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The process of building habits

Guide to self-development (Part 5)

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Aina Masood

In the previous article, I talked about identifying core values. These core values can be your ground information to start identifying what kind of habits you want to work on and what habits you want to eliminate. In this article, let’s focus on how to build habits. I was inspired by the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to think more about building habits. I feel that habits are an essential part of our lives. According to research, habits account for 40% of our behaviour. Consequently, if our lives are a sum of our habits, understanding how to build new habits is paramount to self-development.

"To build a habit, we need to develop routines."

How to build habits

1. Routines versus habits

Routines and habits are words often used interchangeably. However, they are very different in nature. Habits are behaviours we do with little or no thought, while routines are a series of behaviours that are repeated intentionally and frequently. Hence, to build a habit, we need to develop routines.

Developing a routine is the hard part, and we often want to skip this phase as it is uncomfortable and requires effort. On the other hand, habits are so ingrained in our lives that it might even feel strange when we don’t perform them—for example, not drinking coffee after dinner. Avoiding already formed habits can be a cause of distress. Thus, building a habit starts with making routines, and you can do that by using repetition.

2. Use intention setting

When you want to develop a habit, it is essential to understand “the why”. Pointing this out will help you associate your routine with an intention and motivate you to face challenges and obstacles. Pick a behaviour wisely, for example, maybe you want to be physically active or spend less time on social media. Reflect on why you chose this behaviour and why it is essential to you. It also helps to make these reasons visual. You can write them on a sticky note and put them up on the refrigerator or your work desk, wherever you are most likely to catch a glimpse of it every day.

3. Start with micro habits and increase slowly

Make it simple. Often, habit formation is associated with having enough willpower or motivation to continue. Willpower, according to research, is like a muscle; with more usage, it gets fatigued throughout the day. Motivation also follows a wave-like pattern, where it rises and falls. Therefore, it may be counter-productive to wait for inspiration or rely solely on willpower. Instead, we can start by developing micro habits. These refer to behaviours that are so simple and easy that you do not need the motivation to perform them. For example, instead of reading one book per month, you start with one page a day. Hence, you gradually make incremental adjustments with micro habits and move closer to achieving your goal.

Another thing that you might find helpful in making things simple is to allocate specific time intervals on your calendar to do to these micro habits. For example, you can add Mindfulness from 9-9:15 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lastly, you can use the 20-second rule. This focuses on the idea that it is easier to integrate habits if you can decrease the activation energy of these behaviours (activation energy is the energy required to start the behaviour). The less time it takes to create a behaviour, the more likely you will do it. For example, if you want to drink more water, keep a water bottle at your desk or if you’re going to practice more, keep your guitar in your living room.

4. Prepare for obstacles

When planning to start anything new, it is only natural to face some obstacles. You can make a list of some challenges that you expect beforehand and try to create strategies for how you will effectively overcome them. Some common hurdles might be experiencing fatigue or pain, the cost of the new change, making room in your calendar etc. To overcome challenges, you can use “if-then” statements. For example, if I am too tired to go to the gym, I will do a home workout. Planning for difficult situations will give you a better chance of continuing the behaviour.

5. Create a plan to get back on track quickly

Even if being prepared for obstacles fails, make sure you get back on track quickly. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has said, never miss a habit twice. If you have missed a workout, do not let it turn into missing two workouts in a row.

6. Be patient and compassionate

Whatever behaviour you have chosen to turn into a habit, try to be realistic about the process. Every individual requires a different amount of time to develop the same habit. So, be patient, consistent and compassionate in adding habits to your life. It is also crucial that instead of starting with building ten habits simultaneously, focus on 1 or 2 behaviours and once you feel confident, move on to a new one.

In conclusion, building habits is an integral part of self-development, and I hope you find this article helpful in your journey on self-development.

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