Perhaps this sounds familiar: for the umpteenth time, you promise yourself that you will take up that new habit you’ve been meaning to do. And then, when the moment to do it comes, for some reason you don’t do it. What’s the problem?
When we want to adopt a new habit or face a challenge, we are usually proactive about it, which is a good thing. We think about what we need to do to make the thing happen. For instance, if you’re trying to meditate every day, you may schedule time in your day for it and tell yourself that you will sit quietly first thing in the morning.
But when you wake up the next day, something gets in the way, and you don’t end up meditating. It doesn’t matter, you say, I’ll do it tomorrow. The following day, you’re in a rush or you don’t feel well. Several days pass by, but you don’t go through with your well-intended plan.
This is a good moment to ask yourself: What’s the problem?
If you’re slightly introspective and honest with yourself, you will notice whether there is an underlying issue that is preventing you from doing the thing in question.
Let’s say you’ve been meaning to meditate, but it just isn’t happening. Perhaps the problem is that you don’t know how to meditate, so you feel lost and uncertain about the whole thing. If that’s the problem, then you could find a video on YouTube the previous evening that you’d like to meditate with in the morning.
Another possibility is that you may not really believe that it’s a worthwhile use of your time to do nothing for ten minutes. If that’s the case, you need to revisit your motivation: why are you trying to meditate in the first place? Or you can seek out a type of meditation (or visualization, or breathing technique) that you consider a good use of your time.
It could also be the case that the time you’ve set aside for meditation doesn’t work well for you. It sounds great to get up and meditate right away, but perhaps you’re still really tired at that time or, as is often the case for me, you’re too hungry. If timing is the problem, then you can look for a better moment in your day.
The important thing is to identify the problem. It’s a shame to give up an activity because you think it doesn’t work for you when, in fact, a practical, manageable issue is preventing you from doing it.
Next time you’re having trouble with a stubborn activity you’d like to take on, try this: identify the problem.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have come across some blog posts telling you that the way to keep your New Year’s resolutions is to create habits (including my own). Let’s say you heed the message: what do you do?
Monitoring leads to awareness and thus improvement
Let’s start with the basics: If you don’t know how much (or how little) you’re engaging in an activity, you don’t know what you need to change. If you want to read more but you don’t know how much you’re currently reading, then it’s very difficult to influence the behavior effectively.
When you start tracking a behavior, you are often surprised in the beginning. I had the goal of reading more academic articles. When I started tracking this, I realized that in the month of November I only read one full article! A single one–and I am a scientist!
Excuses abound: I took vacation in November, then I had to catch up on work and on homework for my course, I was ill… But excuses are not the point. The question is: did it happen or not.
It is normal that some months the desired behavior will happen more than others. The goal is not to perfectly complete all your habits all the time. The point is to monitor how you’re doing and adjust as soon as you notice things aren’t going as you’d like them to.
Tracking allows you to flexibly adjust your actions
You might say, “What’s the point of tracking my habits then? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably turn out alright.” Yes, you probably will, but “alright” may not be what you wished for. If I hadn’t noticed that I only read one article in November, I wouldn’t have changed my behavior in December. Because I knew I was neglecting this area, I was able to compensate for it soon enough, reading three articles in December (even with Christmas, etc.).
If we neglect an area in our life for long enough, it will begin to suffer. For example, an employee’s work performance may begin to drop, a student may fall behind in class, or a relationship may deteriorate.
Fortunately, by simply bringing awareness to the different areas of our life, we can notice when something isn’t going well and adjust our actions in time.
Identify your main areas of life and the core habits
Start by identifying the main areas of your life. Tip: those are reflected in your priorities.
My main areas of life include: Well-being, Health, Partner, Family, Friends, Science, Writing, Learning, Finances, Home, Relaxing, and Purpose.
Then, identify the core habits that support each of those priorities or areas of life. These are the activities that really move you forward in a certain area of life. For example, my core habits for Health are the following:
And my core habits for Learning are the following:
Track your core habits
Once you’ve identified your core habits, you can begin to track them. You can do so on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I personally have one google sheet for daily habits, one for weekly habits, and one for monthly habits. It takes me about two minutes per day (in the evening) to look them over and note the habits I’ve completed.
I’ve actually printed out these google sheets and put them on my coffee table in the living room. These days, I’m experiencing a powerful pull to doing things on paper, so I’m doing this on paper as well. It feels nicer to me, and it’s softer on my eyes than looking at a monitor yet again.
If you prefer to do this on your phone or tablet, there is a myriad of apps available. I used to use HabitHub, and it was great. You can use these tools to geek out on monthly averages and graphs. I thought I’d love that, but in fact I didn’t care about it too much.
Now with my google sheets (on paper!), I calculate the weekly average (once a week) and the monthly average (once a month). At my Monthly Review, I enter the score for each area into a digital spreadsheet, just so it can be saved and easily accessible throughout the rest of the year and beyond. And I’m done.
Each week, I become aware of where I did well and where I didn’t do so well. I no longer have to vaguely answer the question, “Did I take care of my health this week?” but instead I can look at the specific habits I have identified as important for my health and see how I did.
This allows me to rapidly adjust my behavior in the desired direction. Thus, I can avoid more serious issues that I could have seen coming.
Resources about habit tracking and identifying main areas of life
I’ve written more about habits in several blog posts that you can find here.
I adopted this type of habit tracking divided into areas of life from Chris Guillebeau and his google sheet. I have adapted it to suit my needs, but the main inspiration came from there.
I was first introduced to this idea by Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast).
For more ideas on habit change, I can recommend two great books:
The main strategies for habit formation are implementation intentions, habit stacking, and environment design.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses the basics of habit formation as well some more advanced techniques. There are three main habit formation strategies he outlines.
1. Implementation intentions
Having an implementation intention refers to making a plan for when you will do a certain action.
“When situation X arises, I will perform action Y.”
For instance, “On Tuesdays at 15:00, I will go swimming for 1 hour.”
Or, “When I wake up, “I will meditate for 10 minutes.”
This is one of the most researched types of habit formation. Numerous studies show that people who have specific plans for when to do an action are much more likely to carry out that action than people who only have a vague intention to do so (thus, implementation intentions).
This also refers to the simple recommendation of putting the activity on your calendar. This is why fitness instructors, music teachers, and other types of coaches often say, “Make a date with yourself for when you will do the activity. And then keep the appointment.”
2. Habit stacking
Habit stacking is a similar but slightly different idea. The idea is to pair an activity you’d like to do with an activity you already do. For instance:
“When I get home from work, I will play the piano for 5 minutes.” You get home from work every workday, so it’s an easy trigger to get you to play the piano.
“While I brush my teeth, I will think about 3 things I’m grateful for today.” You brush your teeth anyway, so you might as well pair it with an activity you’d like to do, in this case incorporating gratitude into your life.
The key is that the trigger activity needs to be something that is already set in your routine, meaning that you do it on most days. And then the activity you pair with it (the one you’d like to add) needs to be something small and manageable. Playing the piano for 5 minutes is easy to fit into your routine; playing it for 1 hour is not.
3. Environment design
Very often we carry out certain actions because the environment triggers us and not because we choose to. This is often discussed in relation to healthy eating. If there is junk food in your house or in your office, you are more likely to eat it. If water is being sold in a cafeteria, people are more likely to buy it. If you put your guitar in an easy-to-see place, you are more likely to play it.
Try to design your environment as much as possible to fit the behaviors you’d like to engage in. If you’d like to eat more healthy foods, keep those types of foods in your house and throw away junk food. Or at least put healthy foods in visible and accessible places and place junk food in an out-of-reach drawer.
If you’d like to drink more water, place a glass or bottle of water in front of you. If you’d like to play the guitar more, put it in a prominent location in your living room. If you’d like to read more, place a book on your living room table or next to your bed.
Similarly, at work, if you’d like to avoid being distracted by your phone, put in a hard-to-reach drawer or on top of a high shelf. If you’d like to avoid being distracted by people walking by, turn your desk to face the window or the wall. If you’d like to drink more tea than coffee, place some nice teas on your desk.
Have you used one of these techniques to transform your habits? What works best for you: implementation intentions, habit stacking, or environment design? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.