Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Our habits govern our lives, literally.
Research shows that around half of our daily actions are driven by repetition. This is probably why behavioural scientists and psychologists have spent so much time writing about how to establish and keep positive habits.
Regular sleep and exercise, a healthy diet, an organized schedule, and mindfulness are just a few examples of practices that — if done regularly — can improve our work, relationships, and mental health.
But what if those things don’t come naturally to you? What does it take to build a new habit?
While there are plenty of hacks on the internet competing to answer these questions, the neuroscience behind habit formation doesn’t offer shortcuts. Experts advocate for the old-fashioned approach: incremental progress. Dedicated commitment is what, time and again, has proven to lead to change.
Surprisingly, the first step towards creating long-term change involves building routines — not habits themselves.
Routines vs. Habits
Most of us assume the two are interchangeable.
But this is a common fallacy — one that tends to end in disappointment. When we fail at forming new patterns of behaviour, we often blame ourselves rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit.
A habit is a behaviour done with little or no thought, while a routine involves a series of behaviours frequently, and intentionally, repeated. A behaviour has to be a regularly performed routine before it can become a habit at all.
The problem is that many of us try to skip the “routine” phase. This is because we think that habits will allow us to put tedious or unenjoyable tasks on autopilot. (Your to-do list would be so much better if it just conquered itself, somehow.)
It makes sense.
Unlike habits, routines are uncomfortable and require a concerted effort.
Waking up early to run every morning or meditating for 10 minutes every night, for instance, are rituals that — initially — are hard to keep up.
On the other hand, Habits are so ingrained in our daily lives that it feels strange not to do them. Imagine not brushing your teeth before bed or not drinking a cup of coffee with breakfast. If these are habits you have already formed, avoiding them might even feel bad.
To attempt to turn a routine into a habit, take the following steps.
Set your intentions
Keep in mind that some routines may blossom into habits, but not all of them can or will. Some things, while quantifiable, require too much concentration, deliberation, and effort to make the transition.
For that reason, playing an instrument, cleaning your apartment, or journaling don’t fall into the habit category; they’re not effortless behaviours that can be done without conscious thought.
The point is: Pick the behaviour you want to turn into a habit wisely. Maybe you want to drink more water throughout the day or skip checking your email first thing in the morning.
Whatever you choose, be realistic about the process. It will take patience, self-discipline, and commitment.
“There’s no such thing as 21 days to start a new habit,” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. “The amount of time it takes will vary from person to person.”
For instance, developing a pleasurable habit, like eating chocolate for breakfast, may take a day, while trying to exercise at 5 pm each evening may take much longer.
Ximena Vengoechea, a UX researcher and author of the forthcoming book Listen Like You Mean It, added, “Reflect on what you’re trying to achieve and why. Say your goal is to be a writer. Are you interested in writing a novel for fame, prestige, or money? Is it to gain the acceptance or love of someone you care about? Or is it simply because you love the craft?”
Understanding “your why” will help you stay motivated when inevitable roadblocks to building new routines surface.
Prepare for roadblocks
Reflect on why, to date, you haven’t regularly practised this particular behaviour.
What has stopped you in the past? Is fear or shame getting in the way? Or a lack of time?
Familiarize yourself with your own blockers now so that you can quickly identify and manage them when they arise later on - because they will.
Maybe a busy schedule has kept you from hitting the gym every day. To avoid this occurrence from happening in the future, block 30 to 60 uninterrupted minutes on your calendar right now. Maybe you’re just not feeling motivated enough lately. To keep yourself accountable, find an ally (or two) to share your goals with. This could be a trusted peer, friend, partner, or family member.
Share your ambitions, intentions, plans (and maybe even fears!) with someone who can support you and remind you of why you’re taking this on in the first place when the going gets tough.
Research shows that your odds of success increase dramatically when making your intentions known to someone perceived to have a higher status than yourself or someone whose opinion you value.
Start with nudges
You can put in place practical steps or nudges to help you kick off your new routine. Use one or all of the suggestions below to get organized and begin.
1. Make a schedule.
Block regular times on your calendar (every day or every other day) to practice the behaviour you want to build into a habit. Be sure not to overdo it initially. If you dive in too fast and expect results right away, odds are, you will fail and become discouraged before you even get started.
2. Set micro-habits.
In the spirit of keeping things simple, another option is to try out micro-habits: incremental adjustments that (over time) move you closer to achieving your goals. Think of them like stepping-stones that lead to your final destination. Here are a few examples to give you the idea:
The goal: Read more industry-related news.
What you can do: Create Google Alerts for topics directly related or even adjacent to your career interests, prompting you to click through and read at least one or two alerts every day.
The goal: Get better quality sleep.
What you can do: Blue light from our screens hampers a good night’s sleep. Keep your favourite books beside your bed and leave your phone to charge in another room. When winding down for the night, you’ll probably choose the nearby book instead of doom-scrolling.
The goal: Strengthen your network.
What you can do: Encourage yourself to reach out to others with visual cues. Tape post-it notes with messages like “Did you show gratitude to a colleague today?” or “Reach out to someone new” to your screen as a way to remind yourself of your goal.
3. Try temptation bundling.
This nudge aims to make obligatory tasks more enjoyable. The concept itself was coined by researcher Katie Milkman and her colleagues, and it’s fairly straightforward:
Take an activity you don’t like to do and something you do enjoy — now, bundle them together.
In practice, here’s what temptation bundling can look like:
Package a behaviour that gives you instant gratification (checking Instagram, listening to music, or bingeing your favourite podcast series) with a beneficial, but less fun, activity (running on the treadmill, filling out a spreadsheet, or doing chores around the house).
Only allow yourself to do the “fun” thing in tandem with the “not-so-fun” thing.
In Milkman’s study, for example, the researchers gave participants iPods with four audio novels they wanted to listen to but could only access while working out. By and large, participants’ gym attendance increased because it was tied to an indulgence.
4. Align with existing habits
Similar to temptation bundling, this nudge suggests putting something new alongside something that is already a habit - particularly useful if you feel a lack of time is a cause of you not being able to start new behaviours.
Take journaling as an example - if you struggle to find the time initially, combine it with another regular habit that forms part of a broader larger routine... e.g. combine your morning coffee time with 10 minutes of writing a journal or practising gratitude.
- answer text messages/emails while out on your daily walk getting your steps in
- learn a new language while on the treadmill
(my favourite) - engage on social media while in the bathroom!!
Show yourself compassion
Finally, don’t forget to be compassionate with yourself as you embark on this journey toward more thoughtful routines, and hopefully, better habits.
Any long-term change is going to take time. That’s just the reality. There will be ups and downs. But you are capable, and if you’ve made it this far, you are also prepared.
Let these tools above start to be your compass. Let them guide you when you feel off-track (which, by the way is a totally normal feeling when you’re trying something new).
Now, go get started.