Do you have good habits? – Why habits significantly reduce stress and how to create a new one
“We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then – and this is the best part – we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower.” – Gretchen Rubin
Habits have become one of my favorite topics. Why? Because I experienced first hand how establishing good, sustainable habits have made my life easier, happier and… longer (or at least that’s what I expect and signs are promising).
Good and not so good habits
Good habits are the ones that improve health, state of mind, relationships, overall well-being, such as working out, regularly keeping in touch with friends, drinking a lot of water, reading (or regularly investing in your growth), meditating… you choose. These habits are sustainable, meaning they have positive impacts on your life long-term.
Not so good habits are the ones that have a negative impact long-term, such as smoking, eating sweets after every meal, checking your social media right after waking up, defaulting to negative self-talk at certain external triggers… again, you know better what applies to you.
Habits make or break you. I remember Martin, one of my former colleagues ,whom I admire a lot and has helped me so much, that he would always choose the meal from the ‘healthy’ section (with steamed or grilled, organic, local, fresh foods). Back then, I would have never chosen those meals, because when I was stressed I would go directly to deep fried meals. I was laughing at Martin: “haha, are you on a diet?” (I know, very ‘smart’ of me). And he replied: “no, this is the food I like, this is what my mom used to make at home for us”. I was mind-blown, but learned that good habits make good choices easy.
Note for parents: Help your kids create good habits and you’ve given them one of the most precious gifts in life. Lead by example, that’s the most powerful and effective way to achieve this.
Why it is essential to have good habits
The ability to make decisions is an exhaustible resource over the course of a day. This means that there are that many decisions you can make in a day, for the rest of the situation you will return to your habits.
A habit is the behaviour that does NOT require a decision. When you wake up in the morning, I think I can (boldly) assume that you do not have the dilemma “should I brush my teeth or not?”. You just do it, because it’s your habit.
Steve Jobs always wore the same outfit (jeans & black turtle neck shirt). Why? Because he didn’t want to waste his ability to make decisions on unimportant stuff, he was saving it for what really mattered. I choose the clothes that I am going to wear the evening before, so I don’t use up my ability to make a decision the next morning.
Between you and me: Maybe you are already familiar with all of the above, but I find it truly fascinating. Once I understood this mechanism, it suddenly dawned on me why habits, which I used to consider completely unexciting, are so important.
Creating a new habit or changing an old one
They say it takes 21-28 days to create a new habit. Imagine a foot path in a field of grown grass. This is the path you’ve always walk on, on and on and on. The more you walk on it, the less grass and the more prominent the path becomes. If you decide to change and use another route, it will be harder, because you need to step on the grown grass and to work on creating a new path. If you persevere, the new path will become the more accentuated and easier to walk on, while the old one will slowly be covered by grass and disappear. This is a tangible metaphor for what happens at a neurological level (I feel very smart right now).
It’s the same with a habit. You’ve always had a cookie with your coffee. The coffee triggers your longing for a cookie and, because you’ve always done so, you will have the cookie without really thinking about it.
To create a new habit, we need to bring awareness to this behaviour and for a while actively and consciously choose differently, until it becomes a habit and the old behaviour is covered with grass.
OK, Diana, this all seems reasonable, but what do I actually do?
Well, you can start by having a smaller cookie. Then you can replace it with a snack sweetened with something not-sugary, e.g. with dates, then you can try dried fruit (only if it satisfies you and you think it works for you with coffee) or a healthy savory snack. Always choose something you enjoy.
Or motivate yourself to simply not having the cookie for 21 days and see what happens. That is what worked best for me.
The challenge you will face, is that when you feel exhausted (from too much decision making, for example) or deal with certain unpleasant or intense emotions, you might default to the old habit. This is why I suggest choosing a time frame when you are less busy at work and have fewer external triggers… this might be tough, but you know when is best for you.
Here are some strategies:
- Reduce the amount of decisions you need to make
- Use your breath to calm you down (3 deep breaths in and out)
- Meditate to reconnect to your body
- Do acts of self-love
- Visualize the moment you will become free of the habit
- Feel how you will feel when you have released the old habit and connect that wonderful feeling to the present to motivate you
- Read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and you will have some life-changing AHA moments
Once you’ve gotten rid of the old habit, not only will the world not end, but you will feel better to great AND will gain a lot of self-confidence in your ability to change.
The magic happens when you realized that one good habit brings other good habits with it. When I started working out in the morning, I was able to get rid of the sweets from my diet, then I was able to free myself from diet coke (yes, I was addicted) and chewing gum with artificial sweeteners and so on. DO IT ONCE and you can replicate it as many times as you want. I’ve seen it happen so many times. If I, the average person with no particular super-power, can do it, you can do it! Woohoo! (This is when you picture me as your cheerleader).
Sounds good? I think it sounds awesome!
Now it’s your turn
What is the 1 habit you want to change the most? What will you do, starting now? Go for it!