6 tips for creating good habitsI’m not a maker of New Year resolutions. Experience tells me the long timescales and their ‘pass or fail’ nature don’t meet my need for a short-term dopamine hit and clear and regular markers of progress. So if I want to break a habit which isn’t serving me (turning to food when I’m bored) or create a new, positive habit such as making time for more yoga, what’s to do?
1. Know your triggers
Do you know what is likely to get in the way of losing some habits and gaining those you would like? Do you always call at the local shop for chocolate when you’re out for your daily walk, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t today? Or reach for the biscuit tin when work gets a bit trickier than you’d like?
These are habit loops – a pattern of thought or behaviour. They can be negative (work frustration triggering a stroll to the kitchen for biscuits) or positive (a 20 minute walk in the morning triggers a willingness to tackle the day’s tough jobs first).
What is the trigger for the habit you would like to break or embed? What triggers a particular chain of events to end in a particular outcome? When you understand your triggers and how you respond, checking in with your thoughts, feelings and behaviours along the way, you can take action!
What existing habits do you have which could provide the trigger for a new behaviour? For example, when you clean your teeth in the morning, use that as an opportunity to set your intentions for the day.
What do you do already that could provide the catalyst for a new habit?
3. Create a map
One reason I tend to avoid New Year resolutions is they seem a bit too big and onerous. The satisfaction part, which delivers the dopamine hit, is a long distance along a difficult, untrodden path and the signposts, the markers of progress, are infrequent. And once I’ve lost my way or feel my resolution weaken, I jump way too quickly towards the ‘failure’ label and the ‘all or nothing’ thinking pattern. Better off not to have started than to feel worse for having had a go!
What are the small markers of success you can create along the way to your new habit or behaviour, which will keep you on track and focussed and not derailed by negative emotions? What routes will you include on your map which will help you find your way back to the route if you’re met with a sense of failure? Take responsibility for where you are and then take another step. Moving forward can create the momentum you need to keep going.
4. Use positive language
You’ll be more likely to stick embed new habits if you frame them in positive language. As humans, we are unable to process negatives: “don’t think of a pink elephant” leaves us thinking of the pink elephant before then trying to erase evidence of it. Don’t eat biscuits when you’re frustrated at work is unhelpfully, going to make us think of the biscuits. How about ‘take 3 big breaths when feeling frustrated’ or ‘eat an apple when you want to tackle the to-do list’ is likely to be more effective. Add things in (an apple) rather than taking something (biscuits) away.
What language will you use to describe the habit you would like to embed or forge? What will you add?
5. Visualise success and stay focussed
Elite athletes are trained to envisage the finish line – you’ll see sprinters on the start line looking 100 meters ahead as if they might already be there.
So what if we were to pre-suppose that memory and imagination are wired on the same neural circuits? How would this help us envisage those times when our habits are as we would like them to be; we have succeeded and are walking the path we choose?
And how much more likely would we be to continue with our desired habits if we keep them in focus as part of our every day? Perhaps you could make them visual (writing them on a post-it on the fridge or as a screen saver on your phone)? What will you do to stay focussed?
Notice and reward the steps along the way. There are a few sayings about the importance of the journey (not just the destination). Recognising small accomplishments by noticing and bringing them into conscious thought, or rewarding yourself for sticking to the route or overcoming the risk of abandoning the map altogether, is the dopamine hit which can help us stay motivated and really embed our new ways.
If the perception of progress increases and sustains our personal sense that we CAN do it, how will you keep track of how far you’ve come?
Useful information about habits: