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Habits don’t form overnight. Yet, as the new year rolls around, we make these resolutions that call for major changes. If you want to successfully adopt a new habit, you need to be ready for pitfalls.
Some researchers say it takes 66 days of repetition to form a new habit. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit, says it’s all about finding a routine that fits into your triggers and rewards. What they all agree on, though, is that you will face some hard times and it’s important to figure out how to overcome those.
Motivate Yourself With A Philosophical Foundation
In an article on 99u, Paul Jun of Motivated Mastery says that self-awareness is the secret weapon to habit change. One of Jun’s points is to have a philosophical foundation that you can return to in tough times. The more you talk to people who have successfully adopted a new habit, you realise that this seems like universal advice. As Jun puts it:
It’s not so much about fully embracing one philosophical (or religious) school — Stoicism or, say, Buddhism — but to take principles, practical wisdom that has been talked about throughout all of human history, and to utilize it in your life. Sometimes, we need a little “do this, not that.”
Reading philosophy serves this purpose perfectly, and is also a great way to introspect. It often serves as a trigger to think deeply about issues. I often find myself turning to Hugh Prather’s Notes To Myself on my Kindle app at such times. That needn’t be the book you want, but the point is to have something which reminds you of your philosophical foundation. You could even get some inspiration from these 10 websites for a daily fix of quotations and learnings.
Anticipate Conversations And Prepare Scripts To Tackle Them
In my experience, the biggest problem with habit change isn’t motivation nor willpower, it’s people. You have been doing things a certain way and people are used to that; but when you decide to change, that doesn’t fit into how they see you. So for example, if you’ve decided to quit drinking, your friends might usually be supportive, but on a particularly debaucherous evening, one of them will say, “Come on, what’s one drink going to do?” That’s the danger zone right there.
It’s not that your friends wish ill of you. It’s that they don’t have to take responsibility for your actions; you do. In their relapse prevention program, Alberta Health Services recommends identifying and planning for such high-risk situations. You need to have an answer ready for potential temptations as well as awkward questions. Todd Herman of The Peak Athlete echoes this advice as well, suggesting you “script your setbacks” so you know what to say to other people.
To anticipate these setbacks, try using a Johari Window template. Mind Tools explains the concept in detail, but here’s the basic quadrant you need to draw and start filling out. The “open area” is things you know about yourself and people know about you; the “blind area” is things people know about you but you don’t know; “the hidden area” is things you know but don’t disclose to others; and the “unknown area” is exactly what it sounds like.
An app like SimpleNote to sync notes across platforms will ensure you always have your questions and answers with you. If you come across new questions or situations, note them down in the app and prepare a script later, so you are prepared for any eventuality.
Be Boring And Automate Or Delegate
US President Barack Obama famously wears only black or blue suits to reduce the number of decisions he has to make. Harvard Business review says boring is productive and there is plenty of research to suggest decision fatigue hinders self-regulatory behaviour [PDF].
So remove mundane decisions and figure out a way to automate them. For example, you shouldn’t wonder what you are going to wear to the gym tomorrow, or what time you’ll go. Schedule it, and buy a set of clothes that look and feel the same, which you can keep cycling through. If you live by your calendar, then try these nifty IFTTT hacks to superpower your life with Google Calendar.
There are some decisions you might not be able to automate. In such cases, delegate. Meal planning is an effective way to reduce decisions, but that might not suit your personality. But you don’t need to agonize over whether to order Chinese, Mexican or good old pizza tonight. Start WhatsApp (or these privacy-friendly chat alternatives) and ask a friend to choose for you. Take it from someone who does this often, it’s liberating once you get used to it.
Look At Your Habit As A Way To Acquire, Not As A Way To Stop
Have you cheated a little on a diet, thought “Well, might as well go all the way,” and binged immediately? Psyblog terms this the “What-The-Hell” effect, and it’s backed up by research too. This is a common pitfall of habit formation, but there is a way out.
It’s all about perspective. You have to look at your habit in a positive light, and have a long-term view. Inhibitional goals (like stop smoking) should be turned to acquisitional goals (like collecting “smoke-free days”). Psyblog explains:
One famous example is Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics are trying to avoid drinking (an inhibitional goal) but they transform this into an acquisitional goal by thinking about the number of days sober. It’s like they’re trying to acquire non-drinking days.
The same principle can be applied to any inhibitional goal. Dieters can think about the number of days they’ve been good. Procrastinators can forget about their idling and concentrate on producing a certain amount of work each day.
There are plenty of apps to help you with this. If you’re acquiring days, check out Days Since for Android or Last Time for iOS. And you can always try writing a digital journal or gamifying your life changes.
What’s Your Habit Formation Block?
What is the biggest mountain you have to climb in forming a new habit? What’s stopping you or pulling you back? Let’s talk in the comments and help each other out.
Image Credits: Unsplash