How to change everything
by building new habits
Deciding can be exhausting. Research suggests your brain has only so much stamina for making decisions in the course of a day. And when your energy has been spent on big decisions at the office, it’s no wonder you can’t choose what to have for dinner, once you get home.
Our lives are so complicated it’s amazing we get along as well as we do. Just getting up, getting ready, and commuting to work offers numerous decision points. It’s enough to wear us out before we reach our desks.
The reason we aren’t exhausted by just our normal routine is that we glide through much of it on automatic pilot. Our conscious minds don’t have to actually make decisions about stuff like finding our way to work because our habits take over.
Habits are routines we follow regularly, without having to think about it. They allow our subconscious to take charge, giving our conscious self a rest. Our good habits help us to effortlessly make good choices. They guide us as we manage our health, our calendars and our routine projects. But sometimes our habits put us in the wrong groove.
My client Julie wanted more control over her life. It seemed like all her time revolved around the needs of other people, particularly those of her boss and clients. She felt out of shape, disorganized and tired of living in a messy house. But she couldn’t seem to find the time or energy to change things.
Julie tended to blame other people for the chaos in her life. But as we talked about her daily routines, she noticed that her own habits were part of the problem. For example, after a long and stressful day at work, she often grabbed some junk food and collapsed in front of the TV. In the morning, after staying up late watching talk shows, she felt less organized than ever.
After keeping a log of her daily drill, Julie decided that she wanted her coaching experience to support the creation of several new habits. She started by building bedtime rituals to help manage stress and promote better sleep. Then she slowly established the practice of doing a little yoga every day. As the months went by, she gradually altered many aspects her life, from her meal and sleep schedule to the way she managed her calendar and “to-do” list.
At the end of the 9-month coaching program, Julie hadn’t reached all her goals. But she felt good and was upbeat about the future. She was better at managing the habits shaping her daily life. Most exciting, she saw that when she built new habits in one part of her life, she was more energetic and creative in other areas, as well.
Years later, Julie wrote to say she’d won a big award. She’d faced career challenges since we last spoke, but had negotiated them one by one, without giving into her old exhaustion and anxiety. The turning point came when she learned how to create healthy habits and stick to them through the tough times. “I know how to create positive routines and they give me resilience,” she said.
If you’re ready for a career or lifestyle reboot, a good starting point is to create better habits. Each new habit can make you a little bit healthier or more productive. But beyond that, if you step out of your familiar routines and find new ways of doing even small things, you can stimulate a cycle of big change.
Do you want to create new habits?
You probably can’t acquire a habit overnight, but you can build one gradually, through a series of small steps. These tips will help:
- Break challenges into small habits. If you want to make a big shift, begin by breaking it down into small, specific pieces. Let’s say you want to have a more organized office. You might start with a neater desk. So define your first goal, which is to build the habit of spending five minutes at the end of every day organizing and putting away papers.
- Find triggers. When you’re building a habit, a “trigger” can stimulate the behavior that you want to learn. It might take the form of a note, a string around your finger, or anything else that reminds you of the behavior that you want to turn into an unconscious routine. If you are committed to cleaning your desk at the end of each day, put a note on your door or briefcase reminding yourself to tidy up before you leave the office. ?
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. An objective in building your habit is to have it become so automatic you do it without thinking about it. Like brushing your teeth. It’s hard to predict how many days or repetitions that will take, because it depends on what you’re tackling. But the more reps, the more engrained the habit will become. Try committing to working on your habit for a set time period, like a month. Then decide if you need an additional month to make it really stick. Keep adding time blocks until there’s no doubt your new habit is firm.
- Keep track. My clients most successful at creating new habits are the ones who measure their progress. Whether you use a spreadsheet, or write in your journal or on your calendar, it’s important to state your specific goal and note your steps in that direction. Try keeping a log of how many minutes you spend on cleaning your desk at day’s end. If you miss a day, note why. A tracking system will keep you focused and provide feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. And the pleasure you feel with a good report is provides positive reinforcement.
- Think about it. Interestingly, you can reinforce a new pattern not only by performing the behavior, but also by just thinking about it. As often as possible, remind yourself of your new habit and imagine that you are performing it.
- Anticipate obstacles. When you’re building a habit, you’ll probably be tempted to skip some reps. A little voice in your head will say things like, “you don’t have time,” or “skipping a few reps won’t hurt.” So develop a plan for what you’re going to do when life interferes with your commitment to perform the new behavior. In the case of desk cleaning, if you know the day will end in a frantic rush, take a few minutes to tidy up at lunchtime.
- Add new habits to old ones. An easy way to create a habit is to attach it to one you already have. Sally is a busy manager who felt she had no control over her calendar. From the moment she hit the office, she was besieged by people wanting help, and she’d drop everything to respond. I suggested she get in a little earlier to organize her schedule and set priorities. She saw the value of some planning time, but didn’t want to give up her ritual of a breakfast latte at a favorite coffee shop. Then she realized she could make her latte habit the basis of a new routine. Each morning at the coffee shop, she’d pull out her calendar, think about how to make the day a success, and make plans to get there. Her new habit improved her whole day.
Want to get rid of your worst habits?
It’s not easy to “break” a well established habit. Often, instead of trying to quit a destructive habit cold turkey, a better approach is to replace it with a new, better routine. New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg wrote “The Power of Habit,” a terrific book about the science of habits. He says “Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
To illustrate his four-part framework for changing habits, Duhigg describes how he shook his unhealthy, fattening routine of going to the cafeteria every afternoon and buying a chocolate chip cookie:
- Step one: Identify the routine. Every habit has three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. The routine is the behavior you want to quit. Duhigg’s routine was to get up from his desk, walk to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and eat it while chatting with friends.
- Step two: Experiment with rewards. Rewards satisfy the cravings that lead to the routine, but they might not be obvious. Duhigg noticed that, more than food, he craved an opportunity to hang with friends.
- Step three: Isolate the cue. Habits are typically triggered by some kind of cue, like an event or the location. For Duhigg, it was simply the time of day. At 3:30 he felt an urge to go to the cafeteria for his cookie.
- Step four: Have a plan. Once you’ve identified the cue and the rewards, find an alternative to the old routine. Once Duhigg realized he wanted company more than food, his plan was: “At 3:30 every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”
Are your worst habits are just thoughts?
Sometimes your most destructive habits arrive in the form of repetitive thoughts. Perhaps you’re not getting along with an important colleague. Every time you work with him you keep thinking what a jerk he is. A voice inside your head says, “I just can’t stand him.” But your negative thoughts aren’t doing you any good. Aside from making you miserable, they’re probably undercutting your performance. Start watching for that negative commentary, and replace it by repeating a more positive thought like: “I’m going to make this work.”
Want to read more about changing habits? Try these books:
Making Habits, Breaking Habits – Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, by Jeremy Dean. A good read if you’re interested in the psychology behind our habits. Says habit change isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.
Changeology – 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, by John D. Norcross, PhD. A self-help book with a 90-day program for changing your habits. Emphasizes the importance of your belief in your ability to change.
The Little Book of Talent – 52 Tips for Improving Your Skill, by Daniel Coyle. This very short book is a guidebook for improving all kinds of skills. Among other principles it touches on the importance of embracing repetition.