Habits for the Win

I am a creature of habit. Apparently, I have always been. If you believe my mother, my tendency to favor habits over spontaneity dates back to my childhood. Supposedly, one day in first grade she found herself with an open Wednesday afternoon and came to pick me up at school for a spontaneous outing. Instead of being overjoyed, I am told (as I can’t remember this particular incident), I complained about her lack of prior announcement of the outing, and while I did not have much of a choice but go along with it, I spoiled the entire thing for both of us because I was clearly not happy about this break in my routine. That sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but just about right.

No worries, I am not planning to tell you that there’s anything wrong with being spontaneous or flexible. I adore these qualities in people and work hard on bringing a certain level of flexibility and spontaneity into my own life, even though I don’t seem to be cut out for it. But habits are not as boring as people make them out to be either, so today, I want to share a bit about how to successfully build habits—because that’s clearly a skill I have honed for decades.

It’s easier to build habits in the morning.

In case you’re wondering, this rule applies to morning as much as evening people because it’s the start of your day we’re talking about, whenever that may be. And not only have studies shown that you’re increasing your chances of success when incorporating new habits into the first part of your day; a good morning routine (more about that here) also sets you up for a better day overall.

Be clear about the rewards provided by our old and new routines.

There’s probably a reason why you haven’t changed certain routines yet, even though you keep thinking about doing it. Let’s say you dream of not having to rush to work, and starting your day calmly would be your reward for getting up earlier. But if your current habit is to watch Netflix until midnight, the extra half hour of sleep your relaxed morning would ‘cost’ you is just too much. So you’ll want to have to look at the full picture and, in this example, start with your bedtime before working on the new habit.

The secret sauce is habit-stacking.

What it means is that you connect two activities (or more) into one sequence. We do that more or less automatically when we, for instance, always brush our teeth before taking a shower (or vice versa), empty the dishwasher while dinner is in the oven, fold the laundry while watching our favorite show, things like that. Of course, we can do that deliberately too and decide to always do thing B right after we’ve done thing A. 

I combined these three principles to make flossing a habit. For years, I had the good intention to floss every night, but my evenings tend to be very different, so I’ve never managed to develop any kind of nighttime ritual. Deciding to floss in the morning, right after brushing my teeth, was a gamechanger. I kid you not, after having been an erratic flosser most of my life, I haven’t missed more than a handful of days in the past year or two. Granted, it makes more sense to floss at night, but what is better: doing it at the ‘wrong’ time of day or not doing it at all? Exactly. And my reward is pretty clear too: These days, my dental hygiene appointments are pretty short, and I don’t spend any time worrying about them beforehand.

And one last tip: Make it fun!

You like a challenge? Well, make your new habit one! There are all kinds of numbers out there on how long it takes to form a new habit, anywhere from three weeks to three months usually. And I’m sure you know as well as I do how long it takes to drop a habit—about a day. But let’s not go there right now … 

Let’s rather take a month as an average and turn the new habit you want to establish into a 30-day challenge. Seriously, you can do anything for a month—and after 30 days, you may not even be thinking about it anymore and just do it. Then it’s a habit. 

Hate to tackle stuff alone? Bring a friend on board! If it’s something your friend wants to do as well, even better! If you’re on your own, you can still recruit your partner or friend as your accountability partner. Or if you don’t want to share with others what you’re planning to do, how about a don’t-break-the-chain calendar where you mark every day you did the thing? I can tell you from experience, when you have a couple of Xs on your calendar, you really, really don’t want to see an empty spot! But if you miss a day, don’t be too hard on yourself either. See it as a little warning to be mindful and just go back to it the next day. It’s okay not to be perfect!