What I’ve Learned About Habits

less horrible things

Over the past month, I’ve gotten pretty deep into the study of habits. I’ve joined 3 habit-building programs (Zen Habits SeaChange – $10/month, Tiny Habits – Free, Pavlok’s Hack the Habit – Free, but no longer available). I don’t want this article to be a pitch for any particular program, though I do think they are great and recommend SeaChange and TinyHabits highly (haven’t tried Pavlok, a device which hasn’t yet come out).

Why care about habits?

A person = his habits + his principles. Principles define conscious acts, habits define unconscious ones. I want to be a good person, but being a good person is tough if you have bad habits.

If you want self-esteem, you have to do esteemable acts. You need a basis on which to hang that self-esteem. -David, former alcoholic

So think: what kind of person do I want to be? A person can have lofty principles, but if he needs coffee every day just to function, watches porn, cuts people off on the road, doesn’t pay attention to people when they talk and instead surfs his phone, then there is room for improvement.

People have this attitude that what we like is fixed. When I was a vegetarian, I often heard people say: “I couldn’t live without steak.” Honestly, I was just as happy without steak as with steak. We can change what we like and what we crave. A heroin addict craves heroin, but wasn’t born craving heroin. He rewired his brain to crave it over years of use. So it is with our habits. Yes, we crave our coffee, our facebook. But we can train ourselves to be better. We can train ourselves to crave flossing teeth and exercise and work.

So many of the patients I see have destroyed their health with bad habits (eating, smoking, drinking, drugs). I don’t think it’s enough to just say to someone: lose weight, quit smoking, floss every day. We need to give people tools to change their habits.

So without further adieu, here are some of the tools I’ve learned:

  1. Change one habit/month. Make one habit your absolute habit for the month. Focus on doing this every single day. All the other habits you can experiment with, but they are icing on the cake.
  2. Keep a list of more habits to change. As you think of more things you want to change, write them down. I use Wunderlist as a to-do list and keep a running list of habits to change in the following months. But I only hold myself to changing 1 habit/month.
  3. Triggers. Triggers are things you already do, and you put a habit after doing them. For instance, if you want to build a flossing habit, your trigger can be brushing. The most reliable triggers for me are waking up and going to sleep. This month, I meditated before going to bed. After a while, I grew to expect my meditation time. When you start with a new habit, the best trigger is one that you do exactly once a day because it’s nice to know that you have gotten your habit done for the day and can celebrate and move on.
  4. Tiny Habits and Consistency. Consistency is super important for doing habits. It’s easier to do a habit every single day than 3 days a week. It’s also really motivating to have this kind of consistency. So make it impossible to fail at doing your daily habit. How? Make the habit tiny. My habit this month was meditating every day. I set my goal as 2 minutes/day. Anything else was gravy. Some days I meditated longer, but this was not required. The goal was doing the habit every day, not doing anything heroic. If your habit is flossing, make it your goal to floss one tooth. You will eventually want to floss more, but the goal is to train yourself to always expect some flossing after brushing.
  5. Social Support. Humans are social creatures and social support works. I have an accountability buddy who was assigned to me, and it is nice to text her after I do my main habit. You can ask a friend to be your buddy, or shell out 10 bucks and join SeaChange and scour the forums for someone who wants to be your buddy.
  6. Reward. Drugs are addicting because you feel good immediately after taking them. In the same way, a habit can be addicting if you build a reward after. This reward can be as simple as saying “Good Job” to yourself, or doing a dance, or texting your accountability buddy.
  7. Change your habit or trigger or reward if it isn’t working. Every habit you build should have a trigger and reward that you are using, but if these aren’t working, you can change them. For instance, I started meditating in the morning but this was too hectic and I was always in a rush to get somewhere. So I changed my time to the evening and that worked a lot better. I started off texting my buddy every time after meditating but now no longer need to.
  8. Do less horrible things. Negative habits are really hard to break because there are multiple triggers at play. For instance, a cigarette smoker might be tempted to smoke every time he sees a smoker, or whenever there is stress, or whenever he drinks. One thing I’ve learned so far is replacing the bad habit with something less horrible. This is what the picture is about: replacing coffee with tea, beer with carrot juice, stress-eating with stress-drawing.

And that’s a wrap for now! Happy habit building.

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