Habits have always been an interest of mine. I never really understood why we do the things that we do, either good habits or bad habits. I am a big believer that habits are what forms your identity. If you have good eating habits and exercise daily then your identity becomes that of a healthy person. Our habits not only form our identity for us as individuals, but they also form our identity for how others see us. Our brains are like programmes and if we want to change our bad habits into good habits then we must first start the process of reprogramming our brain, which is easier said than done.
It is strange, but even though you think you have kicked a bad habit out of the window years and years ago, it is still lurking in the distant part of your brain and can reignite at any moment.
I re-programmed my brain over a decade ago after reading a book called The Morning Miracle by Hal Elrod. I wanted to change my morning habits so that I could spend more quality time with my family and get more work done before they woke up. As time went on, getting up early morphed into a morning routine which became "me time". It became a time of journalling, meditation, going for a walk, creating my to do list etc. If you ask anyone who knows me well if I am a night owl or a morning person, they will say without doubt, that Julia is a morning person and is up with the lark each day - that is my identity. However, in the last six months I have slipped into my default mode of waking up around 6.30am, which means I am not getting out of bed until 7am, which gives me very little "me time" before having to do the college run. I then spend all day chasing my tail. Why is that? How can I slip back into a habit that I had over ten years ago? The answer is that I really don't know, but I do know that I was suffering because of it. I have now started setting my alarm again, and rebuilding the habit of getting up early.
Your habits are who you are. If you have a habit of always being late, then that becomes your identity and you become known for your lateness. If you are always on social media, then you become known as the person who is always on Facebook or Twitter.
So, how do you change a bad habit, and how do you create new good habits?
I now believe that there are two triggers for me that evokes a habit.
Trigger #1 - The cue
Setting yourself a cue, or a hook is a great starting point. For example, I would buy apples each week with the idea of being healthy. The apples would go into the draw at the bottom of the fridge and I would never see them. By the time I had remembered, the apples had gone bad. We purchased a fruit bowl, and now the apples are placed in the fruit bowl, which I see each morning (which is my cue / hook). Seeing the apples is my "cue" to be healthy. This worked really well until we added a big tub of "celebration chocolates" into the fruit bowl - which then created a trigger cue to eat chocolate!
I set myself a reading challenge for 2019 and by September I was way off target. I needed to get into the habit of reading every night if I wanted to achieve my goal. So, after learning about habit stacking from a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear, I decided to give it a go. Habit stacking basically means that you add your new habit on top of an old habit. For example:-
- Established habit - Waking up, and then having a shower
- Established habit - I always make my bed and put my pj's under my pillow.
- New habit stack - I now put a book and my toothbrush on top of my pillow.
With the new habit, I now brush my teeth before I go to bed and I read my book, even if it is only a few pages.
Trigger #2 - The reward
I have always used the Franklin Covey and David Allen process of getting things done, which is now a habit. But I started to develop a habit where I would write things on my to do list that I really wanted to do, rather than what I needed to get done. I found enjoyment in crossing things off the list and the low hanging fruit aka: easy tasks, was a great way to keep my brain in pleasure mode. It wasn't until I caught myself writing things on the bottom of the list that I had already completed and then crossing it off did I realise what I was doing!
So, setting yourself a reward is a great way to accomplish a new habit.
I'm going to tell you a secret.... Last week I had to blitz the house and I am not a fan of housework. So, I told myself, after every task I had completed, then I would reward myself with an episode of New Amsterdam! Here is an example:-
- Clean the upstairs bathroom - then watch Episode 2 of New Amsterdam.
- Change the bed sheets, hoover the bedrooms and dust the bedside cabinets - then watch Episode 3 of New Amsterdam.
Not only was the whole hose spotless by the end of the day, but I was a happy bunny as I had got my Netflix fix!
I use the reward system for health as well. For example, I now only listen to my favourite podcasts when I am out on my morning walk. The latest episode is my reward for being active before breakfast. I now look forward to my morning walk and I look forward to the podcast.
I am in the process of studying habits and goal setting as there has been lots of development and research into the reason why we do what we do. I find this topic fascinating and I am currently experimenting with trying to form new habits over the next three months. I'll let you know how it goes.
In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on habits. Why do we do things that are not good for us? Why do people smoke, gamble, drink etc? Why is it so difficult to change a bad habit, or establish a good one. I welcome you to add your 2p's worth in the comments below.