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Building lasting habits - Take Back My Day
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June 16, 2021
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Building lasting habits

Habit research is a fascinating field. It explores how much of our daily activity is automated, and how we can change deeply ingrained routines that no longer serve us.

Self-help books about any topic often recommend to “make it a habit…,” but that process can be much more challenging than it sounds. Take the example of New Year’s resolutions or other vows to make profound life changes: The common trajectory is a few days of feeling great about a new activity, followed by a more or less spectacular lapse into old patterns.

You can think of habits as automated routines that don’t require conscious decisions. These routines make up about one third of our daily actions, and that’s good! Imagine how hard it would be if you had to learn how to drive a car every time you wanted to go somewhere. Our brain and muscle memory allows us to focus on the more relevant aspects of our day.

Your habits are an individual collection of behaviors that have become second nature. They range from your preference for a morning beverage to your aversion to marketing yourself. The more ingrained they become, the more difficult they are to change. Not surprisingly, the way we treat and consider time is largely determined by habits as well. When you look at your daily schedule, you are likely to discover several time-related habits that may or may not be beneficial. For starters, what prompted you to open this blog post, and how many browser tabs are open as you are reading it?

Neuropsychology has helped us gain a much better understanding of the way our habits function. Habits are based on a simple loop of a cue, a routine, and a reward. To give you a simple example, a cue may be a sense of feeling unfocused, which prompts you to brew a mid-day cup of coffee (routine). The reward is the necessary concentration to finish a project.

What is the best way to start a new habit?

  • Start small: Research has shown how important it is to start small when building a new habit. A new routine should be so short that your brain can’t possibly come up with an excuse. You are much more likely to stick with an activity that initially takes 30 seconds or less.
  • Repeat often: Frequent repetition gets your neuropathways used to a new activity. Short repetitions are better than long sessions, especially if the new habit you want to build involves exercise. It takes many days for an activity to become fully ingrained.
  • Set up habit environments: You can encourage a new habit by setting out reminders and cues. For instance, walking shoes by the door will remind you to take a quick walk around the block at lunchtime. Any obstacle (“can’t find my walking shoes!“) will turn into a reason to stay with old behaviors.
  • Tie to existing habits: It is easier to modify existing routines than to invent new ones. To stay with our previous example, you may decide that your caffeine consumption has become excessive. You can gradually modify the current loop

Cue = Feeling unfocused
Routine = Make coffee
Reward = Renewed concentration

by changing the routine portion, e.g. by drinking water instead of coffee.

  • Don’t forget the reward: Nothing stops a new habit faster than an unpleasant experience. A new exercise routine should never hurt, and the water you drink instead of your coffee must be refreshing. A sense of obligation (“I should”) does not provide sufficient motivation.

What can you do when you’ve fallen off the wagon?

Good habits take continuous work, even after you’ve established them. In chaotic times, even the best habits can be hard to follow.

Here are some ideas for coming back to a new habit:

  • Stop beating yourself up. You fell back into old patterns, that’s all.
  • Don’t attempt to ‘catch up’ – just come up back to the activities that worked.
  • Go back to the upside of the habit: what was inspiring and fun?
  • Create fresh reminders and incentives for yourself.
  • Invent a shorter habit routine that fits your life.
Note: This post first appeared in a slightly longer version in Tool Box for Translators in August 2021.
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