In my last post, I introduced the basic points of Dean’s fascinating book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick.
I spent 6 days doing a time log of every. single. thing that I did for 24 hours. Doing that exercise reminded me a bit of Laura Vanderkam’s famous time management book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think but the difference was, I wasn’t just quantifying my time but trying to understand my habits and the triggers that set them off. Once I identified my own, embarrassing patterns of behavior as far as I could, I did the whole WOOP exercise and clarified a few goals for myself. But it wasn’t until I followed the plan guides in Dean’s book that my new habit goals started to kind of make concrete sense.
Instead of boring you with my personal, whiny insights, here is the rest of my outline of Dean’s book.
1. Make a good plan with an “If…Then…” formula. An “If…Then….” statement can identify the EXACT behavior and EXACT contextual situation you’ll perform it in. Dean’s examples were really useful:
Instead of saying to ourselves “I intend to get kinder or fitter” we should say, “If I see someone struggling with a stroller, then I will offer them help”; or “If I’m about to get in the car for a short trip, then I should walk.” This links a particular situation with a response, an action….once this connection is automatic, we’ll have a new habit.
This is very easily paired with his suggestion to replace a bad habit with a new, less-bad one. “If I crave a cigarette, then I will go for a walk around the block” or “If I want to eat a chocolate bar, then I will have an apple instead.”
2. Insert your habit as a new link in a chain of actions. The “If” should not depend on time but on an event. If you try to say you’ll run every day at 8pm, you’re stuck watching the clock. Instead, you should rely on a not-to-be-missed event that happens regularly: arriving at work, finishing a meal, after brushing your teeth, etc. In fact, most of your daily actions are already linked together in a chain-like fashion. Add in the habit, as though you’re putting in a new link where there is an open slot. It is especially easy to add in a habit as the last link on an action chain. Ie. Take shower, take out contacts, brush teeth AND NOW YOUR NEW HABIT, flossing.
Dean also notes how helpful simple check lists are in keeping us attentive to the habit-chain.
3. Use the If-Then to anticipate your struggles. There are countless ways we will fail to go through with our hoped for habits. But Dean suggests using the “If…Then…” phrasing to carry us through those challenges. He provides these examples, “If I feel scared of the dance class, then I will remember that everyone else is a beginner and is also scared.” Or “If I feel too tired to practice piano after work, then I will first listen to inspirational music to help motivate me.” This is especially effective for those who suffer overwhelming, distracting, self-limiting thoughts.
4. Be patient. Though self-help marketing likes to throw out the idea that habits can be formed in 21 days, actual studies put it at a general average of 66 days. This is still misleading because there was incredible variation in how long habits took to settle in, depending on what you’re trying to do. Don’t be discouraged if your habit doesn’t stick in 21 days — some will take much longer.
5. But in case you aren’t patient, maintain mindfulness and practice self affirmation. Because people really need to anticipate feelings of disappointment and wanting to give up! Mindfulness should really be in the first half of the summary since it deals with self-observation, but I wanted to add it here because it will always help you monitor and get through rough spots. I also love the way it is defined here:
[Mindfulness] is not just a case of paying attention…The attitude that’s encouraged in Buddhist mindfulness techniques is affectionate, compassionate, and open-hearted. So you’re not just coolly observing your own thoughts; you’re also trying to be generous to them, whether they are thoughts that make you feel good or bad. You’re not sitting in judgement over yourself, rather you’re trying to be present and compassionate to yourself.
Mindfulness and meditation is important in general because you don’t want to just suppress bad habits — this will just backfire! Self-affirmation (aka thinking about your positive traits, your core values, etc) was also demonstrated in countless studies to really help people with depleted self control.
The book was a lot to digest and I left so much out of these summaries. All the same, I really wanted to write these down so I don’t forget the points that were useful for me — and, I might want to blog about experiments in habit-building coming forward. In any case, this was a perfect book to mull over in December so that I can feel empowered for those New Years Resolutions coming up.