Last week I wrote a blog about mindfulness and using this to develop yourself both personally and professionally. This is clearly a positive habit that would benefit us a great deal. But how to start such a great habit? In this blogpost I’ll give you some background on the research of habit formation, some habits of my own (good and bad) and some tips on how to improve on your own habits.
What does the theory say about habits and what is the definition?
There are some great books out there on the creating good habits, such as Atomic Habits by James Clear, the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. The latter of which deals with much more interesting topics, which will probably come back in some of my later blogposts. They all describe habits and the mechanics of habits. But these books also stress the importance of habits. People always talk about motivation, as if that is one of the more important aspects of success. However, did you know that motivation is like a muscle and that it gets “tired” when you’re later in the day? Behavior on the other side is an automated routine, that you can repeat without spending to much energy and which is easy to do. Like brushing your teeth or taking a shower: you do it without even thinking, but it is very beneficial to your general wellbeing. Therefore, if you want to set yourself up for success, you can use habits to do the stuff that other people find difficult.
So what exactly is the mechanism of habits? It starts with a stimulus / cue, which is the reason to develop or initiate a certain behavior. Then comes the routine or the behavior itself. Afterwards comes the reward, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. Summarizing: stimulus, routine, reward.
An example of my own is my coffee drinking behavior. I get up in the morning and depending on how I’ve slept, I feel a bit tired by the time it’s 9 or 10 am (stimulus / cue). Therefore I walk over to the coffee machine (behavior / routine) and get my “shot” of caffeine and feel less tired (reward). Also, when I drink my first coffee, I tend to drink 2 or 3 more during the day.
How to create a good habit or break a bad one
Knowing the mechanics of habits (stimulus, behavior, reward), we can use this to our advantage.
We can follow the next steps to create positive new ones:
- First pick your habit that is positive to you.
- Pick the stimulus that is most convenient for you. For example, you can pick a certain time of the day as a stimulus, so when you wake up.
- Start with the positive behavior you want to develop. It is important to start small and make it very easy, otherwise it will be hard to maintain the behavior. If you want to start meditation, start with one minute a day. It might not seem significant, but at the beginning it is all about creating the habit. Once it gets easier to meditate each day, you might want to think about adding some time to the routine, such as 30 seconds or one minute, and see how that works for you.
- Make the behavior easy. If you want to go for a run, put your running shoes and clothes next to your bed the day before. Once you’ve put them on, there is a much higher possibility that you will actually start running.
- Is the behavior intrinsically rewarding? If not, you might want to think of how you can reward yourself. But make sure this does not conflict with the goal you are trying to achieve: it might not be a good idea that if you want to lose weight, that you reward yourself with food. A good example is that you allow yourself to watch some Netflix after you’ve gone for a run.
- It is important to be kind to yourself. If you fail to repeat a certain behavior, just notice it and pick up the behavior the next day.
These steps really worked for me do develop the habit of daily meditation. I used an app for that which also tracks the run streak – so how many days that I haven’t missed a meditation. This is such a little reward, but somehow it really keeps me motivated to keep on meditating every single day. What also helped is that I picked a set time (stimulus) to start with the meditation exercise, which is right after when I wake up.
We can also use the same mechanics as described above to break bad habits, but then inversed:
- Identify the stimulus of the bad behavior. For instance, if you do not want to eat cookies anymore, the stimulus you would identify is that you’re getting hungry.
- Make it very hard to repeat your automatic behavior, which is to eat a cookie in this case. Do not buy cookies. That way, if you have a craving for a cookie you need to go to the store. I bet you will not want to go to the store just to get those stupid cookies.
- Replace it with more positive behavior, such as eating more nutritious food. If you’re really hungry, you will also eat a salad. So make sure you have enough vegetables in home to make that behavior easy. If you don’t feel like eating a salad, then apparently you’re not really hungry.
To break bad habits, it is important for you to realize that it is not your lack of motivation. I started this article that motivation is not the most important aspect of success. It is your behavior which drives your success. And you can influence a behavior and break a bad habit by changing your environment (such as not buying cookies).
Personally I’m also struggling with some bad habits. One of which is the coffee drinking behavior which I mentioned above. In itself this behavior is neutral. Only for me, when I drink too much coffee, I get stomach aches from hell. Sometimes I stop drinking coffee, but then I slide back into my old behavior. In these situations it is also important for myself to get back on track the next day, or sometimes even the next week.
The next habit I would like to develop is to start my workday with dedicated time to work on the important tasks. I want to develop this, as I notice that my workday sometimes gets hi-jacked by answering e-mails and the “urgent” stuff. There will be more on this topic in later blogposts!
That’s it on what I have to say about habits people! Nice of you to stop by on this blog and if you like it, please read my blogpost of next Friday.
If you want to read more on breaking bad habits and creating good ones, I recommend reading below material.