Developing habits are easy, much easier to develop than change. It takes persistence and work to make changes, especially if the habit is years/decades in the making. Charles Duhigg examines how even knowing how habits are formed doesn’t mean that they’ll be easy to change.
Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disappear – but it will give you a way to plan how to change the pattern.
In my last post, I discussed “keystone habits” – those habits that have a ripple effect and, over time, change other habits. Identifying a keystone habit can help to make changes in other habits over time. For me, this happened by accident.
The Sickening Feeling
I still remember the sickening feeling I had when I couldn’t catch my breath. I was playing basketball with three of my boys. Two on two. We played all sorts of games, from mini-sticks (a Canadian favourite found in basements across the land) to games they made up – much like CalvinBall. However, this day would be different. As the game progressed I found it harder and harder to keep up. Then it happened. I couldn’t catch my breath. Fear combined with nausea and panic. I stopped and just stood there, bent over, gasping for air.
“Getting old?” one quipped in a tone only a 13-year-old can create.
“You okay,@kwhobbes .” asked the oldest. ‘You don’t look so good. Are you having a heart attack?” He was worried. I looked up. He wasn’t just worried – he was scared. Really scared.
I wasn’t having a heart attack, I was suffering from years of smoking.
I was too embarrassed to tell my boys what the real problem was so I just mumbled something, stood up, and tried to inhale which caused a coughing spasm that ended my day on the court.
I tried to walk but just couldn’t catch my breath.
Eventually, I was able to walk away, telling the boys I needed to go home. I had so many emotions. I’d let them down. I felt so bad that I couldn’t continue. More than that, I was worried that this was the beginning of the end. Images of oxygen tubes flashed through my mind. It was in that moment I knew I need to quit smoking. No matter what, this was the time.
Time to Change
I knew that I needed to replace the ‘habit’ with something new but what? I had watched other people who had quit gain weight as they replaced the smoking habit with eating. I didn’t want that to happen. That’s when I began my journey to not only quitting smoking but exploring how habits are formed and how they impact our lives. To quit smoking, I knew that will-power wasn’t enough – I tried that already and failed. Thus began my three-year journey in changing habits. The first was smoking but I’ve now added regular exercise, work habits, sleep habits and relationship and mental health habits to the changes that I have made all by paying attention to cues and cravings, patterns and responses of what I was doing and what might create a change.
I Want to THRIVE
Today my key motivator is to look at how I can THRIVE in all I do, not just survive. What do I need to change and adapt in order to Live a Good Life (taken from the book How to Live a Good Life by Jonathan Fields and ideas from Essentialism by Greg McKeown.)
I’ve learned a few important things that help me be more successful in developing particular habits. What follows are seven key concepts that I employ to shift and replace my habits.
- Be precise. What do you want to do? For me quitting smoking seemed pretty straight forward but it hadn’t worked before. So what did I want to achieve? This is when I began to use a journal. Now, it has taken me some time to find something that works but I use Day One to track journal my days. I found a simple daily journal template where I identify 3 or 4 key things I want to do for the day. When I was working on quitting smoking my #1 item was QUIT SMOKING. Every day I wrote this at the top of the list. Today, this habit is allowing me to make progress in other areas. When it comes to work, I would make big plans such as “Write a blog post” or “Edit my paper” but I wouldn’t get them done, become discouraged that I just couldn’t do anything and the next day, instead of getting to work on the task, I waste it on Social Media or doing other things because “I wasn’t going to get it done anyway.” My issue, not being precise about what I was going to accomplish. So now I’ve very precise – Complete editing 5 pages of my writing. Precision is important – I have a target.
- Be time specific. This means I plan for a specific time of day and I give myself a specific amount of time. I plan my day in 15 minutes increments – so I may plan to edit my paper at 1:00 pm for 45 minutes with 15 minutes to stretch, walk around, clear my head and prep for what I will do next. This is important because when I was quitting smoking it was the times I didn’t plan which was the hardest. I had to think about what I would do at these times to avoid the cravings & cues and begin to build new cues.
- Track what you do. I wasn’t a big time tracker before this. However, once I began to pay attention to time – using the timer on my phone, computer, or watch to track my time, I found that I wasn’t nearly as productive as I thought I was nor was I doing what I thought I was doing. And, by tracking my time, I became aware of how I often spent time going down “rabbit holes” which wasn’t really helping me achieve what I had set out. By setting limits, I know that I don’t have time to go off on a “wandering path” for too long. Cal Newport in his book Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World explains that doing deep work requires concerted effort and dedicated time without distractions. I’m still working on this but am definitely getting better at watching my time.
- Plan the day the night before. I have been working on this habit for a while, not always successfully. What I’ve learned is that if I can take the time to visualize my day and be honest about what I can accomplish, I often am able to do what I sketch out for the day. Before I started to be precise about what I wanted to accomplish, I often over estimated what I could get done in a day. “Work on my writing” doesn’t give me much information in the same way that Plan Supper doesn’t give me an idea about what to make for supper or workout doesn’t really give me an idea what I need to do. Without the details, it’s very hard to be accurate with time and very easy to not do what you planned.
- Begin and end the day with routines. Too often it’s easy to get into the planning habit, not the doing habit. Sometimes I’d be tired just thinking of what I planned for the day. What was I trying to prove? There’s no reward for “busy”! It wasn’t a good way to begin or end my day. So instead, I now plan my morning and evening using routines. My morning routine takes about 2 hours including reading, free writing, meditation, visualization, exercise, and eating. I use to try and follow a pretty strict time schedule but have found that I need to listen to my body more and now allow myself extra sleep or a different exercise routine or just more time to visualize and meditate. To do these I use my watch timer set for a period of time but this can change. I stick to the 2 hours since I need to help get children going in the morning. Similarly, my evening routine is 90 minutes. I’ve borrowed ideas from Todd Henry, Tim Ferris, Seth Godin, Greg McKeown, Chris Brogan, Jon Acuff, Cal Newport , Liz Wiseman and others to develop my own routines.
- Build in Rewards. Sounds simple but this one concept is so important. Reward yourself for what you are doing. After each workout, I have a smoothie. Small, simple but effective. After I write for 45 minutes, I do 15 minutes of social media, walk, get some water and then shift to what I’m doing next.
Make it your own. This takes time. As the quote I started with states, this will take time. The habits are yours. You developed them. You nurtured them. Using someone else’s program might give you a start but you need to adjust to meet your needs. Jeff Sanders, author of The 5 AM Miracle – Dominate your day before breakfast gave me some great ideas for developing a morning routine but I needed to make adaptations to fit my life. 5 AM doesn’t work. Instead, I’ve made an adjustment – 5:45 AM. Doesn’t sound like much but for me it was necessary. At 7:45 I am done my morning routine and can focus on helping my children get ready for their day. But I also allow myself an off day because I know that it keeps me motivated. Same with exercise, diet, writing and other things.
It’s Hard Work
This takes hard work. As Scott Berkun suggests in The Dance of the Possible, bringing ideas to fruition takes effort. The same goes for changing habits and making changes. The idea or identifying the habit is the easy part – the hard part is the effort needed to bring the idea to fruition or make changes. There will be setbacks, issues, failures, and missteps. This is normal. It takes work – a good deal of work. But if you are willing to do the work and put in the effort, the rewards are amazing.
Have a suggestion for changing habits?
Find a resource that really helped you?
I want to hear your suggestions and ideas about this.
Leave a comment or get ahold of me on @kwhobbes.