
If you get the gist of habits and nourish the good ones, you can greatly influence your behavior at a root level. The right habits can help you progress in productivity, creative matters, health and really any other aspect of life, from work tasks to relationships.
Habit Lesson 1: Habits can help you get better everyday.
To most of us, however, habits are a book with seven seals. Habits are hard. We have to struggle against bad habits more than we manage to form good ones.
Probably everyone has her own story to tell about how she repeatedly failed at habit change in the past.
The difficulty of good habits is the real explanation behind yo-yo-dieting, abandoned gym memberships and well-intentioned, but overflowing GTD inboxes.
There is a portentous nature to habits in which bad ones creep into our lives without notice. Yet, if we want to culture good habits and get rid of the bad ones, it often requires a Herculean effort to even get the ball rolling. New Years resolutions, anyone? What about that fancy diet you wanted to stick to? What about that ambitious new training routine? How many of your own resolutions have already started to dwindle, even though the year is barely a month old?
Habit Lesson 2: If you don’t try to form good habits, the bad ones will find you.
You may wonder whether all the fuzz about habits is worth it at all. Haven’t we all failed more than we succeeded with habits in the past? Isn’t The Power of Habit just an illusion? Why bother? Aren’t we better off spending our precious time on something else?
What are habits anyway?
Habits are like oil to an engine. They are like snippets of code that keep a computer running.
While you are still wondering about habits, they are already controlling almost every aspect and procedure in your life. Habits don’t care if you’ve figured them out yet. They just are and drag you along with them.
If something works as my habit, my mind has put the behavior on autopilot. I have to struggle less to do it. It’s no longer a question of conscious decision making.
Habit formation frees up the mind from the struggles of having to decide on behaviors every time you repeat them. Habits require little willpower, little mental endurance and little prioritization - all of which are limited commodities to us.
In geek speak again, habits keep the cache storage of your brain lean.
Habit Lesson 3: Build habits to think less.
If working out is my habit, then I don’t have to decide whether I lift weights today or rather stay on the couch to watch Netflix. I just follow my habit.
Following through with a habit, tickles my reward system. It’s as welcome as a checkmark before a nagging reminder. It’s like a scratch to a back itch. I cannot not do it.
Ignoring a habit causes an error message in my system. It drags abruptly to the foreground what should be smoothly running in the background. If I don’t follow through with a habit, it puts me in a state of mind that is hard to bear.
That’s the power of habits: If I have decided on the usefulness of a habit, I will get better if I just follow through. If you want your habits to be strong, stopping the habit is not an option. Once the habit is set, swimming along with the current is easy.
Strong habits are pervasive and imperative. It’s not easy to break them.
Habit Lesson 4: Stick with your habits.
The formation of habits is a powerful method to protect your behaviors against the surprises that life may have in store for you. It is a means to put behaviors on cruise control that you deem too important to be left unguarded against the possible shocks in the road ahead.
Why should I make a conscious decision about whether I workout today? Do I have the time today? Shouldn’t I be reading this or writing that instead? Isn’t something else always coming up?
I have built a habit around my workout routine, so now I no longer have to decide. My habit is no longer negotiable.
Habit Lesson 5: Build habits to stay safeguarded.
What to do about habits
The million dollar question remains: How do you successfully turn something into a habit?
I find it fascinating how we are all controlled by habits that we repeat everyday, yet we find it mystifyingly difficult to build new ones.
As much as we all talk about habits, we haven’t found the magic pill that makes habit formation quick and easy.
We have all gone through futiles attempts at forming better habits. Along the way, our frustration levels have risen. Frustrated by habits in the past, many of us have reached a state of ignorance in which they decided they just no longer care about habits.
„Why would I even consider starting a fitness routine if it demands this much of my attention? With all the work I have to get done already, there is no chance that I will devote my time to it. I just don’t see the benefits.“
Our list of excuses to circumvent the chores of habit formation is endless.
Then there are those who agree with me on the importance of good habits only to please me. Looking at their own habits, they are just as much stuck with the bad ones as the rest of us.
So, what’s the easy-peasy secret ingredient to better habits?
Guess what, there really is none.
Habit Lesson 6: There is no one-size-fits-all in habit formation.
The more I ponder about how I form new habits, I realise that habit formation might be something else entirely for other people.
There just doesn’t seem to be a gold-standard approach towards habits because we are all so different from one another.
We are not different, but different. Just how we are different from each other, is something that I learned from Gretchen Rubin.
How to reach Habit Zen with The Four Tendencies
Gretchen Rubin is an inspiring writer whom I happened to stumble upon in my research around the topic of happiness.
These tendencies are like a users’ manual to your own habit machine. In essence, each tendency represents a distinct personality type based on how the person reacts to expectations. This sounds odd at first, but once you figure out the Four Tendencies, it will just about hit you like a lightning bolt. Understanding yourself first is the key to leverage habits in your favor.
Since I have figured out which tendency I belong to, I have come leaps and bounds closer to what I call my personal Habit Zen: I just know how I roll, now.
Once you figure out which tendency you belong to, you may feel the same. Once you know, how you roll, you’ll more likely stop what doesn’t work for you and go after what does.
Expectations can be separated into outer expectations (like work deadlines) and inner expectations (like weightloss goals).
If you are an odd ball like me, you may respond to outer expections and inner expectations quite easily and readily. Expectations - no matter who sets them - are authoritative for me. Hurray for the Upholder tendency! (We are a small but proud club of habit odd balls.)
However, it may turn out that you belong to a entirely different tendency and only follow those expectations that make logical sense to you. „Why should I care about this? It doesn’t make sense to me.“ - Are you a Questioner?
If you haven’t called „Bingo“, yet, it’s probably because you are still different. You may need outer accountability to pursue a habit. Do you only work out if your friends go to the gym with you? Is learning at home way less appealing than studying at the library? - Well, perhaps you are an Obliger (and you are not as rare a breed as you thought you are).
Or you are even more different and you are a Rebel who negates expectations all together. (How rebels build habits without jumping through countless hoops and always thinking around corners remains a mystery to an Upholder like me.)
You can learn more about your own tendency by taking the quiz on Gretchen’s website.
Habit Lesson 7: Get to know your tendency.
How I get my habit ball rolling
Every habit starts with a first step.
The more you repeat your newly desired habit, the more it becomes second nature to you. Or maybe it doesn’t.
Habits are hard. Even for the most persistent among us.
Start your journey towards a new habit with the best of ambitions, but remember that remaining consistent and keeping focus are difficult.
For even the most obvious and most tangible behaviors, it is easy to fall off the habit bandwagon. Momentum doesn’t guarantee success.
It doesn’t matter how long you have been following a routine, once you interrupt it for too long, you have to start over again. Stopping a habit is dangerous. And restarting a habit the second time is even harder then the first.
What I have often learned the hard way, is that in forming new habits, it’s better to keep the bar low.
Your new habit doesn’t need all the bells and whistles. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead of a total-body-transformation routine, why don’t you just start with quitting sugar? Instead of a fully-fledged task management system on all of your devices, why don’t you try your luck with a minimalist to-do app on your phone, first?
Too much sophistication derails a habit before it has even started.
Habit Lesson 8: Keep the bar low.
Ambition is a good thing. In the end, we all want to be quicker, stronger or richer and we want to get there fast.
Just because you are ambitious and value your goals, doesn’t mean you have start your habit formation journey with only the biggest of habits in mind.
Often times, we can reach closer to our goals when we take small steps and not giant leaps, first.
Don’t try to change everything at once. It’s more about those first steps. Just get started.
Simple habits that aim at the basic foundation of our lives can help us jumpstart into more complex and meaningful change. Mundane everyday choices like how we eat (on the sofa watching TV or at the dinner table with the whole family?), how we move (do I walk or do I take the car?), how we operate (will I buy more stuff or will I unclutter?) and how we interact with other people (do I still remember her name?) can translate into an avalange of habit change that sweeps through our lives and can help you surpass seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
These simple but foundational habits are contagious. They can even drag other people into habit change with you.
It’s the gravitational force of habits. With small successes, we get the bigger balls rolling.
Habit Lesson 9: Use simple habits to make complex changes.
So, for starters, which habits should you focus on, first?
Looking at myself, I have learned that consistency and clarity on foundational habits that center around core aspects of how I live everyday translate into benefits in even the more complex facets of my life, from work to social relationships.
There are five pillars that form the very foundation of my habit system:
- Sleep: Without the proper amount and quality of sleep, nothing else really works as well as it should.
- Diet: The food I eat decides on the energy I have and whether I feel bad or good.
- Movement: Walking, lifting, stretching and sprinting provide the stamina and the sense of „Nothing gets me down“ that I need everyday.
- Structure: With outer order comes inner calm.
- Interaction: Basic forms of conduct make getting along with other people so much better.
I have found that being on top of my game in these foundational categories of habits, helps me get better in other spheres of life, as well.
- I need 8 hours of high quality sleep from about 11 pm to 7 am to be my fittest self.
- Real foods are my fuel. I just can’t function on junk.
- Exercise gives me energy rather than depleting it.
- Less clutter, less friction and less overhead is always better when getting things done.
- Let people know that you genuinely care about them and you will experience miracles.
In essence, these foundational habits foster my own self control. The more I am in control, the better I can react to the unexpected challenges of everyday life.
Habit lesson 10: Focus on your foundation.
Here are the ten lessons again that can help you leverage your habits to your own advantage. Maybe these lessons will get you closer to Habit Zen. Do they work for you?
- Habits can help you get better everyday.
- If you don’t try to form good habits, the bad ones will find you.
- Build habits to think less.
- Stick with your habits.
- Build habits to stay safeguarded.
- There is no one-size-fits-all in habit formation.
- Get to know your tendency.
- Keep the bar low.
- Use simple habits to make complex changes.
- Focus on your foundation.
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