habit making

woman in black hijab holding white ceramic mug

Welcome back, dear reader! Sorry I’ve been silent for so long. That wonderful thing called Life has been happening and I haven’t been keeping up my habit of writing.

Speaking of habits (and flawless segues), today’s post inspired by Five Minutes in the Morning is all about forming lasting habits, with a heavy dose of inspiration from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

I read this book a few years back and was initially disappointed that it wasn’t more about forming habits. However, I just picked up Jen Sincero‘s Badass Habits and although I’m fewer than 100 pages in I can already tell it’s the kind of book I was looking for when I first picked up Duhigg’s book.

That’s not to say Duhigg’s book isn’t interesting and insightful, it just wasn’t what I was looking for at the time. Still, it outlines how habits are formed and, more importantly, how we can hijack old habits to form new ones.

Duhigg describes how habits are simply routines that have become automatic, and how they each have three basic parts:

(1.) A cue that (2.) Triggers a behavior that (3.) Leads to a reward

Now, most people might assume that to change a habit you need to work on changing the cue (part 1) or the reward (part 3), but Duhigg suggests you start reworking your habits by changing the trigger (part 2).

To try to explain this, let’s make up a totally hypothetical and not-at-all-inspired-by-real-life-events scenario.

Let’s say you’re someone who gets emotional over everything (calm down, this is a hypothetical, remember). So you’ve gotten emotional because the wind came in through the window too hard or you can’t find the matching sock for your left foot, or something, and now that you’re in this emotional state you want to comfort yourself.

Let’s also say you’re someone who uses food to soothe your emotions. So you’re all hypothetically emotional and you grab food and eat so much your back hurts.

You may have satisfied the initial cue (zomg emotions!) by providing the reward (a bloated belly), but until you work out the behavior (using food emotionally) this process is going to keep happening.

Instead of ignoring the cue (because it’s never a good idea to ignore your emotions) try focusing on how you respond to the cue. Maybe instead of eating an entire box of cinnamon Life cereal straight from the bag try just a bowl. Or if you know you’re going to respond to emotional upsets by overeating, make sure you only have healthy snacks in the house.

An even more radical response would be to sit with the feeling. Get curious about the cue and ask it why it’s there. You can literally ask out loud (don’t worry, your plants won’t judge you). Or you could try writing out the question What most needs to be felt right now? and don’t stop writing until you get to an answer that seems the most true.

But, I know, change can be challenging. Let’s say you catch yourself in the middle of the behavior and realize, Oh crap, I’m doing the thing I was trying to change! First off, congratulations on being mindful enough to catch yourself. Even though it’s in the middle of the behavior you’re at least aware enough to realize you’re doing it. That’s something to be celebrated. Be proud of that fact.

Secondly, and some might disagree, but if you can do so mindfully, go ahead and devour the box of cereal, but try to be as mindful as you can with each bite. What security is this providing? What is this helping you avoid? Why is the off-brand version more delicious?

Try not to beat yourself up if you end up with terrible farts and a sore jaw an hour later. You were still mindful enough to go into the behavior with awareness. Not everyone can do that, and that’s something to be celebrated, too.

There’s no prompt associated with this entry from Five Minutes in the Morning, but the book does offer some additional non-cereal related habit-forming ideas by way of Duhigg:

  • Link the new habit to something you already do as part of your everyday routine.
    For example, if your goal is to lead a more active life and you already pick up the papers on a Saturday morning, start walking to the store instead of driving. Or if you want to achieve a calmer mind and you already take the train to work, start using that time to just sit quietly and focus on your breathing.
  • Make it easy.
    There’s no point telling yourself that you are going to run or meditate for an hour every day. You won’t. The secret to successful habit-forming is to make it so easy that you barely notice. Do some push-ups while the bathtub fills up; close your eyes and take three deep breaths while the coffee brews.
  • Do it every day.
  • Set a specific time and place for this habit.
  • Plan for problems ahead.
    Think about the obstacles that might get in your way and how you will overcome them. For example, if your new habit involves exercising outside, perhaps you will plan to go to the gym if it rains. Or if it takes a big chunk of time, you could devise a shorter version so that you never have to skip the action entirely.
  • Be patient and let yourself stumble.
    It takes time for something to become a habit and the world won’t end if you miss a day or two. When the stumble happens, and it will, just remind yourself why you are trying to set this habit and pick up where you left off.
  • Reward yourself.
    We are more likely to maintain a habit if we associate the action with a reward. Treat yourself to a soak in the bathtub after a run, have an extra large coffee in your favorite mug when you’ve completed your breathing exercise.
  • Boost your motivation by writing or voicing affirmations, such as “I am doing well making exercise part of my daily routine.”

Try hijacking your habits today, dear reader!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really have to go to the bathroom.

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