What are Habits?
One definition is that 'a habit is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.' I think that this might be a fanciful definition of what habits are; that once we perform behaviours a number of times, we no longer have to think about them.
It is true that there is a form of memory, called procedural memory, which stores the way in which we perform tasks so that we can perform them without putting much thought into them. For example, tying your shoelaces, walking, even driving, and the classic; riding a bicycle. These are all series of behaviours that become procedural memory. And procedural memory is key in habit building.
However, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has a slightly different definition of what a habit is. According to Clear, habits are "the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day." There is nothing unconscious or subconscious about that definition. Habits are decisions, actions, and routines. They involve conscious decision-making.
If we decide that we want to make going to the gym a habit, we need to consciously make that effort every day or week or every other day. We need to fit it into our schedule, we need to motivate ourselves to wake up earlier, or to go after work. Perhaps we need to have someone hold us accountable, perhaps we need to change other parts of our day to make going to the gym easier. Maybe after work, we change straight into our workout clothes rather than putting on our comfy pyjamas and lounging on the sofa.
If we stop making the conscious effort to do these things, it is very likely that we will stop going to the gym as frequently. The habit starts to erode.
How are Habits Created?
As James Clear stated, habits are created through small decisions and actions that we continuously make. So, what is the best way to create a new habit?
First, you need to decide what the new habit is going to be. It can be easy to think that you are going to overhaul everything at once, but it is important to implement sustainable change. You might decide that you are going to go to the gym, drink more water, eat healthier, wake up earlier, journal every day, meditate every day, do yoga every day, and read a chapter every day. That is a lot to take on.
What might be a better idea is to group some of these things together or make some of them interchangeable. Perhaps you could go to the gym more and drink more water. They would naturally go hand in hand. Maybe adding in healthier eating along the way. Or maybe you start waking up earlier and choosing between journaling, doing yoga or meditating, rather than trying to do all three every day.
The next step is to ask yourself why you want these to be habits in your life. Why do you want to go to the gym? Is it to lose weight? Is it to gain more energy? Is it to feel more confident? Why do you want to do yoga? Is it because you want to be more connected to your body? Because you want to become more flexible? Because it looks fun? Because people talk about it on social media?
There are no wrong reasons, but you need to make sure your reason is big enough and strong enough to motivate you. Your reason needs to be strong enough to get you out of bed that bit earlier, to keep you going to the gym when you would rather watch Netflix.
If your reason for going to the gym is that you want more energy then ask yourself why do you want more energy? To play with the kids? Great! Why do you want more energy to run around with your kids? Because your parents ran around in the park with you when you were a kid? Awesome! Did you enjoy that? Did you have happy memories from those experiences? Amazing! Use them to motivate you! This is your why!
If your reason for wanting to do yoga is because people on social media do it, ask yourself why does this make you want to do it? Because it looks fun? Awesome! Why do you want to do it? Because you want to have fun? Oka! Why do you want to do yoga to have fun? Why not something else? Because you want to be flexible like those yogis on Instagram? Great! Why do you want to be flexible? And so on... keep questioning your why until your why gets big enough to motivate you to keep going!
How are Habits Maintained?
Habits are maintained by planning and execution. There isn't really a secret formula that some people know that allows them to stick to their habits with no effort. All habits take effort and thought and action.
Let's say you have maintained your goal of going to the gym twice a week for a few months now. You feel that your habit is forming, you find it easier to leave the sofa and head to the gym after work or on your lunch break. You've implemented little tricks like laying our your gym clothes and trainers the night before, booking classes at the gym so that you can't cancel, or holding yourself accountable to a personal trainer, friend, or partner.
You feel like your habit of working out is going well, you no longer need the personal trainer, you no longer feel the need to hold yourself accountable to someone else, maybe you don't feel that you need the classes anymore. You just go to the gym after work of your own accord. Then a friend invites you out for drinks after work - one night off won't hurt. Then it's a work party - I'll go to the gym next week. Before you know it, you haven't been to the gym for weeks on end and you have to start all over again - or you decide it's not worth it.
The same can happen with any habit that you are trying to build. Say you are trying to wake up early to meditate. You might have done really well for a couple of weeks or even months. Then you go out for drinks one night and can't bring yourself to wake up the following morning, or you decide that one morning of lying in won't hurt. Before you know it, you haven't meditated for months.
Maintaining habits often takes conscious thought, planning, and action. Remembering why you want to do it.
It is also important to remember that it is okay if your why changes, or if you decide that actually you don't want to do that anymore. You might decide that getting enough sleep is more important than getting up early to meditate, and so your goals change. You might get an injury and actually your recovery is more important than going to the gym for some time.
For more tips on creating habits, check out this blog post!
As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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