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How to Build Good Habits

Date: 30/12/21-31/12/21

Author Name: Sanghamitra Dixit

Qualifications: B.A.(Hons.) Applied Psychology; M.A. Applied Psychology (Spl. in Counselling)

Designation: Consultant Psychologist, ACRO Mental Health Services.

Word count: 1,467 words

Reading time: 8 mins

Reviewed by: Aishwarya Krishna Priya



A 21st-century guide to good habit building



Making a list of habits is essential


It’s here at last. The end of yet another year, the familiar buzz in the air as you gear up for the coming New Year. There is a sense of loss and hope both as you power through the last few days, as you look back at the year in review. The things that went as planned, the sudden changes, learning new things and letting go of the old. It also follows as natural as air: a new year equals a fresh start. They’re known as New Year's Resolutions.


When it comes to habit building, most of us are daunted. It sounds easy, but almost all of us have struggled to build good, long-lasting habits that we can stick to without beating ourselves up over it. It’s a grievance we all hold with ourselves: why can’t I just pick a habit and stick to it?


Good news— you’re not alone in feeling this way. Not so good news— you do have to work on getting over it, though actively.


What are Habits?

We’ve been drilled about it since our school days: build good habits. Washing your hands before eating is a good habit. Complete your homework on time; that’s a good habit. Parents, teachers, and family members emphasise how building good habits are valuable in our growing years and how if we don’t have good ones, bad things might happen. These common messages have been passed down and interpreted, a never-ending cycle of doing good from generation to generation. Lately, we’ve been seeing this word all over our social media. Our language uses this word so much; one would think we know what habits are.

So what are habits? They are small decisions we make and actions we perform every day. According to research conducted at Duke University, habits account for nearly 40% of our behaviour on any given day (1).


Your life up till this moment is a sum of all the habits you have. Do you exercise well or give up after a few days? Habit. How often do you feel unhappy versus happy? Are you a spender or saver? Knock, knock, your money habits are speaking.


What we repeatedly do, think or feel ultimately forms the person we become, the things we choose to believe in and the personality we portray to the outside world (2). Habits are a part of our lives, and we can’t get rid of them. They matter, are we doomed by our bad habits, however? Not at all; just because we have certain habits need not mean they can’t change.


Ways to Build Better Habits

Here’s the thing: there is no magic formula to good habit-building.

As a child, you must have heard this statement: practice makes perfect. Of course, as we grow older we realise perfection is subjective, but the practice is certainly an important part of that process as the practice allows us to improve. However, practising “bad” habits even automatically can lead to some habits getting set in stone. Think of walking, for example, we all stumbled when we took our first steps; now, we walk without thinking, on auto-pilot— muscle memory, essentially. A habit can become (brain) muscle memory provided one practises it over and over again.



Trusting yourself on your habit journey is an important step


There is a secret though: One can use small, everyday habits to build long-term outcomes (2). If your goal is to drop ten kilos, you’re going to have to take the stairs every day. You may not notice the change— until there you are, a month down the line, your goal met. It wasn’t because you signed up for the fancy gym membership, though it certainly played a part; it’s that you went to the gym every day.

  1. Start with an incredibly tiny habit

“Make it so easy you can’t say no.” — Leo Babauta



Take each day as it comes.


When people want to build new habits, they will often say: “I just need more motivation” or “I wish I could just push myself out of this rut.” The issue with this approach is— it assumes that motivation or willpower just “exists” and it’s out of reach. Nope. Willpower is a muscle you exercise (1). Like one, it experiences fatigue over the day. Your motivation is the same; it is like a wave— it comes, and it goes. What keeps the motivation around is the discipline to commit to it— every day.


Solution? Pick a habit you don’t need motivation for, and start small. Don’t jump straight into 50 pushups; begin with 5. Meditating for 10 minutes feels tough? Close your eyes for 30 seconds. You may be thinking— that’s too small. Exactly. The point is to focus on repeating the habit every day, not worrying about how effective that habit is. What matters isn’t the quality of your habit but your commitment to it.

  1. Increase your habit in small ways

This one’s easy: increase your chosen habit little by little. Maybe you do five pushups a week. Two weeks, three. Then you rise to 10 pushups and commit to that. The difference is— all this while, you’ve built resiliency for five pushups, and it doesn’t require motivation anymore. It’s practised; your body is habituated to it. 10 gives it a nice burn, but it’s not impossible.



Each day culminates into a big change down the line


Rather than trying to do something big from the beginning, start small and gradually improve. Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.

  1. Break your habits into chunks

This mantra of starting small and consistent is going to follow you everywhere. What matters is doing the habit any which way, not perfecting it or reaching your goal immediately. For example— building up to 30 minutes of daily meditation? Break it into three chunks with breaks in between. Do 50 pushups sound impossible? Maybe 5 sets of 10 each sound so much more doable.

It is important to keep a habit reasonable and to build it reasonably. That way, it is easier to reach the goal we have in mind and create the behaviour we want.



Meditation is a good habit to put into our routine


  1. If you miss, get back on track quickly

Athletes make mistakes, top performers commit errors— they’re human, after all. The difference is after they do, they get back up quickly.

Maybe it is the fault of the systems we have grown up in, but our all-or-nothing thinking is often what gets in the way of building good habits. I failed once, I can’t do anything or I skipped exercise today, I’ll always be lazy, better not try. According to BJ Fogg, missing your habit once, no matter when it occurs, has no measurable impact on your long-term progress (3). But your chase for perfection and giving up when it’s not perfect definitely does.



Trust that you’re doing your best with each attempt

Don’t expect to fail, but plan for your failure. You’re a human being, not a machine— you may not always stick to your routine. Life gets in the way, sudden changes appear unannounced. Instead, assess some things that will get in the way of your habit. Focus on how you can work around them or tackle them instead of letting it happen to you.

You need to be consistent, not perfect.

  1. Last but not least— be patient

Above all, the most important skill one can have is to be patient in this journey. Consistency is important, but so is being patient with yourself. It won’t happen magically, and the outcome can seem irritatingly far.

Start slow and small. There is no need to hurry the progress; in fact, you would be in more danger if you hurried up in reaching your goal than consistently following through on the action every day. Patience is everything— do things you can sustain.



Be patient— you’re a human, not a machine


Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, habit building should be easy. It shouldn’t be a struggle and you needn’t glorify the route to habit building. Use easy to build a consistent routine, and be on your way.

If you’re struggling with building and sustaining habits, or wish to work on your ideas of motivation and discipline, we encourage you to visit a therapist for the same. While they may not make you take action (that, after all, would be your choice), they can certainly unravel the barriers and blockages you face within and help you understand your approach to building habits. The last thing you should feel when approaching resolutions is distress, and we are here to help!



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