Audrey and I recently moved in together, and she has asked me multiple times not to place my bag on the couch. At first I simply answered "sure, no problem!" and moved my bag. But sure enough, the next day my bag was back on the couch. I hadn't noticed it, but placing my bag on the couch had become a deep habit for me. I come home, drop my bag on the couch, and put my keys on the coffee table. It's automatic, and it's much more difficult than I figured to change!
I first started becoming more observant of my mental habits a couple of years ago when I realized that I could improve my self-assurance and reduce the anxiety I felt in touch situations by practicing Cognitive Behaviour Therapy techniques. CBT is basically all about mental habits! Identifying triggers for behaviours, and retraining the brain to default to other, better behaviours.
What I hadn't realized, is that the enormous scope of habits encapsulates much more than how we think and feel -- it drives the majority of what we DO, and can do! We basically are our habits.
Realizing the impact of healthy habits reminds me of when I realized that investing time in physical fitness doesn't simply make me look good or feel good, but constantly makes my entire life easier. Every time I open a door, climb stairs, wash dishes, throw a ball -- hell, even when I sleep! We constantly depend on our bodies, and we quickly take them for granted.
Habits are the little things that happen all throughout the day that we don't regularly focus on, precisely because they have become so automatic. Yet they drive our behaviours, our productivity, how we're perceived, and how we interpret the world. They are what we are doing when we are not conciously directing our actions with intention. And I don't know about you, but I don't have enough energy to be perfectly intentional all damn day.
There's a guy on my team at work who is an absolute stallion of a software developer. He astounds me at how detailed and diligent he is in his work, how responsive he is to others on the team, how aware he is of everything around him. I have no doubt that years of good habits, and "habit stacking" is one of the secrets to his success.
So, to help get myself started, I've identifying new morning habits.
- Wake up at 7:15
- Count down from five, get out of bed
- Go downstairs, boil water
- Use washroom, brush teeth
- Have a glass of water
- 10 squats
- 10 swings each arm
- 10 push ups
- Make coffee
- Have shower
- Have breakfast with Audrey
- Check email
- Check slack
- Check social media
I already do some variation of this, but not precisely like this, and I often mess it up. I have a hard time getting out of bed, and I'll start looking at social media on my phone. I'll then feel rushed and will skip the kettlebells, because I don't feel like I have time to warm up.
Once I've made this into a habit, I'll see about adding in 10 minutes for meditation, or cancelling my social media morning check altogether.
A trick I learned from Atomic Habits is to declare out loud the new habit, the intention to do it, when and where you will do it, why you want to -- over and over, until they have become automatic in my life. By engaging the entire body, we bring more presence and awareness to building our new habits. And it's possible to do this at any point throughout the day, even when you find yourself back in old habits. Speak out loud, noticing yourself in your old behaviour. Speak your intention to change, and then follow up with the change.
Another trick is to change the environment. For example, one bad habits I've gotten into is pulling at my beard. This started as an anxious action, but once it was ingrained as a habit, it started occuring not only when I was anxious, but when I was not paying attention -- such as lost in thought, on a difficult problem.
By observing my behaviour, I noticed that when I'm focused on a problem at my computer for too long, I start to slouch, and following that, I might bring my hand up to my face to rest my head in or stroke my beard -- my hand is right next to my beard! I've just identified several useful triggers to be aware of. I know what's coming next if any of them occur. So I can become aware of any of these triggers, I'll try instead to use it as a trigger for a new behaviour, and I'll declare my intention out loud to help with the change: "time to reset my posture", before standing up and deciding if it's time for a break, or a glass of water. Hide or avoid your triggers for bad habits, and put the triggers for good habits right in front of you.