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5 steps for making habits stick

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The COVID-19 pandemic has a firm grip on the world when I’m typing this. Many friends of mine work in healthcare or adjacent fields and each of them has seen the impact: from highly confused people to people, only 25 years of age, being hospitalized. What’s happening to the world is gruesome. I certainly hope the measures taken by every government and individual will result in a swift retreat of the virus. It leaves me with a little more time on my hands than expected – a holiday got cancelled – so, what do you do with your time?

Ha. I expect you’re going to say ‘watch Netflix’. Right. Yes, I do. But there’s only so much joy to be had from staring at a screen all day. So, I don’t do it all day. I thought, this is a great time to develop some new habits – habits that don’t involve screens. Cal Newport helped to get me started as I read about his Analog January Challenge. While his challenge was temporary, I’d like to try and make it all a bit more definite.

The Analog Challenge?

Newport’s Analog Challenge comprised of five types of analog activities:

  • Read a few books per month – at least 3. He doesn’t provide a solution for non-readers however.
  • Move around. Literally. Take a walk for at least 15 minutes a day.
  • Connect with at least 20 different people.
  • Make something. Find a hobby that connects to the physical world.
  • Join a crew that meets in person on a regular basis. This proves to be difficult during the pandemic, but still.

For me, the abundance of time meant that I wanted to fortify on the next set of analog habits: read at least 3 books a month, taking a walk for 30 minutes, maintain my daily workout routine, implement a cleaning schedule (yuck, but yes!) and to sit down every now and then to do a jigsaw puzzle.

In these times connecting with people and joining something which features live contact is a bit challenging, so I migrated those analog habits for the time being to an online environment – actively participating in online pubquizzes and talking to friends through video chat.

It is all about reconnecting with the physical world, a feeling that is very profound, yet severely hampered by the coronavirus. The challenge doesn’t imply one should give up screens entirely – just a bit less is all. It sounds good, doesn’t it? But how does one turn this thing into a habit that sticks when the abundance of time is over?

A man walking in nature

Create a habit that sticks

If you’d like some more analog activities back in your life on a more permanent basis, there’s a few tricks I’ve succesfully implemented up until now. It of course starts with wanting some change. Do it because you want to. Then, follow the steps.

The inspiration for making habits stick I got from author SJ Scott. He wrote an elaborate piece on how to ditch bad habits (which was my sugar intake at the time). If you want to know more, please read 27 Steps to Break Your Bad Habits: The Ultimate Guide.

0. Discover the routine in the habit loop

Charles Duhigg famously wrote The Power of Habits. Its wisdom is especially valuable in changing your habits, which is after all, what you’re trying to do. He identified that good, but mostly bad, habits have three parts:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

I would say this is step zero. The trick with this step is to find out what you’re doing that works in the opposite direction of your goal. If you’ve identified it, it allows you to successfully change your routine. To follow the example of my reading goal: it’s way easier to watch Netflix. So, I could explain to myself for not reading – or, for that matter, not taking a walk or doing anything ‘offline’ after a day of work:

  • Trigger: having an evening for myself, sit on the couch after dinner.
  • Routine: Netflix!
  • Reward: relax my brain.

Yes, not surprising when reading the introduction of my post, I view Netflix as a bad habit. My goal is to move away a bit more from Netflix or screens in general. Not as to eliminate it entirely, but give it its own time and place. Reading is a bit more taxing for the brain, but reading a good novel can be relaxing. Taking a walk can also relax the brain. So, plenty of analog routine options there!

1. Set a goal and set its metrics

Very important first step: setting the actual goal for your new habit! You could say, “I want my home to be tidy”. You have to agree with me, maintaining a tidy home is a big thing. It involves quite a few activities, like sweeping floors, doing laundry, doing dishes, cleaning toilets and what not. Setting your goal like that, won’t get you anywhere and makes you feel dissappointed. Break your big goal down into activities – together they make up for a tidy home! And then, formulate them like this:

  • “By September 30, I clean my toilet every week.”
  • “By May 1st, I make my bed five days a week.”
  • “By August 1, I’m reading three books per month.”

See how this works? The goal consist of three parts:

  1. The implementation date.
  2. The goal itself.
  3. A metric.

This allows you to keep track of it and use the deadline to get yourself into doing the work! And also important, allow yourself some leeway by incrementing your metrics over time. Like making your bed 2 times a week in week 1, 3 in week two, and so on.

2. Focus on one habit at a time

A bit of an open door, but they’re built to get you from one place to the other after all. Coming from an abundance of time, it’s easy to nurture the new habits all in one day. But when the ratrace of the normal work day starts again, even if it’s from home, it’s easy to lose track of your habits. So when you’re working, focus on one habit at a time. Try to do that one thing every day until you find it so easy to do, you can import the next habit into your life.

3. Do it every day for at least a month

A habit only becomes a habit when you do it so often, you do it almost unconsiously. Maintain your habit daily and for at least a month so it sets in nicely. When I first implemented my daily workout routine, it took some effort to do it daily, but now I miss it when I don’t do it.

4. Build a support system

People are terrible when it comes to making appointments with themselves – and great at making excuses for not following orders.

“If you wouldn’t follow yourself, why should anyone else?”
― John C. Maxwell, The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization

So, implement a system of sorts to keep an eye on yourself moving towards your new habit. You can either do one of the following:

  • Create a habit tracker to keep track of when and when you’re not doing it. Find an example here.
  • In addition to tracking your habit, you could also journal and by that way, reflect on your habit.
  • Get a buddy. Pick someone who would want to support you in succeeding. You could be their buddy for an entirely different habit in return. Not sure who to pick? This article helps you on your way.

You can do this!

Yes, you can change your habits. It’s all about replacing your routine in the end. These tips really helped me establish some new habits in the past, so I’m pretty sure I can do it again.

What about you, what do you do that changes your habits?



Published inFocus and Habits

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