Is there a habit you just can’t seem to make stick? Or is there a task you just don’t tackle no matter what? It may be time to identify the problem!
When you’re struggling with a habit or a project, there is usually a very specific reason holding you back. You may try all kinds of approaches, but until you identify the concrete issue, you’re unlikely to resolve it.
Are you curious about the habits I find difficult? Inspired by the start of the new year, I set up goals for a number of habits. These are the same old important habits, but right now I’m actually tracking my compliance with them. Some of these started falling away towards the end of 2020 (such as getting enough sleep), so I am now making an effort to do the important things. Here are my habits and goals.
Happy New Year, everybody! You might think that in these strange times where so much is unpredictable there’s not much of a point in doing a yearly review. But I’ve come to tell you that every year is suited for a yearly review!
If you think about it, life is always unpredictable. 2020 has brought us particularly unexpected circumstances, but it is a fact of life that you can never predict everything that happens. The goal of the yearly review is not to try to control everything that happens to us but rather to reflect on what we’d like in our lives and go about making it happen.
A year ago was the first time Jacob, William, and I spent Christmas and New Year’s together. William was a little more than 1 month old at the time, so things were a bit crazy. It was fun for sure but crazy nonetheless.
Jacob and I thought long and hard about which family traditions we’d like to emphasize as a family. As we live in the Netherlands, we are surrounded by traditions that are not really ours but some of which we like, so we could consciously choose which ones we want to celebrate family. We also thought about what other traditions we’d like to add, whether from our own cultures, upbringing, or ideas.
With so many people working from home during the COVID19 pandemic, finding motivation is an extremely common obstacle right now. Many of us are struggling to do our work, and we wonder why.
We assume that it’s due to a lack of motivation. “I’m less productive than usual, so it must be because I don’t care enough about my goals or because I’m not trying hard enough.”
But we miss the fact that we’re not in our usual work space, and our work habits have been disrupted. Literally nothing about our work life is the same: we don’t go to the office anymore, we don’t have set working hours, we aren’t using our comfortable work stations, and we don’t meet our colleagues, at least not physically.
Instead, we’re at home. (This refers to those of us working from home, clearly.) If we have a laptop, technically, we should be able to do everything we were doing before, so we expect the same productivity as before. But that’s not fair.
We may find it confusing to be working from home if we usually see home as a relaxation zone or simply a non-work zone. We may not have a working space set up at home, and our laptop may not be as convenient to work on as our work station. In addition, we may not have silence and/or we may be getting interrupted by the people we live with if we have a partner or children.
Alternatively, we may be lonely or bored. If we live by ourselves, we may have complete silence and calm, and that may be part of the problem. Perhaps we need the stimulation provided by many people working in the same physical space. What’s more, a coffee break or lunch break with a colleague provides much-needed social interaction, while also reinforcing the feeling that we’re at work.
Lots and lots of things have changed in the way we’re working right now. Sure, our motivation may be lower as well, but that’s probably not the main issue. Instead, we’d do well to address the changes by creating a system that gets us going.
Create temporal boundaries
Many people benefit from having specific times of day for working such as set working hours. This creates a separation between home and work even though the physical separation is not there right now.
To make this more tangible, in addition to giving yourself working hours, schedule something outside of those times: a call with a friend, a walk by yourself, or an online exercise session. In this way, you’ll actually have to stick to your self-imposed working hours because you have other things happening outside them.
For couples with kids where both parents are working from home, setting up shifts can be very helpful. One parent may work for 3-4 hours in the morning while the other parent takes care of the kids, and vice versa in the afternoon.
Whenever possible, try to create new work-related routines. In preparation for your workday (or shift), you may put on your work clothes, make a cup of coffee, and sit down at the same makeshift workstation every day. Then, once your work time is over, you can change into your home clothes, go for a walk, read a book, or cook dinner.
Create a physical workspace
If you have the opportunity, create a physical workspace for yourself. It’s great if you can work in the same workstation every day, thus distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘home,’ which is the rest of your house.
Try to limit interruptions while you’re working. Leave your phone in a different room or on a high shelf and stop yourself from accessing social media (use an extension in your browser if necessary). Ask your partner and/or kids not to disturb you while you’re working (easier said than done… haha).
Many people need to feel accountable to someone or something in order to complete a task. Their own desire to do something may not be strong enough to propel them to action, but if they know someone else expects them to do something, they do it.
The most straightforward type of accountability is to have a supervisor you report to. You know what work they expect you to do, so you do it. In order for this to work, the supervisor needs to be familiar enough with your work and needs to check in often enough. Also, there need to be some sort of consequences that take place if you don’t complete something on time. For some people, simply not meeting an agreement is motivating enough; others may need more tangible consequences.
A buddy or a support group can also be a good source of accountability. You and a colleague may team up to tell each other what you’re going to work on today or this week and then revisit what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day or week. Support groups can work similarly where people share what they’re working on and then review their successes and challenges.
Whatever type of accountability you choose, make sure it works for you. You need to feel that someone is counting on you and that there is a real expectation that you will do your work. For more info on creating accountability, check out Gretchen Rubin’s extensive suggestions here.
Remember your ‘why’
Finally, remind yourself of why you’re doing this work. What are you trying to accomplish? Why is it important? Why do you find it interesting? What do you like about your work and why are you the right person to do it?
Once you connect to your ‘why,’ use the momentum and get going.
What helps you get your work done in these unusual times?
Two weeks ago when we found out we’ll be in quarantine at home for at least a month, something clicked for me: We need a routine! As a person who loves putting together routines, I was on fire. I took different daily activities and moved them around in my head, from morning to afternoon, before lunch or after, before our walk or after… Ahhh, the fun!
Since then, I’ve seen many psychologists and other experts online recommend the importance of routines in these otherwise unpredictable and strange times. Every time I see this, I think, “Yesss!!!” Great minds think alike; routines are key.
A routine ensures you have some sense of normalcy in a time when your usual habits have been disrupted. It can be comforting to control what you can control and accept the rest which you cannot control (and that’s a lot).
By having a routine, you also make sure the things you’ve deemed important get done every day or on some regular basis. In this way, fewer things slip through your fingers and you have more choice in how your life goes.
Our daily routine
Alas, since we have a young (almost 5-month-old) baby, we cannot stick to a very strict routine. I know, I know, it’s good for me to learn to be flexible… whatever. Instead of planning our day by the hour, I plan it in blocks of activities, as a sequence of which activities get done during which part of the day (approximately).
We wake up whenever William wakes up (usually between 7:00 and 8:00, but today it was 6:30…). We cuddle him, I nurse him, and we change his diaper and then out of his pajamas. Then, Jacob and I have breakfast, while William plays near us. Afterwards, we cuddle him a bit more and put him in bed for a nap. His morning nap usually begins between 8:00 and 9:00.
By the way, every time I put William in bed for a nap and wait for him to fall asleep, Jacob works. That’s how he manages to get stuff done. And in the afternoon and evening, he has longer uninterrupted stretches of time for work.
While William is sleeping, Jacob and I train in our living room. We’ve decided that we’ll get ripped during this quarantine! Nope, not really, but we’ve committed to doing 30-45 minutes of exercise every day in order to get our bodies moving and stay strong. We are fortunate to have kettlebells, elastic bands, a gym ball, a pull up bar, and some other equipment at home, so we can do a pretty good workouts, although I still miss barbells and weight plates.
Usually, William wakes up towards the end of our workout. We put him on his belly for tummy time (it’s important for babies to train their back muscles), so for 10 minutes or so the whole family is exercising! Then, I nurse and change him. After that, one of us plays with him while the other one showers. I also use this time to do things around the house (laundry, kitchen, tidying, etc.). These days the weather has been nice, so Jacob has been taking him out on the grass behind our building for some sun.
Soon, it’s time for William’s lunchtime nap, which usually starts anytime between 12:00 and 13:00. While he sleeps, we eat lunch, and I like to use this time to check and respond to email, messages, etc. The duration of this nap can vary greatly (between 40 minutes and 2 hours), so I may be able to get lots of stuff done or very few.
Around this time, I may write a blog post, read something interesting online, work on putting together our annual photo album, or do a home project. Jacob usually cooks at this time (he cooks 3 times a week now, and I help out sometimes or make an additional fancy meal or sauce).
When William wakes up from his nap, I nurse and change him (are you seeing a pattern here?). We play with him and let him explore the world a bit. Jacob usually works at this time, and I may be able to get something done too. Once William starts getting tired, we put him in the stroller and take him out for a walk. He takes a nap, and we get to walk (usually around 15:00 or 16:00).
We have a nice hour-long route to the park and back that we take every day. Since the weather is really pleasant these days, we chill on the grass in the park for a bit, letting William look around, and then we head back home. Sometimes I go on this walk alone with William if Jacob is busy, or I ask a friend to join us, so we can chat while keeping our 1.5-meter distance.
When we get home, I nurse William and change him (is this getting a bit repetitive? hahaha), and then Jacob and I have an early dinner (around 17:30 or 18:00). We like to call family or friends around this time to catch up and be social virtually.
Around 19:00, we start William’s bedtime routine, so he can be in bed around 19:30. I feed him, we change his diaper and put him in his pajamas, and then I carry him around the room and sing him a lullaby. Then he sleeps, which means PARTY TIME!!!
Okay, it’s not really that late. From about 20:00 until 21:30, it’s PARTY TIME–Jacob usually works, while I read, write, do administrative tasks, or something along those lines as well as have a snack. Sometimes we just talk and spend time together, and we intend to watch a movie one of these days!
At 21:30, I start getting ready for bed and am in bed by 22:00. That’s when William usually wakes up for his first feeding of the night, and after that we sleep. If I’m lucky, he wakes up twice more in the night (around 1:30 and 4:30), and then we wake up refreshed around 7:30. And if I’m unlucky, he wakes up about 4 times in the night and then around 6:30 in the morning (like last night), and then I wake up grumpy. You never know which one it will be.
Ah, it’s so nice to have a routine! Even though it’s never exactly the same and we can’t follow it to the dot, it gives structure and guides our days. We definitely get more done when we have a routine than when everything is up in the air because we know what to do during the different times of day.
How about you? Do you have a routine at this time? If so, what is it and how is it helpful? If no, why not and how does spontaneity work for you?
At 10:47 am, you wake up. Your first thought is, “I’m late for work!” and then you realize you’re not going to work. You’re working from home, which is a very flexible idea. A wave of relief washes over your body. You enjoy your bed, lazily scrolling through social media. Some time later, you get up, eat something, check the news, and get scared because of the spread of COVID-19. It feels like things got even worse overnight; that’s the feeling you get every morning.
To distract yourself from the unpleasant feeling of anxiety, you look at some funny quarantine-themed memes and maybe even some cat videos (honestly, I love both of these!). By that time, it’s already noon, so you do some work. You feel like you’re falling behind with your work, but at the same time, there isn’t any real urgency, so you slowly chug along.
At the end of the day (or maybe even throughout the day), you check the news and feel anxious again. You finish the day with a vague feeling of anxiety that stems from the state of the world and the lack of real progress in your work.
And, I’d also argue, that anxiety is compounded by the fact that you haven’t felt anchored during your day: there is no structure to give you a feeling of stability and calm in the midst of the storm. In such exceptional times when our usual habits are disrupted, some stability in our lives is even more important to calm our minds. Here are the basic habits that can help.
Get regular sleep
Set a bedtime for yourself and stick to it. If you go to bed by 11 pm every night, your body will get used to that bedtime, and you will also naturally wake up around the same time the next day. Soon you will feel rested, which will do wonders for your health, mood, and energy.
Eat good food
If you have access to good food in your local supermarket, make use of it. Eating food that works well with your body makes you feel better, gives your energy, and improves your health. If you’re into cooking, you can use the extra time at home to make delicious meals. I’m challenging myself to cook one new recipe per week! Let’s see how it goes.
You don’t have to be into cooking to eat well, though. You can buy ready-made meals from the supermarket or order from local restaurants that are open for take-away and delivery. Do whatever works for you to eat food that makes you feel good and enjoy it.
You need to drink enough water, period. You know it’s true. I’d add that in order to stay hydrated, you need to get enough electrolytes as well. Check your sodium, potassium, and magnesium intake and adjust if necessary.
Tip: If you notice that when you drink a lot of water, you pee it all out, you probably need to add electrolytes. Start by adding half a teaspoon of sea salt or Himalayan salt to a glass of water and see if that helps.
Move your body
Go for a walk. Go for a run or a bike ride. Do some stretches. Work out at home. Dance in your living room. Do some gardening. Even though gyms are closed, we can still move our bodies.
In these times of isolation, finding ways to feel socially connected is more important than ever. There are several things I’m doing to stay connected to people at this time:
Family meals. We have at least one meal together as a family a day. This is easier now that we’re all at home, but, since we have a young baby, we can still end up eating at random times and not sitting together, so we have to intentionally avoid that.
Call someone. I make a point of calling someone every day. It may be a call to a family member (especially to my grandmas since they are staying alone in their apartments all day long) or a video call with a friend. Since we’re all at home now, it’s easy to catch up with friends even if they’re in different time zones from us.
Go for a walk with a friend. I’ve recently had the idea of going for walks with friends who live nearby. We walk together, keeping our 1.5-meter distance, and chat while we get our bodies moving and, in my case, my 4-month-old son naps in the stroller I’m pushing. It’s a win-win-win.
Join your colleagues in a virtual coffee room. I have to admit that I have yet to do this because I feel overwhelmed by the idea of socializing with multiple colleagues while also taking care of my baby. But for people with more regular circumstances, it sounds like a great idea to have some (non-)work-related banter virtually.
Have some me-time
As things get crazy and unusual, especially if you have kids at home, try to have some me-time during the day. Some people find this in the early morning before everyone else wakes up. Others find it in the middle of the day if they go for a walk, read a book, or watch a video.
My me-time is currently in the evenings after we’ve had dinner and we’ve put little William to sleep. I’m not usually an evening person, but I now thoroughly enjoy the golden hours from 7:30 to 9:30 pm when I can read, write, watch stuff, or just relax with my husband.
If I don’t have me-time for several days in a row, I start to feel overwhelmed by even the smallest things. But if I’ve had some time to myself, I am better able to face whatever comes my way (such as a hungry baby at 3 am or an overly full diaper).
I know, I know, gratitude is all the rage these days. But it’s true: grateful people are happy people. I personally like to write down five things I’m grateful for every night before bed, and they need to be specific things from that day. This means that throughout the day I’m looking for these little nuggets of joy to be grateful for. This changes the lens of my perception, so I can notice the positive things instead of focusing on the negatives. (This doesn’t mean that we don’t notice negative things–of course we do! We don’t avoid the bad; rather, we actively search for the good.)
How about you? What habits are helping you to stay afloat? Share by commenting below.
I’ve been writing a lot about creating good habits and doing the activities you’d like to do in your life. But I was recently asked, “How do you break a bad habit?” I’m glad you asked.
When it comes to breaking a bad habit, the point is not to have superhuman discipline or to bully yourself into avoiding some behavior. You need to look for ways to make the habit you’d like to discontinue more difficult or less desirable. For practical tips on how to do this, I’ll be drawing from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.
1. Make it invisible
Reduce your exposure to the cues of the habit. Change your environment, so it doesn’t attract your attention to the behavior you’d like to avoid.
If you’d like to check your phone less often while working, hide your phone from view and perhaps even put it on a high shelf, in a drawer, or in a different room.
If you’d like to spend less time on social media, remove the app shortcuts from the home page of your device.
If you’d like to eat less junk food, don’t leave it on the table but, rather, put it in a drawer or high up on a shelf where you can’t see it.
2. Make it difficult
A related strategy is to not only make something invisible but to also make it difficult. You can increase the number of steps you need to make to actually do the behavior.
If you’d like to watch less TV, put the remote control in a difficult-to-reach spot, in the closet, or even in the basement. Or you could unplug the TV, so it makes it that much more difficult to turn it on. It’s surprising how well this works because, apparently, that tiny extra effort to plug in the TV is enough to interrupt the automatic behavior of turning on the TV, and people remember that they didn’t actually want to be watching TV.
Some people go as far as to put their TV in the basement, but that seems a little extreme to me. I also know of someone who wanted to drink less beer, so he put his beer in the garage. In this way, if he really wanted to have a beer, he could, so he didn’t feel deprived, but he avoided the issue of opening a beer without actively deciding he wanted it.
Bringing this into the work context, if you want to avoid spending time on unimportant tasks or distractions, you can use website blockers. They can block your email, messaging platforms, news sites, and social media for a duration of time, making it more difficult for you to get distracted.
3. Make it undesirable
A more advanced way to break a bad habit is to make it unattractive on unsatisfying in some way. This can be a bit more difficult, but it’s very effective.
You can reframe your mindset by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. Spending less time on social media means you will have more time for reading or for your family. Eating out less often means you’ll have more money for quality food to cook at home or for other things you want to buy.
The main point about reframing is to turn something that feels limiting (e.g., reducing time on social media) into something that feels enriching (e.g., increasing reading time). In that way, instead of feeling deprived and like you’re limiting yourself, you can appreciate that you’re actively shaping your life and choosing how you’d like to live.
Accountability & Consequences
An accountability partner can help you avoid an undesirable habit. You can find a buddy, someone who’d also like to make the same change, or you can find someone who’s willing to ask you, on a regular basis, how it’s going with the habit you’re trying to break and to remind you of your motivation.
Some people even sign a habit contract or otherwise create consequences for themselves if they engage in the undesired habit. One person who wanted to avoid sleeping in set an embarrassing tweet to be published automatically if he didn’t wake up in time to cancel it. Many people make contracts with their training coaches where they need to pay money if they eat junk food at a time that wasn’t agreed upon beforehand.
I also came across this strategy for healing heartache. A friend of mine underwent a difficult breakup, and he couldn’t get over his ex for a long time. He made an agreement with his best friend that every time he mentioned his ex’s name, he’d give his friend five euros. If he really wanted to talk about her, he could, but it was in his interest not to do it all the time.
To be honest, I find the approaches that include punishment a bit too strict. I prefer to be intentional about habit change instead of being scared into behaving correctly. However, it works well for some people, so it is key to know yourself and pick a strategy that will help you achieve your goal. And if you don’t know yet what works for you, well, give these strategies a try!
For me, the best way to avoid an undesirable habit is to combine environment design (make it invisible and difficult) and to reframe the old habit. This combines the practical strategies of changing my surroundings and changing my mindset, setting me up for the best possible behavior change.
What works for you when you try to change an undesirable habit? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Have you set some New Year’s resolutions but are unsure of how to follow through? Make them into habits by following the practical steps below.
Champagne glasses, fireworks, smiling faces everywhere. The evening of December 31st can be a magical time when anything seems possible. Perhaps we even set some resolutions for the new year. At this celebratory time, they seem perfectly realistic and within reach.
In the celebratory spirit of New Year’s Eve, everything seems possible.
But in order to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we need to make them into habits.
How do you follow through with your New Year’s resolutions? Habit formation, a big topic in behavior science, comes to the rescue. The best way to ensure an activity is done consistently is to create a habit.
Create a simple chart where you record how often you complete your habit:
Make the habit very specific in order to remove any doubt about when you should do it. Every time you complete the activity, put a check mark. If you don’t do it, put a cross.
A chart filled out over two weeks could look like this:
In order to determine your performance, add the number of check marks (in this case, 11) and divide them by the number of days in two weeks (14).
In this case, the performance over the two weeks is 11/14 = 79%. Since that is above 75%, this person is ready to add another habit. If it were below 75%, this person would need to continue working on this habit for another two weeks.
Review your New Year’s resolutions (or habits)
Once you’ve established a habit (i.e., passed the 75% threshold), move on to your next New Year’s resolution and make a habit out of that. If you notice that you’re struggling with a habit you had established earlier, feel free to spend another two weeks on it.
Make sure you revisit your New Year’s resolutions once a month or so. You can have a simple list of resolutions/habits you’d like to keep and post it on your fridge door or save it on your phone. Alternatively, you can use an app such as Habit Hub to help keep track of your habits and monitor your progress.
Good luck! I hope these tips help you steer your New Year in the desired direction, so you can confidently keep any New Year’s resolution you choose. Let me know how it goes by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
When you make specific plans about when you’ll complete a desired activity, you’re much more likely to do it. But it’s one thing to plan it and another thing to actually complete it. How do you make sure you follow through with your plans?
Implementation intentions are examples of simple, explicit planning: “If situation X arises, then I will do Y.” I explained this in more detail here (point 1).
Specific plans are great, but how do you make sure you actually do them?
Put them on your calendar: Make an event on your calendar. When the time comes, do the activity. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it only works if you check your calendar and follow what it says.
Set reminders: You can add a reminder to your calendar event. Or you can add a separate reminder. Or you can create a note (e.g., in Google Keep) with a reminder. Alternatively, you can put post-it notes around the house or on your computer monitor. The problem with reminders is that they’re easy to ignore.
Set an alarm: An alarm is something you actually have to turn off. It requires an action from your side, or otherwise it will continue making noise. Alarms are more effective than reminders because even if you choose to ignore its message, you still have to physically do something such as press the ‘off’ button.
Name your intent clearly: When the alarm goes off to tell you to go to bed, for instance, you need to say out loud what you are going to do now:
“I am getting ready to go to bed. I will read for 15 minutes in bed.”
Or, alternatively, if you choose not to follow the intent of the alarm:
“I am staying here and continuing to look at social media.”
If you change your mind sometimes, that’s okay, but then state that clearly:
“I am staying here for 5 more minutes in order to finish my conversation with my brother. In five minutes, I will get up and get ready for bed.”
This may seem silly, but clearly naming what you are doing and what you are going to do incites action.
Track the time you spend on certain tasks: Monitor how long different activities take you. Once you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend on what, you can make purposeful, informed choices about what you do more of and what you do less of.
Set practical obstacles that prevent you from doing other (unwanted) things: For example,if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, install an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on those sites/apps.
Make it easy to follow through with your intentions: If you’d like to go to the gym, lay out your gym clothes from the day before. If you’re trying to have a healthy meal, make your food beforehand.
You can use one of these tips or combine several to make sure you follow through with your implementation intentions. For instance, now I’m reading before bed every night. I’m using several of these strategies: it’s on my calendar; I have an alarm on my phone to tell me to get into bed; I state my intent clearly; and I’ve put my kindle on my night stand, so it’s easy for me to read. Also, before I started this, I tracked the time I spent reading books for pleasure and was disappointed to see that I wasn’t making a lot of time for that. Now, I’m making some changes, and I’m quickly seeing the amount of time spent reading increase.
How do you make sure you complete the things you’d like to do? Or are there any activities you particularly struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.