There are many people I know who subscribe to the belief that if you want to establish a particular daily habit, it’s best to do it as soon as you get up in the morning. A teacher of mine has the habit of writing first thing in the morning, my husband insists that exercising in the morning is the only way to make sure he does it, and most regular meditators say that it’s important to establish that practice upon rising. You could say it’s the Nike model: Just do it.
But here’s my typical morning when I don’t have to rush out: get up, drink a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper, eat breakfast with a second cup of coffee, have more coffee while doing the crossword puzzle…you get the idea. Can I possibly get into a different morning routine that allows me to accomplish more?
It’s tough to change habits. What we forget when we talk about establishing a “good” habit is that we usually have to eradicate a “bad” habit first. As a health educator, I’m frequently advising people on healthy eating, exercise and stress management, but even though they may have an intention to change, their habits of mind get in the way. If I examine my own life, and think about changes I’ve wanted to make, how often have I made progress? How often have I achieved my goal? And how often have I done that on my first try? Rarely, if at all.
Research has shown that as much as 40% of our daily activity is performed in exactly the same way each day. In other words, much of our time is spent acting automatically. This is great, in the sense that you don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth every time you do it, but it makes it tough if you actually do want to change how you brush your teeth!
We have two parts of our minds competing against each other. One is the intentional mind, which is goal-directed. This is the part we want to activate if we’re trying to lose weight, finish a project, or train for a marathon. The other part is the habitual mind, and it operates mostly outside of our awareness, helped by neurochemicals in the brain that allow habits to take over. We need the goal-directed part to be in charge long enough to get a new behavior established, then hope that the habitual mind kicks in and makes the behavior automatic. But how can we accomplish that?
According to social psychologist Wendy Wood, we first have to derail the existing habit and create an opening for a new one to take root. Because habits form through associative learning, a change in environment can often be a way to derail an old habit because the cues for the behavior disappear. Some examples might be moving, changing jobs or hanging out with a different group of people.
What are some of the things that cue behavior? Many smokers say that they always have a cigarette when they have a drink. The drink is the cue for the cigarette – take away the drink, and maybe they are less likely to smoke. For others, watching TV is a cue to start snacking. So if you substitute another activity for TV viewing, you derail the snacking habit.
After creating opportunity and letting the intentional mind set a goal, it’s all about repetition. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 15-254 days for a new habit to be established. So repeating the behavior frequently is important, as is creating a consistent context in which it happens. In other words, we need to have new cues in the environment that trigger the new behavior.
It can take a while to figure out the new cues. When I moved a couple of years ago, I found that my writing habit was disrupted because my desk suddenly wasn’t a place where I could write anymore. Only after I began writing at the kitchen table was I able to consistently be productive. Then I could let repetition turn it into habit.
The theologian Tryon Edwards once wrote,
Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steady gains in strength, At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel.
While chains of steel sound a little scary, they’re exactly what our healthy habits need. Unfortunately, they’re also what makes it so hard to break the bad ones.