Making Happiness (or any) Habits StickSeptember 20 , 2012

You’ve decided to take on one of the happiness habits I’ve been talking about .  Whether it’s starting to meditate, writing a gratitude list or adding more mood-boosting exercise to your routine, all you have to do is decide to do it, start and then BOOM!  You are fit, balanced and grateful.  It’s that easy, right?  No?

We’ve all had experiences of making a New Year’s resolution and letting it go before two weeks (two days?) have elapsed.  Long-term, sustainable change is hard.  As I mentioned last week, we are creatures of habit; in fact studies suggest that only 5% of our actions are consciously chosen.  We build strong neuro-pathways over years of repetition that make it so much easier to keep doing things the way we always have – flipping on the tv instead of meditating or pushing the snooze bar instead of going for a run.  We have very limited stores of will and discipline to overcome that inertia of do-it-like-we-always-do.

Fortunately, there is a lot of great research on how to turn the tide and make these new habits stick.

Choose just one habit at a time.  Lots more about this in last week’s post .

Make it EASY to start.  Most of the 5 habits take just a few minutes a day.  But if it’s exercise or some other habit you are trying to develop, start easy and build it up over time.

Do the activity at the same time every day.  Decide exactly what you are going to do and commit to a specific time to do it.  Put it on your calendar and protect that time.  Multiple studies have shown that committing to a specific time doubles the likelihood of follow-through.  Over time, by performing the action at the same time each day, our bodies and minds adapt and prepare for the action.  This helps lock in the new neuro-pathways more quickly, allowing the new habit to become more automatic and unconscious.  Whether it’s going on a jog as soon as you wake up, meditating immediately after dinner or writing in a gratitude journal right before bed, commit to exactly what you want to do and when you are going to do it.

Reduce the activation energy for habits you want and increase it for habits you don’t want.  This means work to remove barriers from the activities you want to do and increase the barriers to habits you want to break.   For example:

  • Decide your morning workout plan before you go to bed.  Sleep in your (clean!) workout clothes.  Put your shoes right next to your bed.  Have your gym bag fully packed and by the door with your car keys and wallet.  With no decisions to make in your groggy morning state, you’ll be much more likely to get up and do it.
  • Store the TV remote control in the closet.  Ask yourself during those 20 seconds it takes to fetch it, whether TV is really what you want to do with your time.  Even better — put that book you want to read in the same place you usually put the remote.  See how it changes your behavior.

Visibly track your progress.  We used sticker charts to get our kids to do their morning routines without 258 reminders from us (“Brush your teeth!  Put on your shoes!  Get your backpack!”).  It worked so well that I adapted it for myself.     Each day that I perform the habit I’m trying to develop, I get a sticker on the blank calendar page taped to my bathroom mirror. It’s empowering to see my success (“Hooray!  I meditated for 3 whole minutes!  Sticker for me!”).    Sometimes I offer myself prizes – a night out dancing or a visit to Dave & Busters — if I can get a certain number of stickers in a month (notice I didn’t set my expectation as “every day”; cut yourself some slack and realize that missing a day – or three – isn’t a deal-killer.).  If shiny little stickers are a bit too silly for you, find some way of visibly tracking your progress.  The key here is that you put it in a place you’ll see it multiple times per day (on the fridge, in the hallway, in your written calendar, next to the computer screen, etc.) and that you have some way to track whether you made it or not each day.

Get social support.  When you are committed to developing a new habit, tell some good friends, your partner or a roommate.  Ask for their support and encouragement.  This is a role I often play for my clients; when they tell me specifically what they are going to do, they are so much more successful at doing it.  It’s simply in our nature to follow through on commitments when made to others.  Even better is to have a buddy who is trying to integrate the same new habit.  You can do the activity together, if feasible, but a regular check-in can make a huge difference as you forge ahead.

Find positive motivation.  Envision what life could be like if you consistently do this habit.   Tap into this vision of you being happier, more fit, more compassionate, more focused or more self-aware whenever you need a boost or a goose to get you doing your new habit.

That’s lots of ideas of how to lock in a new habit.  Pick those that sound good to you as you start on this path.  And while developing a new habit can be challenging, once these new behaviors and patterns are locked in, it is equally hard to dislodge them.  And that makes the focused effort worthwhile.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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