Friday, May 4, 2012

10 Ways To Create Successful Daily Habits (Pt. 2)

If I don't develop good writing habits I'll never be on the façade of the Kansas City Public Library

In my last post, I talked about why we need to create daily habits.  If there’s something you could do to make your life better, you should do it every day, not just occasionally.  Some of you might be like me and want to say, “Hey, eating a piece of German Chocolate Cake the size of my head would make my life soooo much better, so I guess I better eat one every day.”  That’s not what I’m talking about, unless you also want to make jogging five miles or more a daily routine.

Maybe you’re the lucky one who can develop good habits simply by thinking it, then doing it.  For example, my husband decided he should ride his bike to work to avoid the aggravation of rush hour traffic and get healthier.  He went out and bought a lot of things to make himself and his bike visible at night and bought bike-riding clothes for all kinds of weather.  Then he got on his bike and rode.  And has been doing it ever since except in extreme rain, ice, snow, or cold (below 20º).

If you’re one of those people, come back tomorrow for a new topic.  Or better yet, stay and tell us how you make that happen.

For those who, like me, have trouble initiating good routines, it’s not just a matter of willpower.  Perhaps you’re suffering from the modern problem of decision fatigue.  Vowing to power your way through to losing weight or quitting cigarettes rarely works by itself if there are too many things weighing on your mind.  We all could use a little help, not necessarily more of this mysterious thing called “willpower” that eludes us.

New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg recently wrote a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business and Life.  He examines the psychology of habit as well as looks at examples of regular routines, good and bad, that corporations as well as individuals have and their effects.  For example, when Alcoa Corporation made concern about safety part of their daily organizational life, they also realized an increase in profits.

Habits don’t come from sheer willpower, Duhigg concludes.  Willpower doesn’t work long term.  There are three parts to a habit, though – a cue or trigger, a routine (the behavior itself), and a reward.  The key to changing habits is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards, most research shows. Rather, it involves changing the routine that leads from cue to habit. For example, every day by 4 p.m. I want to eat any bad thing I can lay my hands on.  The trigger for that bad habit, if I think about it, is that I’m tired more than hungry.  I really just want a pick me up.  Therefore, I need to find a new routine instead of trying to power through until dinner.  I should choose a new one like eating a few bites of yogurt or an apple if hunger is part of the fatigue, or taking the dog out to play for a few minutes or doing some simple exercise to get my blood flowing and perk me up.  I could even take a 15-minute nap.  I would still get the break my body and mind say I need, but I’d go at it differently and perhaps even be rewarded by taking off some of the weight I’ve gained from stuffing taco chips in my mouth every afternoon at 4 o’clock.

Easier said than done, right?  If you’re not part of that “decide it, then do it crowd” you’ll need a little help to develop daily habits.  To get you started here are ten ways to help you develop a new routine in the next 21-30 days.  Don’t try to change too much at once.  Just pick one thing, like dealing with household paperwork or developing a regular exercise habit.  And just pick one or two of the guidelines to try rather than pledging to implement all right away.  You don’t want this desire for positive change to lead to more decision fatigue – or failure.

1) Be clear about your objective  “Write every day” is too vague.  So is “lose weight.”  It’s important to have a specific, realistic goal.  Writer Claire Cook, author of Must Love Dogs, says she writes two pages every day, then the rest of the day is hers.  It may take a couple of hours or it might take all day, but she rarely varies.  Others write 750 words each day or write for 8 hours.  Perhaps you want your house to be more organized.  Then pledge to sort and otherwise deal with the papers that take over your kitchen counter each day by bedtime rather than vow to enter into a massively overwhelming cleaning frenzy this weekend.  Once you master that simple yet clear task, then you can move on to another.

2) Go public with commitments  Write down commitments, tell them to friends and family, publish them (gulp) on a blog.  It makes you accountable.  I guess this means everyone can check my blog to see if I wrote every day in May now.

3) Visualize success  Olympic athletes are well-known for this technique.  They don’t only visualize themselves crossing the finish line, but they visualize obstacles and how we’ll get around them (e.g., distractions).  Whenever I feel like checking on the urgent laundry I need to visualize writing five more minutes and the satisfaction it would give me.

4) Stay consistent  Go forward with your routine in the same way each day.  For example, write at the same time, in the same place each day.  Head to the gym at the same time each day.  If you do it the same each day you don’t waste any effort on figuring out how to make it work with your routine on Tuesday or Sunday, or talk yourself out of it “just for today.”

Changing a habit might feel like climbing a mountain . . .
(photo by Brad Currey)

5) Remove temptation  If you have trouble waking up early to exercise, don’t hit the snooze alarm.  Just get up on the first ring.  If fast food is your problem, don’t be in car at mealtime.  One reason I have trouble buckling down and writing is because my work area is filled with distractions – mail, books to read next to my computer, the internet a click away.  I’ve recently installed on my computer the time management tool, Rescue Time.  It sends me an e-mail that shows how much time my computer was using a word-processing program vs. how many hours I spent shopping online, checking Facebook, or reading other blogs.  I could also use it to set up a block on the internet sites I’m tempted to click on all day.  Haven’t done it yet, but I do need to think about it.

6) Know the benefits of adopting a good habit and know the pain of not adopting it or continuing with a bad habit  This can be a difficult one depending on the habit you want to develop.  I have the good habit now of exercising every day and stretching because I literally feel pain in my body if I don’t.  Recovery from surgery requires this routine.  Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to identify the pain connected with bad habits.  If I don’t write, for example, I won’t feel immediate ill effects.  I’m not writing to pay my light bill.  I would be sad if I never got my words out in the world.  However, I would then be easily distracted from the sadness by all the things I’ve already named.  Immediate pain alleviated.  I have to try to visualize a more specific pain before I can use it to motivate me to a consistent writing schedule.  What pain motivates you to better habits?

7) Associate with role models  This is an easy one.  For my neck/arm rehabilitation I’m working with a fabulous physical therapist and a trainer at the gym.  They motivate me every time and don’t let me get away with a lot.  In the time I’ve returned to serious writing I’ve met many people I would like to be.  The problem I have is that I don’t have an on-going face-to-face relationship with most of them.  For writing I need regular butt-kicking like I get for my rehab.  Sometimes it’s just not enough to tell myself to apply butt glue.  Online weight loss programs and online writing programs aren’t the kind of associations that motivate me the most, but for now they’re what I have.  I’ll continue to look for writing role models close to home.

8) Offer a reward for practicing a new habit  Does this work for you?  I’ve set up rewards when I’m trying to develop new routines, but it’s not enough motivation.  Perhaps I say that every time I submit a piece of writing to a journal or magazine I will buy myself a new book.  But what if I don’t submit?  Am I really never going to buy another book if I don’t submit?  I could put money in a jar for every mile I do on the treadmill, but if I want to go to New York for a trip I’ll go to New York.  You won’t find me staying home until I lose that next 20 pounds.  I just haven’t found that carrot that truly motivates.  Any suggestions?

9) If kicking a bad habit, figure out what need it has been filling and find something to replace it  If I eat every time I watch TV and want to stop that so I don’t gain weight, I need to understand why I do it.  Perhaps I’m really bored while watching and it gives me something to do.  As a result, I could a) find something more interesting to do than watch TV or b) find something more engaging to do while watching TV, such as needlework or some exercise moves.  If I have the bad habit of clicking on and getting lost in the Huffington Post every time I pause in writing because I don’t want the uncomfortable feeling of waiting for the next words or ideas to come.  This feeling just comes with the territory for writers.  However, I have to find something more productive or engaging to do that still keeps me focused on the writing.

10) Set up triggers or rituals to remind you to do the new routine  If you’re trying to lose weight, set a watch alarm to go off every three hours to remind you to eat a healthy snack so you never get too hungry and give in to temptation.  Lay your exercise clothes out every night so you can step right into them in the dark if your partner is sleeping.  I’m not sure what trigger I can initiate to get me writing, but I’m working on it.  I’ve installed an app on my computer desktop called Focus Booster.  It counts down 25 minutes for me, so if I remember to click on it, it can be a trigger to write intently for a short period of time or it can signal that it’s time to get back to work if I take a break to check e-mail (or check Huffington Post).  What routines or triggers help you maintain a habit?

but success makes you feel like you've reached the top
(photo by Brad Currey) 

What can you add to all of this advice for creating successful daily habits?  Which of the guidelines do you think might work for you?  We’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments box.


Tina Fariss Barbour said...


Very helpful info. There are many good habits I'd like to develop, but probably the top ones right now would be to write more and to lose weight/get healthier.

Number 1 is definitely something I need to do. My change-in-habits-plans tend to be lofty and vague. Something like, write for 30 minutes every day, would be more helpful and less overwhelming for me. I know I can always build up from there.

Being consistent would also help me. Not having to decide when I'll write or exercise would help me, because I know I can talk myself out of things if I face the decision on a daily basis.

I had not considered what pain I am facing or enduring because I haven't developed these habits. Losing weight is easier to relate to this--if I don't get healthier, I won't feel better, I'll have more pain, more doctor's visits, etc. If I don't write--I know I'll deeply regret not sending my writing out to the world, but like you, it's hard to think of immediate pain. I'll have to consider that.

And I like the idea of being around like-minded people. I don't have "face-to-face" supporters in writing, either, but I've made some good friends online who are writers. I'll keep looking for "in-person" ones, too.

Thanks for a great post!

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Tina. Sounds like we're in the same boat right now.

monicastangledweb said...

Great advice, Julie! Working exercise into my routine is probably the one that stumps me most. Writing everyday comes easy for me, but I can find a million reasons for skipping my Zumba class. But that settles it. I'm going in the morning. Thanks!

Muriel said...

I have given up the boring things of life and just try to be happy and honest with myself. I find it a much better way to ditch bad habits. Oh, and since I go for a walk instead of having a cookie (or two) I feel much better. And I enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Julie, Making a decision to change someting and then making it public does cement it for an individual. When I decided to sell my Bistro, B&B & Winery the then realtor said "don't tell anyone or you will loose business". Well he is long gone and my current realtor says "tell everyone and somewhere out there is the perfect succcessor to you, waiting for the perfect opportunity to buy a business like yours". So I tell everyone in hopes that this decision will gel for me. So I am a believer in stating goals to others to hold my feet to the fire. Wanting to retire from my current business so I can pursue other interests is important to me and my husband. Once I sell the business then I can concentrate on loosing that weight. You just can't trust a skinny chef!!!!! I'll tell you then that I am going to loose weight! keep writing!
karen in Louisiana Mo

Julie Farrar said...

Hi, Karen. Hope your April trip was fun. I think you're right about making one change at a time. Alas, I've let my weight go again as I tried to recover from surgery. Now I'm feeling strong again so it's back to the weight thing again. Trying to lose thirty pounds this month before I head to France. Think I can do it?

Alina Sayre said...

Great tips, Julie. Writing is one of those things that I may love helplessly, but it's no good unless I make it a disciplined, daily habit. The nice thing about habits is that once they're formed, they kind of carry you along--the status quo naturally preserves itself!

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