Tuesday, February 4, 2020

How to Build and Keep Good Habits

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It's uncomfortable to build new habits.  That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, it just means it takes a little extra effort and foresight.  I set new goals on January 1, but if you listened to last week's podcast, you'll know that for witches, February 1 is really the time for starting work on new goals.  So don't just quit if you set out to do something for the new year and haven't quite stuck with it in the last 5 weeks.  You have plenty of 2020 left to be successful!  Today we're talking all about how to build and keep those good habits you want to set:

What are Habits?

Habits are what happen when you do something so often, you brain stop thinking about it.  It gets bored of that task.  When you start a new task, your brain thinks really hard about it and all the steps involved.  But after you do it so many times, your active brain gets bored and sends it to the part of your brain where you don't have to actively think about it.  Ever drive home from school or work the exact same way you always do only to realize you've made it home and you can't really remember the details of how that happened?  That's a habit.

It terms of 'bad' habits though, the habit formed because you released feel good emotions when you did it.  Like ordering take out instead of cooking - you didn't have to think about and put the effort into cooking, so it felt good to order and it felt good to eat the pizza, and now your brain is like 'yes, let's make this feel good thing happen more often.'  Habit.  So how can we utilize this knowledge to make good habits stick instead of the bad ones?

Habit Misconceptions

First, let's get some misconceptions out of the way so they can stop holding you back.

It takes 21 days?  That's a fairly common number to throw out there, that it takes 21 days for a habit to stick.  But if you're still struggling at day 22, don't just throw in the towel.  There was a study that showed it can take from 18 days to up to 254 days.  It's completely dependent on the person, their environment, the habit itself, etc.

If you miss a day, you're screwed?  People always use this excuse when it comes to eating healthy and working out.  And that's really all it is - just an easy excuse.  Missing one day doesn't set you back or mean you have to start all over.  It doesn't make a big difference overall, as long as you keep going after the first misstep rather than quitting altogether.

It's all about moderation?  Some people are better cutting things out cold turkey.  I am one of those people, in certain instances.  I can moderate when it comes to things like spending money mindfully.  I don't always need a total shopping ban to keep my purchases in check.  Cutting out junk-y foods or desserts?  Much easier for me to go cold turkey - which isn't surprising since both of those things contain sugars and sugar is highly addictive.

You need a lot of willpower?  You do need some willpower and motivation to get started, but you can't rely completely on willpower.  Willpower wanes throughout the day, so if you're relying on sheer willpower to kick your 10 p.m. ice cream habit, you're not going to be successful.  If you generally think of yourself as lacking willpower to get up and get on the treadmill, you're not alone and all is not lost.

Everyone builds habits the same way?  If that were the case, it would be a lot easier and there would be a lot less information on the internet about habits around this time of year.  It can take some trial and error but you have to find what works for you.  And like moderation, some systems will work well for some of your habits but not others.

How to Build and Keep the Good Ones

Cue, routine, reward.  This is shorthand for a well-known habit setting strategy called the Habit Loop.  First there is the cue - anything that triggers the habit.  Then there is the actual routine or habit you want to do.  Finally, you get the reward.  Think of it like kids and an ice cream truck - the cue is the ice cream truck music, habit is running to the truck, reward is the actual ice cream.  It's simple, and effective, which is why ice cream trucks haven't changed their system.  Ever.  Use that same strategy to build something good in and give yourself a reward for it.

Expect the unexpected and preempt problems.  Things are not going to go smoothly every day.  The easy part is saying 'yes, I will get up 1 hour earlier and go running every morning.'  But think about how many things could go wrong and how many excuses you could make to quit.  What if it rains?  What if your boss needs you at work early?  What if your allergies act up and you wake with a horrible headache?  What if a pet or kid is sick and needs you?  Make a plan for these things.  If exercise is important, make a plan that if one of those things comes up, you'll instead go on a shorter run, workout at a different time of day, do a different type of workout, etc.  You know what excuses you usually make.  Don't give in this time, make a 'if-then' plan.

Start with with a very small habit.  It's very hard to maintain complicated, gung-ho lifestyle changes that you commit to all at once.  I love my morning and evening routines, but if you go from rolling out of bed and dashing out the door straight to a full morning routine that incorporates breakfast, hair, makeup, meditation, and walking the dog, you're setting yourself up for failure.  You'll quit that new routine in a week.  Instead, start with a super small habit, like getting up just 15 minutes earlier so you can make coffee and pack a lunch.  Once that's second nature, you can slowly add in more time and more good habits without feeling overwhelmed.

Make the habit part of your identity.  We cling very strongly to those things that are tied to our identities.  You'll be more likely to keep a good habit if you make it part of your identity, rather than something you force yourself to do.  I very strongly identify as someone who doesn't eat meat or cookies, so I don't even have to try to avoid these things.  Some people strongly identify as gym rats, and don't require as much willpower to get to the gym every day.  They just love going.  Instead of telling yourself that this is a habit you're working on, rephrase it, and tell other people, that you already are this way.  Tell your friends that you ARE a person who works out every day, or a person who likes broccoli, or someone who is very organized and never late.  The more you accept that as part of your core identity, the more easily it becomes a habit - think it and it will come.

What habits are you working on lately?  Anything from your new year's resolutions giving you trouble?

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