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Create the world you want to live in through habits



Happy new year! Or should I say, “habit” new year! No? Well, 2022 is going off to a good start.

But I did want to sneak in that joke because this is definitely the time people have resolutions to finally do that thing that they haven’t or couldn’t do before. Unfortunately, many fail. Or perhaps they succeed for a bit, but let go of their resolution after a while.


Why?


One reason could be that it is hard to form actual habits. Like, really hard. Even worse, it is hard (maybe even harder) to change habits.


It’s slow.

You have to be conscious.

You need to have intentions.

There has to be motivation (and the right kinds of motivation).


Other factors are working against you like…your brain which thinks, “Ok, it’s 9am, I’m looking around and seeing this tin of cookies, better eat it like I normally do.” Guess what, brain, I am not going to let you control my life anymore [said with the most contempt and disgust you can imagine].

However, we can do something about this. The science on habit formation is pretty well-documented at this point, though, of course, there is still work to be done. We’ve learned a lot about why people get stuck and what we can do about it. Let me share some tips with you based on science and from my own life.


 

I wake up at 6am pretty much every day plus or minus 30 minutes or so (without an alarm clock; except under extreme or just really strange circumstances). When this tidbit comes out in conversation, people are generally amazed (or they try to one-up me, like, “oh I actually wake up at 5am every day and so I am like in full swing of things by 6am, but that’s cute.”).


Usually my response to their amazement is that, well, sometimes it sucks. Sometimes I want to sleep in or honestly need more sleep. But, my brain and body (with my help) has made this a habit. Why? How?


So, I used to be really haphazard with my sleep schedule. Going to sleep late. Waking up about 10, 11, noon. And at the time, I was at community college. A newfound freedom and schedule, and so this habit was quickly picked up as it is somewhat in alignment with my high school days where I would stay up well passed my bedtime to just like chat on AIM or rush to get work done because I had been chatting on AIM for hours on end before (bonus points to anyone who remembers AIM or at least knows what it is).


However, in community college, I started to have this shift in perspective due to my schedule. I almost never saw my parents. There were 1 or 2 days in particular where I went at least a day without even seeing my parents. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the life I wanted to live. So, I changed it.

It was hard, but worth it.


What did I do?


One main thing that keeps us stuck in old habits (whether good or bad or somewhere in between) is that our environments are stable. Doesn’t sound bad. We want stable environments. However, when everything is the same, our brains are really good at keeping track of that and start to connect pieces of the environment or time or whatever to our actions and thoughts. Habits are truly at a level below awareness.


There are ways to counter this. We need to change our environment. Some are very drastic, but it doesn’t have to be. Some drastic ways would include moving or starting a new career. You really change your environment in these situations and have the opportunity to build new habits because the cues that were keeping you stuck are no longer there. This in it of itself does not guarantee that you will change your habits. You could very well form the same ones again, just in a new location.

In my case, there was enough of a change of pace where I could change my own habit that was forming: sleeping late at night and sleeping in during the morning. I did this in a bit of a brute force fashion. I just started setting my alarm super early and forced myself to get up. I wouldn’t necessarily start my day at first. I would just make sure that I came downstairs to see my mom before she went to work.


Brute force isn’t necessarily the way, however. You can only do that for so long. You need motivation. This can come externally or internally.


And there was some extrinsic motivation here of course. It was nice to see my mom happy to see me in the morning and to be able to help her get things ready before she left. But, if that was the only thing, this wouldn’t last if, let’s say, I moved out. This is why things like reminders aren’t good for building habits. It might play a role at first, but if you always have a reminder or an alarm, you become dependent on the device rather than build the habit, according to research. Perhaps this is also that feeling of like, “something feels off, but I don’t know what. Am I forgetting something? Oh well…” when your alarm doesn’t go off or you accidentally miss it.