Habits Frustrating You? Don’t Worry, There’s a Way To Get Them Right
Are you lying to your dental hygienist about how often you floss? Or perhaps you’ve forgotten what your New Year’s resolutions were last year, or maybe even didn’t set any because you already know that building new habits is hard. Don’t worry because life coach Rachel is here to help you go from habits frustrating you, to solutions so you can get them right.
So get ready to learn how to become a better habit maker.
The inspiration for this blog and the full podcast episode 32 actually came from an article that I read. The article was written for a business audience, but I found the research findings extremely relevant to you and me.
We often talk about needing to stop bad habits, and start good habits. Perhaps the most relatable is food habits and specifically dieting. We commit to eating less cake, fried food and pizza and promise ourselves more fruit and vegetables. But as we all know, it is hard to give up certain habits, even ones we don’t like. Worse, it’s hard to start new ones. Trying to adopt different habits of any kind can result in feeling that habits are frustrating you.
There are some embedded habits that are essentially part of how we interact with the world, those are the ones that we do regularly, for the most part, we actually stop paying attention to.
For example, I don’t ask myself if I’ll brush my teeth when I get up in the morning, it’s just a habit. I just do it and importantly, there’s no friction.
In fact, researchers estimate that about 40% of our behaviors on a given day are actually habit-based behaviors. These allow us to go about our daily lives without making lots and lots of decisions. Which is helpful to protect us from decision fatigue.
Let me be sure to define habits clearly. Habits are things that we do automatically, without first needing to make a conscious decision about it. Google says it like this: a habit is a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that’s hard to give up.
See, I told you hard to give up, right?
The research article that I’m referencing here today also found it was hard to start new habits too.
Bottom line. It’s hard to give up a habit, and it’s hard to start a new one.
No wonder we’re getting this wrong!
However, developing new habits is problematic for a few reasons. One, new habits are hard to create, we’ve just covered that, but let me tell you a little bit more. Studies have found that depending on the complexity of a new habit, it takes around seven weeks of what they call context-dependent repetition of a behavior to form this new habit.
I also think about the impact of time. If we go back to the brushing teeth habit that I mentioned earlier, and I’m sure many of you share with me the time allocation was really trained into us as children. We don’t think about the minutes we have to spend on brushing our teeth daily, we just do it.
However, a lot of things we’d like to become habits, involve purposely allocating time. For example, if I do want to eat more healthfully, one of the most frequent suggestions that health-based apps or nutritionists recommend is weighing food, which takes extra time and it’s an extra step that is truly inconvenient until it’s practiced so consistently and regularly that it becomes a normal part of food preparation.
Another thing about habit formation is that at the beginning we have higher motivation, we want to do something, want to change something, but we need it for the next seven weeks (at least) to recommit to this every day and sometimes depending on the habit, multiple times a day.
So if we’re starting a new habit, for example meditating each morning for 10 minutes. Then we have to recommit to this activity on morning 1, and every single morning for 49 days! And so, that new habit formation would need to feel as motivating and just as important on day one as it does on day 12 and 35 and forty-nine and beyond.
Can it be done?
Don’t Worry, There’s a Way To Get Habits Right
So I’m going to stay with this dental hygiene scenario for a moment longer. As I tell you a story about one way that we might be able to impact our new habits. A few years ago I was at as many of you will do yourselves a routine dental hygiene cleaning appointment. And as is customary every time the dental hygienist asks me if I floss. You know we get that asked this every single time. So, since I value honesty, I answered that I have flossed every day since I got the reminder on my phone about this appointment a couple of day ago.
Then I chuckled in a charming way (at least I thought so).
The hygienist in a very serious voice told me that the next time I came in if I didn’t floss daily, I’d need to get a really deep clean, which is much more costly, and much more uncomfortable.
If you floss daily, you won’t need to do this. She told me.
This very direct feedback led me to floss. It worked because I was able to add this task also to something I was already doing. So I was already brushing my teeth. What I needed to do was take this already automated habit of teeth brushing and attach another step to it. That’s exactly what I did.
Here are two solutions to get habits:
1. Attach a new habit to an already existing habit.
2. Define a powerful ongoing motivation.
I was able to feel a motivation from locating a strong enough negative consequence and that was helpful. Sometimes we need to think about what is reinforcing about something, but also what the problem would be if we don’t take on this new habit, those two elements can be beneficial in providing that motivation on day 1, 2 , 27, forty-four, and Beyond. I
don’t know if it’s something to do with being an adult versus a child when I started this, but I never skipped brushing my teeth. It would feel like my whole day was off if I didn’t do it.
But do I ever skip flossing? Yes, not very often.
It makes me wonder if the habits we learned in our younger years, our childhood, and young adulthood are just inherently easier or longer-lasting or somehow are stronger in dictating the habits we hold in adulthood. I’m not entirely sure what the research says about this, but anecdotally it seems to be true. So attaching a strong motivator can be beneficial in setting up a new habit.
Another approach that I want to pull out of the article I read, that I wanted to share is how we can create habits from completing a one time bigger behavior.
The main point here is that while there are some instances that habit creation is the right answer in the way I’ve been discussing. There are also instances when it is not, and it is suggested that before landing on a new habit we should be considering if instead there is a one-time decision that would automate the habit immediately and without the need for long-lasting motivation.
New habit solution 3. Find a one-time behavior that automates a habit immediately.
Let’s look at some examples:
- If you really want to get healthy and set a new habit of going for a walk for 30 minutes a day, you would need to be willing to walk every day for 49 days. rain or shine, busy, tired, forgetful. It doesn’t matter. One big decision you could make is to get a dog. That dog would need to be walked every day.
- You want to save money for something big or your future of retirement. And so if you were to do a one-time big decision to set up an automatic transfer from your account into your savings every month or every paycheck, rather than relying on yourself to go back and form the habit of making that manual transaction. The very act of setting it up to be automated means that you don’t have to recommit. You’ve already made one big commitment and you’ve set it up.
- Let’s say you really do want to eat more healthfully and you want to eat more fruits and veggies. Rather than having to remember the habit of always purchasing those healthy vegetables and fruit at the grocery store, you could get a membership to a local fruit and delivery service so that every week they deliver you fruits and vegetables to your door.
So, let’s review our learning.
- New habit formation takes about seven weeks to develop under optimal circumstances.
- When formulating a new habit, it is worth considering how you will stay motivated by positive and negative consequences day after day.
- Look for ways to attach a new habit to an already existing habit.
- Checking if there is a single big decision that can be made to automate a new habit.
Got a comment, idea, or new habit you are adopting? Tell me about it. Email me, life coach Rachel at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who do you know who struggles with habits (hint: everyone). If someone comes to mind, please share this article with them.