Vivien Boche, ERP Today’s Young Professional Network Council Member, reflects on how to establish better habits in ways which are realistic and understand the demands of everyday life.
Learning a language, eating healthier and being more fit all have one thing in common: they need to be executed regularly. Otherwise, the effect will not show. I have struggled with improving my habits for a long time, and I am still not in a place where I have mastered them. However, I recently found new ways and applied different thinking which has helped me move forward in my pursuit of establishing better habits in my life. In this blog post, you will understand more about habits, why we often fail to develop positive ones and learn five ways how you can start to improve yours today.
The what and whys of habits
For me, habits are small actions that you learn to perform; the more often you do them, the easier they get, and at some point, you can simply turn on the autopilot. A good example is brushing your teeth. As a child, you found it difficult and needed to learn how to do it, but as an adult, you simply walk into the bathroom in the morning and do not even think about what to do. Your hand automatically reaches for the toothbrush, and no active thinking is involved. This is the stage you want to reach with the habits you are developing.
James Clear describes habits as being ‘the compound interest in self-improvement’ in his book ‘Atomic Habits: an easy proven way to build good habits’. This is a book which I can highly recommend, and you will recognise his methods in this blog post. I especially like the idea of habits being seen as a compound interest in self-improvement. Like money multiplied through compound interest, your habits start to multiply when you repeat them. It will not make a big difference on day two or three or after a week, but if you look back two, three or five years, you will notice the value.
Image credit: Anna Pelzer
Why are we bad at building habits?
If we can clearly see the positive impact a good habit can bring to our life, why are we so bad at establishing them? This is a question which has bothered me for a long time. I always felt that any new habit would work if I just tried hard enough and convinced myself of the bigger end goal. However, I did not understand where I was failing. And that was my problem.
Here is one thought that helped me to understand it better:
“It is not you who is failing, it is your process.”
Reread it. Let it sink in. Because that already brings you a step closer to achievement. Because now you know what the problem is. So, let’s start working on it…
When it comes to habits, we often focus on the goal – e.g. get fitter, eat healthier, speak a new language. Therefore, we neglect or do not define in detail the answers to the question: how exactly will I achieve the goal? My method always was – I will do it every day from now on. However, this approach is too unrealistic and it will not help you to reach the autopilot finish line.
Five methods for how to achieve your autopilot habits
In the following, I will outline five different methods that helped me set better habits. As a big fan of examples, I will use my current new habit, ‘Learning Danish’, to illustrate these methods.
- Outcome-based to identity-based
We view our habits with an outcome-based mindset, e.g. I am learning Danish. However, to become a person who is consistent and reliable, you need to shift your focus from outcome-based, which is goal-oriented, to identity-based, e.g. from I am learning Danish to I am a Danish speaker. Because the most effective way to establish a habit is not to concentrate on what you want to achieve but on whom you wish to become. Your identity is created based on your habits. As James Clear writes: ‘The real reason why habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.’
- Breaking it down
Habits need to be easy. Otherwise, you will fail at performing them. So, how do we break them down? Simply put, find a way to consolidate your habit into 2 minutes. As an example, if you want to go running more often, your habit can be boiled down to putting your sports clothes on and tying your shoes. With that, you have already decided to go out and run and, nine times out of ten, that’s all you need to perform it. For my Danish example, I boiled my habit down to opening my learning app on my smartphone.
It can be hard to find the right time in our daily schedule to perform positive habits. Every habit article will tell you that you need to be consistent and repeat it at the same time, every day. While that is an approach, I personally find it hard to follow as the structure of my days change. I wake up earlier or later. I go to the office or work from home. I go out for drinks or to the gym. My days change, but my habits should not. So how can you create flexibility whilst still being consistent? The clue lies in habits you are already doing on autopilot, e.g. closing your computer, making coffee, etc. Analyse your day, see which habits you are doing, and then stack old habits with new ones. Stacking means that whenever I wake up in the morning and I reach for my phone, the first thing I do is open the language learning app. So, the habit of waking up and reaching out to my phone became my stacking cue. Think about which habits you have established and how you can combine them with new, positive ones.
- Reward yourself
We, humans, love rewards. Combining habits with a positive affirmation increases the chance that you want to do it again. You are linking the effort of performing a habit with something that motivates you and can also show you the progress you are making. For example, I opened an extra account and, each time I successfully performed my new habit, transferred 1p to the account. Over time, I have watched my account grow, and it shows me that I am making progress. It is a similar feeling when you can check off all to-dos on your list. It could be as simple as a habit tracker app or notes on your smartphone. Find something that works for you.
What happens if you miss a day? Have you failed? No, of course not. Everyone misses a day of their habit routine. As I mentioned before, our lives change. So, it is normal that you also miss a day in establishing your new habit. However, don’t let it be more. As soon as you break out of your habit, you lose your rhythm. So, aim to get back in the game the day after letting it slip.
Am I mastering all of my habits? – No.
Did I get better at maintaining them? – Yes.
Can I get even better with my habits? – Yes.
I also have more to learn and need to revisit my habits regularly. Please remember – it is not you who is failing. It is your process. So, start building your habit process today.
Written by Vivien Boche, YPN Councilmember