“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” Chapter 9: Making Habits.

“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won’t cost you any more, but I’ll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.


Successful famous people often have a regular routine. Working steadily on your main goal is clearly an important part of success, but then it’s clearly not the whole thing. A daily walk will help keep your brain and body in shape, but by itself it won’t produce the theory of evolution by natural selection. As scientists say, the plural of anecdote is not data. What we need is studies of large numbers of people to find out what works and what doesn’t. We need science.
One thing at a time
It’s tempting to go for a complete makeover. Don’t. Look at all the people who make ten New Year’s resolutions and break them all by the end of January. Start small, and change one thing at a time. You can break a large habit down into smaller parts, and do them one at a time. Don’t change your whole diet in one go. Maybe start by weaning yourself off the sugar in your coffee. Leave fruit for elevenses until the sugarless coffee is automatic.
If your motivation’s weak, you’re unlikely to make a new habit stick. So have a think about why you want to do this. But don’t daydream that you’ve done it. Surprisingly, that’s counterproductive. Daydream about working on your goals. That way you’ll work harder at it, and you’re less likely to be blind-sided by problems. Best of all, imagine your future with the good habit, then without the good habit, and contrast the two. That works best, as long as you expect to succeed. People who don’t think they can succeed tend to give up, which at least saves wasted effort. (This is another reason to start small – you’ll have a more realistic idea of what you can achieve.)
The catch is that it’s no fun thinking of the yawning gap between your goal and the status quo, and taking an inventory of everything that might go wrong. But oddly, once you realise that it’s difficult but doable, you’ll probably be motivated. And then you need a plan – the right sort of plan.
Most people have really vague plans, like “lose weight,” or “be kinder.” What you need is to plan a very precise (preferably small) action and a a very specific situation to trigger it. “WheneverI’m getting myself coffee, then I’ll have 2 sugars instead of 3” or “If I see someone struggling with a buggy, then I’ll offer to help.” Link the situation with the response, and there’s a much better chance you’ll form a habit. 94 studies show that this works.
You may have to tweak the plan. Say you want to exercise and you start with, “If I reach the lift at work, then I’ll take the stairs.” That limits you to the stairs at work. OK, so “IfI reach any lift, then I’ll take the stairs.” But what if it’s 25 floors, or you’re in the middle of an important conversation with somebody who’s taking the lift? Hmm. “If I reach any lift and I’m not mid-conversation, then I’ll take the stairs for at least 2 floors.” Sometimes these things just won’t work for you, and you’ll need a different technique. “If I leave the car in a car park, then I’ll park at the far end and walk across the car park.” It’s not a lot of exercise, but it’s better than nothing.
Don’t plan using the time of day. If you plan to go for a run at 8pm you probably won’t be looking at the clock at 8pm. Don’t rely on your memory: use an event. Go for a run after Dr Who. The best cue for a new habit is something that happens every day at a regular time. People trying to eat more healthily found that arriving at work and lunchtime were good cues, because it links to an existing habit. A lot of your day is already chains of habits – add a new link. The best time to floss is right after you brush.
OK, that’s the if. Now for the then. Make it specific, If you’re trying to be nicer to your spouse, then “If it’s my turn to cook, then I’ll make something they like.” If you’re trying to eat more healthily, “If I’m food shopping, then I’ll remember to get low fat milk.” It’s often good to include alternatives. “If there’s time after breakfast, then I’ll go for a run or ride my bicycle.”
You should also plan for when it starts to go wrong. “If I get a craving for a cigarette after meals, I’ll distract myself by clearing the table and loading the dishwasher.” “If I can’t be arsed to do yoga, I’ll light some incense and put on soothing music to get me in the mood, then I’ll get the mat out and just do two sun salutations” “If I’m too tired to do the de-cluttering I promised myself, I’ll play some rock and roll.”
Every time you repeat your habit, it gets a little easier. But the number of repetitions varies depending on the person, the habit you’re trying to form and how you go about it. It’s a good idea to have a plan (or plans) for dissatisfaction. “If I feel I’m not making any progress, then I’ll remind myself how far I’ve come.” “If I’m short of motivation, I’ll remind myself why I’m doing this and put on some energising music and/or promise myself a small reward afterwards.”
Self monitoring helps. Both the traditional chart to record progress and noticing how it’s going. You may want to tweak. Would it be easier at a different time of day?How about two short cleaning sessions instead of one long one? Of course once you’ve noticed a problem (“I’m bored with apples”) you have to do something about it (“I’ll have a banana instead.”) You may need to tweak again. “Bananas don’t keep very well. I shop on Wednesdays, so I’ll have a banana on Thursday and Friday, a mango on Saturday when I tend to skip fruit, and then I’ll have apples or oranges for the rest of the week.”)
Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a session. A few misses won’t hurt much. [Sheila sez: Specifically don’t be like an ex-boyfriend of mine, and conclude that one miss means you’ve given up and you’re useless and there’s no point trying ever again.]
Be careful with rewards. What happens when you get bored with the reward? It works better if the reward is your own satisfaction.

It shouldn’t be so very hard to acquire a new habit. You’ve acquired loads of habits without even trying! And once you’ve made your desired behaviour into a habit, you’ll probably go on doing it even when the house burns down and the cat explodes.

Posted by sheila

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract and has stayed 24 years so far. She used to work as a software engineer at the observatory, but now she's a writer and Starlight guide.

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