Habits & Holidays

This holiday reminded me again that maintaining a habit is not the most difficult when you are really busy, have a really full schedule. No, maintaining a habit is much more difficult during holidays or weekends.

I have routine of starting my day with alone time/me time. After I get up, I meditate or do yoga, followed by some journaling. During normal weekdays I have no problem keeping up this routine. But during my holiday there were so many days where I didn’t do it.

Why? Because often other routines act as cues for doing this particular activity.

In my case- this morning routine is already started by my alarm going off. My alarm going off is the start of a string of actions, each action the cue for the next action. Alarm-get out of bed immediately (no snoozing!)- go to bathroom- meditate- journal. It is an automatic sequence, I don’t think about it, I just do it automatically, just like brushing my teeth.

During the holiday, I don’t set my alarm. So, I wake up later, read a bit, or doze a bit and then get up. In this case the automaticity of my normal string of activities is not started. My meditation + journaling routine is built on the routine of getting out of bed immediately after hearing my alarm. When this routine is not started then the next part of my morning routine also is not started. And now meditating and journaling becomes something I have to consciously decide to do. Which is much more difficult and taxing for the brain! Suddenly it requires willpower to do it.

Existing activities/habits are powerful cues that set in motion other activities/habits.
If you want to add a new positive habit to your life, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. Habit stacking- adding a new activity to an already existing habit/routine helps you to build new habits more easily. The automaticity is already in place, you are just adding an extra element/activity to it. Which makes it easier to automate this new behaviour. Over time, the already existing routine will serve as powerful cue that automatically starts this new behaviour.

Do you want to build a new habit? Stack it on an already existing habit!
E.g. if you want start meditating, brushing your teeth might be the routine you stack it on. After brushing my teeth (in the morning or evening) I will meditate 5 minutes. In the beginning you will have to think about it and decide to meditate after brushing your teeth. But over time, after a lot of repetition, you will automatically sit down to meditate after you have brushed your teeth. You won’t need conscious decision making and willpower any more.

Do you want to know more about building habits or breaking bad habits? Wendy Wood brings together the latest science in her book.  Good habits, bad habits. The science of making positive changes stick.

What if you don't need more self-discipline or willpower to succeed?

What if  you needed more compassion and more indepth, detailed insights about yourself? Often we are very critical, harsh and disappointed with ourselves if we fail to do what we intented to do, if we fail to change a habit or form a new habit. Often our inner critic chimes in very loudly, berating us for lack of willpower, lack of self-discipline, self-control.

And you might also think that being harsh on yourself is necessary, because if you start being to nice to yourself, nothing will get done or nothing will change. Dr Kelly McGonicgal from Stanford tells us that actually the opposite is true. Research studies show that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. While being kind and supportive to yourself, especially in the face of failure- is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

So instead of berating yourself (or others!) what can you do to increase the likelihood that you will succeed in making the change you long for?

Two steps will help you with that.

Step 1: Compassionately research your ‘failures’
Retrace your steps and kindly ask yourself: what happened love?  Research what happened and what got in the way.  Research the thoughts in your head, research your actions and research what you did not do or say to yourself. Also research the ‘circumstances’:  what was supportive or hampering in them?
Maybe fear came up, maybe the critical voices in your head got hold of you, maybe your goal/the step you defined was just too big. Or you tried to make a change in very difficult circumstances (e.g. starting a diet the day before Christmas). Or maybe you had unrealistic expectations of what you need to succeed.

Which brings us to step 2.

Step 2: What do you need to increase the likelihood to succeed?
We often hold ourselves to some unrealistic expectation: When I decide to do it, I should just be able to start doing it and follow through with whatever I set my mind to. Let me tell you a secret: for most people this does not work - just like it most likely won’t work like this for you! So instead of berating yourself, ask yourself what do I need, what would be helpful?
Build yourself a support system based on your strengths and needs.  So maybe what will help you is building in sources of accountability (no that is not weak, that is smart!) Maybe you need to spend some time to really connect to why this is important for you, maybe you need to change something in your environment to make it more supportive, maybe you first need to work on your fear and the critics in your head.

How do you respond to outer and inner expectations?
Gretchen Rubin developed framework to help you understand how you respond to inner expectations  (such as a new year’s resolution) and how you respond to outer expectations, like a work deadline. Knowing your tendency can give you ideas for the supportive structure you can build for yourself to help you execute your plan or build a habit. Instead of relying on the illusive power of self-discipline. Although the framework is not scientifically validated, it immediately had intuitive appeal when I read the book  “The four tendencies”  a couple of years ago. It gave me a helpful lens and framework to look at myself and others I interact with.

The four tendency framework:

According to a representative sample, the distribution of the tendencies is 41% Obligers, 24% Questioners, 19% Upholders, and 17% Rebels.

Take the quiz here to see what your tendency is.  (I am a Questioner by the way )

And based on your tendency different things might be helpful for you if you are trying to build a habit or make a change.

So for example:
•    If you are an Upholder you want to know very clearly what should be done, want to know in advance so you can plan and you probably want to create a schedule or routine around it.
•    If you are a Questioner you need to research or ask about why it is important to do. Or can you reframe an outer expectations to something that is important for you?
•    Obligers are able to meet outer expectations readily, but find it hard to do things when there is no outer expectation. The solution: build in sources of external accountability.
•    Rebels need the freedom to do something their own way. Having to do stuff will only get you into resistance mode. Reframing the task as a choice, game or challenge might tap into your spirit of freedom.

Here is a great article that summarizes the book including tips on how to build on the strengths of your tendency and how to avoid pitfalls.

Wishing you lot’s of self compassion and insights!