Changing Habits, or: 30 Days of Hell

If you’re going through hell, keep going.
Winston Churchill

Changing your habits is hard.

It is hard to make something new and initially aversive a part of your daily life — e.g., getting up earlier to work on your creative projects before doing your paid job (e.g., to write that book you always dreamed of writing), or even to doing something to support your ability to be creative, e.g., doing more sports to keep healthy (e.g., some yoga exercises or that regular 6-mile run).

Someone once said that it takes about 30 days of continuously doing something new until an habit establishes. This is especially a problem if the new thing is not immediately rewarding. You won’t write that book in one go (and perhaps not even see tangible results for a few weeks), nor will doing sports feel particularly good in the beginning. So it’s 30 frequently gruesome days where you fight against your internal inertia.

While it’s an uphill battle (yeah!), there are things you can do to make it a little easier on yourself:

  • Decide deliberately what you want to establish and be very selective about it: It’s easy to go over the top here, e.g., from not being grumpy in the morning to working two hours each morning, or going from no sports to doing a 6 mile run every morning. Look at the time you have available and decide what is really manageable. Look at the consequences: Getting up earlier means either reducing your sleep (possible, within limits) or going to bed earlier.
  • Formulate a willful, if-then intent: Avoid general goals, like the ones at 43 things. They are too general and unspecific. Thus they don’t really work. Studies have shown that If-Then-intentions are more helpful than general goals. Make it concrete with a trigger and an action you can do without even thinking about it. This way you break your goal down into something you can do — and likely (likelier) will do. So say to yourself (frequently):
    If [trigger], then [habit-action].
    For example, instead of “I want to get up more early in the morning” say “If the alarm clock wakes me, then I stay up and sit down at my desk.” Then ensure that you set the trigger, e.g., your alarm clock at the required time and execute the action without really thinking about it (e.g., “reasons” not to do it).
  • Integrate it into your day: Make whatever you want to establish a part of your day. Do not treat is as a special time but as something you do normally.
  • Prepare for it: For example, preparing your desk in the evening to have everything available in the morning takes some friction out of it. Unless you need this friction (e.g., to wake up), do it. Note that it should not require an heroic attempt to prepare for the task — you should do more or less en passant.
  • Do it as soon as possible in the day: It’s easy to postpone an aversive task. Do it as early in the day as possible. Otherwise you might find ways to prolong whatever else you are doing to have an excuse for not doing it.
  • Take your reward from achieving your goals: Don’t reward yourself extrinsically for doing the task. The problem with extrinsic rewards is that they can undermine the intrinsic rewards, e.g., if you stop rewarding yourself, you stop doing the behavior you wanted to establish as a habit. It can also lose its effect over time and have other negative consequences. This is especially a problem if the reward has long-term negative health effects (e.g., sweets, alcohol). It might get you started, though, the best reward for doing sports I have ever heard of was in a Savage Lovecast where a caller mentioned his agreement with his partner: If he did go for a long run twice a week, she was offering to do whatever he wanted to do with her after the second run. So much for motivation 🙂 However, I still think that accomplishing what you you set out to do is the best reward.
  • Use Rituals: Rituals like first brewing a coffee and then sitting down can help you establish a routine. The coffee does not really function as a reward here but assists you in doing the task.
  • Log your progress: To see what you have already achieved, log your progress. There are multiple ways, from using an calendar page taped to the wall and marking the days you want to do this action (e.g., running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and crossing them out if you did it, to using an app like “Streaks“. It reminds you what you have done so far and crossing out a marked day is very satisfying. Make sure that it is in your face. Hang it where you can see it, and if you use “Streaks”, use the Icon Badge and put it on your first home screen. BTW, if you need a calendar to print out and you use a Mac, deactivate all your calendars in iCal and select print.
  • If you think about not doing it for a few days, think about what it entails: You need about 30 continuous days of doing it. If you stop this streak, you must start anew. Do you really want to start all over again? Or is it better to punch through? Even if you do not feel like it, it will help you to establish that habit. (The only real exception here where you should stop is an injury.)
  • Get an out-of-jail-free card (and try not to use it): Then again, there are some days where you just have to ditch it. Sometimes you get swamped and other things, e.g., serious problems, take precedence.
  • Punch through: Accept that you will not completely like it in the beginning (or at all). That’s normal. Accept it and punch through. Usually the trick is overcoming the initial barrier — e.g., getting up and sitting down at your desk or stating that Yoga exercise. Once you have started it is often: “Now that I am here, I might as well go with it.”

It’s usually worth it to change your habits and establish new ones that you have decided upon. And once the habit has established itself, you can reap the benefits. You profit by the steady amount of time invested in your creative projects or your body.

And like this quote here, it just feels good:

I suddenly realized I felt good.
I tried to think why I did. Because we would be in after a couple of hours and I could resign?
No. When I had decided to resign, it had indeed given me a measure of peace, quieted down my awful jitters and let me go to sleep. But this was something else — and no reason for it, that I could see.
Then I knew. I had passed my hump!
I was over the “hump” that Colonel Dubois had written about. I actually walked over it and started down, swinging easily. The prairie through there was flat as a griddle cake, but just the same I had been plodding wearily uphill all the way out and about halfway back. Then, at some point — I think it was while we were singing — I had passed the hump and it was all downhill. My kit felt lighter and I was no longer worried.
“Starship Troopers” by Robert A. Heinlein