With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us find our normal routines and schedules disrupted. I supervise school psychologists, and I’m usually traveling from school to school, but I’ve been working from home since schools closed.
You, too, may be working at home, or you may have lost your job. You might be an essential worker or health care provider with children at home. The changes are drastic and challenging—especially for those who are older, ill, or struggling to meet basic needs.
For those with adequate health and resources, the changes may have prompted you to examine routines and make positive changes. I’ve studied habits because of my professional interests in learning and human behavior and my personal interests in meditation and healthy living. I have found that to create a positive change that lasts, it’s helpful to understand the power of habits and use habits to our advantage.
What are Habits and How Can They Help Us?
Habits are behaviors we repeat. Habits help us maintain positive behaviors because they minimize the thought and effort needed to do something. For example, you probably don’t need to think about how to brush your teeth or take a shower because you perform these actions daily. Our brains naturally evolved to behaviors that require less effort. To make positive changes, it helps to align our habits with our goals.
The Power of Small Actions Repeated Over Time
It is easy to see the impact of big decisions we make, such as whether to take a job, move to a new location, or get married. In contrast, we may fail to see the tremendous impact of small actions that accumulate over time which slowly but surely transform our lives. Actions we repeatedly do shape our lives. For example, listening to a child or a friend with full attention, eating a healthy breakfast, or sitting quietly to meditate can improve our relationships, our health, and our overall well-being when done repeatedly.
What Are Some Tips to Developing Good Habits?
- List the benefits or find a picture that represents the benefits you will experience from your positive habit. The goals that are most meaningful often take time, and we don’t experience those benefits until we’ve reached a certain threshold. Use your list or picture to help you remember the benefits, even if you aren’t able to experience them yet.
- Approach challenges and failures with curiosity rather than self-judgment. Many of us believe that we can force ourselves to change with self-criticism, but that often backfires and creates a situation where we abandon our efforts altogether. It is much better to examine our challenges like a scientist and try to find creative ways to make our new habit easier or more attractive.
- Reach out to others for support. Find a friend, a family member, or a community of people who value and practice the behaviors you want to incorporate into your life. You may need to reach out beyond your current network if you want to incorporate a new behavior.
Implementing the Steps to Create a New Habit
Step 1: List the benefits/create a picture. I recently started a writing project with two colleagues and this required a new habit. It is easy for me to list possible benefits of the project in a more superficial way, but that doesn’t keep me motivated. Instead, what I require is to dig deep and ask myself why this project is important to me. Because there are so many competing priorities, I need to be clear about my motivation. One way I dig deep: I keep asking myself “Why?” until I’ve reached a core value that drives me.
Step 2: Approach challenges with curiosity. In my experience, self-judgment is one way that my mind works against me. Instead of attending to self-judgment, I can accept that a new habit—like writing daily—is difficult and move forward anyway. This is where step 3 is needed!
Step 3: Reach out to others for support. Fortunately, I’m working with colleagues on this project, and we are supporting each other by meeting online each week. Even on solo projects, such as meditation or training for a marathon, I’ve found that positive peer pressure provides a tremendous advantage.
If you are looking to start a habit for healthy eating or meditation, and you are looking for information and support, congratulations! You have found the right place!