“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then,
is not an act, but a habit.”
“Good habits, once established, are just as hard
to break as are bad habits”
“Motivation is what gets you started.
Habit is what keeps you going.”
Habits—good ones—can be our best friends. Research studies have revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do each day is habitual—done automatically almost without thinking about it, driven by cues such as a specific place or time of day, a series of actions, certain moods, or the company of specific people. (Do we feel the need for a snack while watching TV perhaps, or do we check email as soon as we come back from lunch?)
In the areas of my life that run smoothly, I’ve developed good habits: I have a regular exercise schedule and a system for completing household chores, for example. However, I also have habits that need to be reassessed, like when and how I access email and Pinterest, and new habits I’d like to build, like sketching 15 minutes a day. How can I begin to develop new good habits and change bad ones?
The first step is simply to begin…somewhere, somehow. Since I want to add sketching to my days, I can pull out the kitchen timer, set it for 15 minutes and choose a time of day I feel will be conducive to that activity. I may have to try different times of day until I find one that works. I’m usually pretty good at this getting-started stage—it’s the sticking to it that’s a problem for me.
And stick to it I must if I want to firmly establish a new habit, and not just for 21 days, as we’ve often heard. Apparently, “21-days-to-a-new-habit” is a myth. One study found that on average it took 66 days for a new habit to form (so if you’re instituting a New Year’s resolution, you should be prepared to keep at it until March 6 in order for it to become a habit). The time it took to form a habit depended on how difficult the habit was (drinking a glass of water as opposed to doing 50 sit-ups, for example) and the individual him/herself. It seems some people simply find it easier than others to form habits. (During the study, one person took just 18 days to form a habit, while another was forecast to do so after 254 days, long after the study had ended.)
What if I want to change a bad habit? I found an interesting little tidbit about that when I was reading up on habit research: “…habits are responses to needs. This sounds obvious, but countless efforts at habit change ignore its implications. If you eat badly, you might resolve to start eating well, but if you’re eating burgers and ice cream to feel comforted, relaxed and happy, trying to replace them with broccoli and carrot juice is like dealing with a leaky bathroom tap by repainting the kitchen. What’s required isn’t a better diet, but an alternative way to feel comforted and relaxed” (Oliver Burkeman, “This Column Will Change Your Life: How Long Does It Really Take to Change a Habit?” The Guardian).
When I check email or putter on Pinterest, I’m usually looking for a way to relax or (I admit it) I’m avoiding doing something I don’t really want to do. To relax, maybe I could try simply sitting in my rocking chair with my eyes closed and taking a few deep breaths. I can also schedule email checks at certain times of day, instead of randomly doing it when I’m trying to avoid another task. Pinterest or other internet wanderings can be used as rewards after I finish some work, and I can pull out that timer again so that I won’t be completely sucked into the internet abyss.