Checking out Pinterest last week I found so many pins about habits and habit trackers. Habits of highly successful women, morning habits for a productive day, habits for a healthy mindset and so on. There’s also a plethora of bullet journal habit tracker examples and so many different beautiful and useful layouts to try. But what I wanted to know was, how to ensure that productive and positive habits stick. I found a few books on the subject and have added them to my TBR pile. I also found some useful diagrams that show the science behind habit formation but decided it would be really good to create a practical guide to instilling new habits to go with the theory. So let’s dive right in…
What is a habit?
According to the online Cambridge dictionary, a habit can be defined as ‘something you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it’. Habits can be good and really helpful e.g. flossing your teeth, getting regular exercise, drinking plenty of water each day, keeping a gratitude journal, or can be bad or unhelpful e.g. eating too much junk food, criticising yourself, biting your nails or always being late. Some habits are really hard to break, such as smoking, being self critical, and drinking too much alcohol and may need help and support or a structured plan to enable you to make changes. Others can be difficult to keep up with for many people, such as eating a healthy and balanced diet, maintaining a positive mindset, having a good exercise routine and always being grateful for what you have.
The habit formation loop
The habit formation loop was first explained in detail by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. The idea is that each habit is made up of three parts – The Cue (or trigger), The Routine (physical, mental or emotional behaviour that follows the cue and The Reward (a positive reinforcement which tells your brain that the routine works well). Here it is in diagrammatic form in my bullet journal:
Putting the theory into practice
So, the theory is easy enough to understand and has been widely accepted as a good explanation of how habits are created. But how can we apply the science when trying to form new habits? Here are some tips:
Choose one habit that is realistic i.e. one that motivates you and can relatively easily slot into your life. For example, if you want to start on a fitness journey, you might set a goal to go out for a brisk 20 minute walk each day at 11am rather than saying that you are going to go running for an hour three times a week, to the gym five days a week and swimming at weekends. In other words, take baby steps and take it slow!
Plan what your cue will be
I’ve found that the best thing to use as a cue is a given time. So, for example, I do my yoga at 11am each week day so I can make sure I don’t eat anything for a few hours before and I only drink squash and not coffee prior to my practice. I also make sure that my workout gear and the equipment I need is readily accessible – and I chose my favourite colours for the items for extra motivation too. My clothes are super comfortable and flattering and I treated myself to a good quality yoga blanket in a gorgeous minty green colour plus blocks and a bolster in a wonderful berry shade.
Know that it will take time
It takes time to develop a habit and it’s different for everyone. Don’t expect it to become automatic straight away – you need to work at it and train your brain! For a few months, I would write yoga on my daily to do list in my bullet journal to remind me that I needed to do it. Now, it’s part of my routine and something I do without thinking. If the habit is important to you, and you remain focused, you can do it. If you’re not really interested in making the change, then you will be less likely to achieve your intention. However, you should also be kind to yourself and not berate yourself if your habit formation doesn’t go as smoothly as you would like.
Hold yourself accountable
There are a number of ways of holding yourself accountable. You could share your intentions with a partner or friend and ask them to check on how it’s going. You could arrange an accountability partner who is trying to instil the same habit as you and motivate each other as you go. Or you could set mini goals to work towards and reward yourself each time you reach a milestone. I know of people who have shared what they hope to achieve in a group on Facebook and then updated everyone on their progress regularly.
Expect to have blips and work through them
Accept that there will be days when you don’t do what you set out to do or feel resistant. For example, I was feeling under the weather for a whole week at the end of last month and didn’t do my aerobic workout, toning exercises or daily yoga for five days. I could have quite easily continued the habit of not doing my workouts, but instead, I recognised the reasons for me not keeping up with my practice and made a promise to myself that I would start back up again when I was feeling better – and I did. I also reminded myself of the benefits of my routines for body and mind and this helped me get back on track.
You can also produce a written record of your intention in your planner and then evaluate how you’ve done each week. You can even give yourself some written feedback including what you did well and a couple of suggestions for improvement a bit like a work performance appraisal!
Write a plan using the habit formation loop as a guide
On his website, Charles Duhigg provides a number of resources to help you with breaking, forming and changing habits. The plan can be written in the following form: When (cue), I will (routine) because it provides be with (reward). So, for example, if you want to adopt a daily yoga practise, you could write the following plan: When it gets to 11am, I will change into my yoga gear and set up my equipment and do a 20 minute routine because it provides me with better focus and improved body strength. Or if you want to start keeping a gratitude journal you could develop this plan: After I finished the final daily chores, I will spend 5-10 minutes reflecting on my day and then jotting down at least 4 things that I am grateful for because it helps me look for positives in my life and reminds me that I have so much to be thankful for.
Track your habits
Writing down your habits in your bullet journal and tracking them is a great way to stay focused. I’ve tried various layouts in the past and my experience has taught me that it’s best to have a very small number of habits which you are really motivated to stick with. So, for example, you could choose a few things which you already do but want to engage in consistently e.g. meditation, in bed by 11pm, face cream, 10K steps etc. If you are wanting to instil a new habit, I recommend just selecting one that you can easily incorporate into your current lifestyle and that you are really highly motivated to put into place.
The first photo here is an example of a habit tracker that I tried in the past and found really overwhelming. You can see I had so many habits listed that just filling it in was hard to keep up with never mind actually doing them all. Needless to say, I regularly forgot to fill it in and gave up on it in the end! The second image is the one I have set up for next month. The new habit is studying for my distance learning course and I put it at the top as it is to be my main focus. The other habits are things that I do already but want to do consistently and preferably on a daily basis.
If you want to make changes to your life by instilling new habits then the best way is to keep it simple and achievable, develop an effective routine and record your progress. I also think sharing your intentions with others is a great way to keep yourself accountable as you can often rely on family and friends to ask how you are doing and keep you in check. However, ultimately, it’s up to you to keep yourself motivated and regularly assess things and evaluate how your new habits are affecting your life for the better.
I would really love it if you took the time to leave me a comment telling me what habits you want to form next month and how you’re going to go about sticking with them. I hope you’ve found my ideas useful and that they help you work towards your goals.