A picture of a to-do list with boxes to check.

Building new habits. A “how-to”.

I know it’s already in the second-half of May, but we’re still under a lockdown so I thought it a good time for some self-discovery and improvement. My goal – building some new habits.

This year started rough for me so there was no time for New Year’s resolutions. However, since I’ve not been very good in the past few years about following up on these, and, let’s face it, the year is long past its beginning, I thought I’d do it a different way this time around.

Some background

Do you also look at NY’s resolutions as things you want to make an effort to do, in order to improve yourself, your quality of life, or both? In essence, most of mine so far have been about building new habits or trying to get rid of old ones. Yes, but I’d fail miserably. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And this is me deciding to shift my approach.

I looked at the whole improvement from a different perspective – scientifically proven ways to building new habits. There are two “theories “ that I felt useful to combine, which could help me succeed, and here they are for you to consider and even expand on, if you’re so inclined ( wow that sounded a bit posh?).

Rule 1 – 66 days to building new habits

How many days do you think are necessary for building a habit so it becomes a permanent resident in your life. I kind of gave it away in the title, but yes – 66 days ( that is for a new behaviour to become automatic).

Is this too long? If you think it really is, just consider all the benefits you’ll get after following through. And it is still less than an year (1).

This number comes from a study done in 2010. In it, the habit strength seemed to accelerate on a daily basis, reaching a plateau at around 66 days on average. Another encouraging outcome from this study showed that “Missing the occasional opportunity to perform the behaviour did not seriously impair the habit formation process”(2), which basically says that if you forget or just cannot perform the desired action once or twice, this would not affect the end result, needing for you to start all over again. And if you think about it – you are building a habit, trying to introduce something new in your daily life. It’s only natural to forget.

Rule 2 – Building new habits through B=MAP

This rule about building new habits I read about in the book “Time and how to spend it” by James Wallman. The person, who came up with this model was BJ Fogg, and judging by what was written about him, his work, and his students, in the above-mentioned book, it all sound pretty reasonable to me.

So let’s decipher the code:

B – Behaviour
M – Motivation
A – Ability
P – Prompt

“Another way of putting this: people do things when they want to do them, when they can do them, and when there’s some prompt that nudges them to do them right now.” (3)

Motivation

The MOTIVATION bit is quite self-explanatory. However, even if we think we are most certainly convinced we want to build a certain habit, it may not be as strong as we think. In situations like this I like to do my research.

Here’s an example. All my life I’ve been convinced that sleep is a waste of time. Fast forward to having had two children – I don’t anymore. Having said that, I felt I needed sleep and wanted to build a habit of going to bed early, but would always find a “better way” to spend my time. Until I listened to a podcast, with sleep scientist Matt Walker as a guest. (I’d recommend starting with the TED talk first, if you don’t have the time for the whole podcast). That gave me all the full motivation to do better and try harder.

Ability

The ABILITY factor is a bit more complicated. Not only are we quite prone to building our own walls, when trying to do something out of our normal routine, but there can also be others, who are external to our barriers. These are: physical effort, mental effort, cost, time, whether something is socially deviant, and if it is “non-routine”. The good news is, knowing them, we can work on removing them.

To give an example let’s look at one of my goals, which was to make time to read more (if at all, as after having kids I had stopped completely, due to lack of time).

Physical effort: There isn’t much of a physical effort in reading, unless you consider getting the actual books. However, that can simply be merged with you doing shopping, in case you consider it a barrier. There are also the digital resources you can access from the comfort of your couch.

Mental effort: Despite reading being a mental activity, it actually does not require much effort. That being especially true if you’re reading something you like.

Cost: Books are not cheap, but if you only buy one per month, which is how many I can personally read through within that timeframe, it is not such a huge cost. Even though I am convinced in the importance of actually paying for books, in order to support the authors to keep on doing what they do, there are other options. My personal favourite is the library. Our local one is very well-stocked, which has helped with reducing the cost of living here in the UK, especially for a new family. It has plenty of books in all kinds of genre, and you can even find most of the latest titles in there, as long as you’re quick enough.Buying books second-hand could also be cheaper. For online resources there are some cheaper options like Amazon Kindle. There are also online libraries, and websites with free content.

Time: That was my biggest barrier to reading and I believe that is true for most people nowadays. Here, you need to make a sacrifice, but it doesn’t have to be a big one. When I decided I wanted to go back to reading more, my idea was to set smaller daily targets. Originally, I started with 10 pages per day, which is a very low, and therefore achievable, but not too low a goal that you don’t bother. In addition, reading 10 pages takes so little time that it does not feel like you’re losing the opportunity to finish something else that is more important.

Socially-acceptable: Well, I don’t even need to go here, as reading has always been considered a good habit and its multiple benefits have been outlined by many studies through the years, so you don’t really need to worry about it.

Can it be a routine: Reading is pleasure, not a routine. However, making time for it may need to be one. You’ll always have other alternatives that might seem more pressing and therefore would be much higher on your list of activities. This is where the motivation comes in, to give it the necessary importance for it to move up your list. In my case, I decided to make it my routine to read before going to bed. 10 pages only. That was enough.

Prompt

This is the thing that needs to nudge you to get out of your regular way/routine and go a different direction. It is very easy these days, when you can just set up an alarm on your phone for anything and have it remind you at certain times to do something. It didn’t work for me. Whenever I would set up a timer, it would always go off at the least convenient moment. I find it easier if I tie my habits to other regular activities I do, so that I know that if I do one thing, I’ll be prompted to do the other as well.

Here is an example. Having had two children in a row, I had to be very vigilant about doing Kegel exercise. For anyone not familiar with them they are very simple, do not require much effort, you don’t sweat, and they only take about 2 min, 3 times per day. For me, however, the difficult bit was that I had to find a moment to stay still for 2 min, which, looking after the little ones during the day, was nearly impossible. So I tied it to me brushing my teeth. Every morning and every evening I made sure I do Kegel while I brush my teeth. The third repetition I still find difficult to fit in, but would usually try to do when they go for their afternoon nap, before I start on all the other tasks that need doing around the house.

That’s my secret to building new habits.

If you really try and do those things for at least these initial 66 days, you’ll slowly start noticing the new habits forming and your life changing into a more positive direction. Do have in mind, however, that the harder the habit, the more effort it requires and therefore more time until it becomes part of your daily life.

If you have something in mind, a habit you’d like to ingrain in your life, please do share in the comments section below. I’m always up for new ideas and would be curious to follow up on your progress if you decide to use the above.

PavlyDovely

  1. Do not take this number as a complete deadline. The study shows this is an average, and it could be variable, depending on a number of factors. These include, but are not exclusive to, type of habit, complexity, etc.
  2. LALLY, P., VAN JAARSVELD, C. H. M., POTTS, H. W.W., WARDLE, J., How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world, European Journal of Social Psychology, 2009
  3. WALLMAN, J., Time and how to spend it, Penguin random house UK, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *