How to Form Good Habits and Break Bad Ones

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A Thoughtful and Practical Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

How? Just do it. Easy. End of article (joke, of course)… 

Change is something many of us want yet seem to resist, and even fewer seem to successfully do. There’s no doubt that change of any kind can be daunting, even overwhelming. But since we’re in the middle of “resolution season,” I’ve been reflecting on strategies that have worked for me (and many others) when it comes to behavior change – breaking bad habits and developing better ones.

SMART provides a solid foundation for best practices when goal setting, but there are several less discussed but equally as important strategies that should also be considered:

First off, start small and focus on one habit at a time. Plant seeds and take baby steps. Easily attainable goals will create a carry-over effect (i.e. a positive feeling that can allow more positive behaviors to follow). You want to generate momentum using small behavioral changes that will gradually build to reaching your larger goals. Here are a few examples:

  1. Goal: Meditate for 20 minutes every day. Start: 10 deep breaths every morning.
  2. Goal: Declutter your home. Start: Declutter one drawer.
  3. Goal: Daily cold showers. Start: Cold shower for 15 seconds at the end of every shower.
  4. Goal: Exercise for 30 minutes. Start: Exercise for 5-10 minutes (or 10 push-ups every day).

Second, choose non-additive goals – goals that don’t require adding tasks or too much time to your schedule. We’re all crunched for time, so initial goals that require more time than you already don’t have will inevitably be challenging to achieve. As an example, one of my goals is to take daily cold showers. Since I already shower daily, the behavior is not additive. I’ll start small, with 15 second cold showers toward the end of every shower. With each week that passes, I’ll increase by another 15 seconds.  My ultimate goal is to spend at least one minute of every shower taking a cold shower, which will take four weeks given the timeline I just outlined.  

Last, but certainly not least, measure your progress. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Choose a goal that allows you to definitively say whether or not you were successful today. For example, you can easily answer yes or no to the question, “did I take 10 deep breaths this morning?” There are several ways to track your progress. I use an app called Way of Life and complete my chart every night before shutting off my phone. 

Keeping all of this in mind, I personally have four resolutions that I believe are easily attainable, yet will have a profound impact on my daily life, particularly once combined. I’m searching for the minimum effective dose here (i.e. changes in my habits that will provide the greatest impact relative to their respective time commitments). My resolutions:

  1. Cold showers (7 days / week) – officially start January 1
  2. Daily meditation (7 days / week) – officially start January 1
  3. Electronic devices off by 9:30 PM (5 days / week) – officially start February 1
  4. Stand-up desk for at least one hour each day (5 days / week) – officially start March 1

Cold Showers

The health benefits of cold showers are plenty, though I am most interested in the physical therapeutic effects. Wim Hof, a.k.a. The Iceman, is perhaps the most famous practitioner of cold therapy. Check out his Twitter for a pinned tweet that includes a 20-day cold shower challenge, which is similar to how I’m approaching the implementation of this particular habit. Eventually, I may work up to 10-15 minute cold showers, but I’m not being overly aggressive with my expectations. I’ll work up to one minute over the course of four weeks, which gives me a specific goal to target, regardless of whether or not I ultimately exceed the one minute mark. And trust me, one minute is difficult enough during winter.

Daily Meditation

I’ve been an advocate of meditation/mindfulness for several years, despite having a fairly sporadic practice. Similar to research on cold showers, research on the health benefits of meditation is compelling. For me, it’s simple – a mindfulness practice provides clarity; the clarity required for me to prioritize what’s important. The practice itself can be confusing, and even overwhelming, which is why I’ve opted to use Headspace, an app that offers guided meditation programs. In the past, my attempts at a consistent mediation practice failed for two reasons: (1) I didn’t start small, and (2) I lacked clear direction. Headspace will provide the direction needed and allow me to start with just 10 minutes each day, a small start for me considering that I’ve practiced meditation on and off for several years. I can also objectively say whether or not I completed the Headspace exercise for the day.

Electronic Devices off by 9:30 PM

When talking about health and wellness, sleep unfortunately tends to take a back seat to diet and exercise. Perhaps the mentality perpetuated by our society – “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” – is at fault here. In any case, sleep deprivation is undoubtedly a major problem in this country. Turning off all electronic devices by 9:30 PM is not just about quantity (i.e. total hours of sleep), but also about quality (i.e. more deep/REM sleep). Research indicates that artificial light, such as that emitted by your coveted smart phone, suppresses melatonin, thereby reducing the quality of your sleep. To be clear, I only intend to have electronic devices off by 9:30 five nights per week (Sunday through Thursday evening). Friday and Saturday nights are my ‘off-days’ with this particular habit. Also, I won’t officially begin to measure my success with this habit until February 1. 

Stand-Up Desk

Since leaving my office job, I’ve been less consistent about standing while working, which has undoubtedly been an instigator in my low back pain and tight hip flexors. I did finally pull the trigger on purchasing a stand-up desk, though – call it a Christmas gift to myself ☺. Standing while working is another non-additive behavior, since I’ll already be at my desk working. Again, I’ll start small, with just one hour each day, eventually working up to three to four hours daily. I won’t begin to formally measure my progress here until March 1. This doesn’t mean I won’t stand and work until March 1, but simply that I won’t be strict about tracking my time or judgmental of my successes or failures to reach the one hour goal. 

You’ll notice that each of my four habits requires little, if any, extra time. And daily meditation is the only ‘additive’ behavior I’m adopting because it’s a practice that is well worth the time commitment. I’ve opted for small behavioral changes that will provide profound positive effects on my life, particularly when combined. Changing habits is a challenge, but developing a thoughtful approach and plan is definitely a good first step. 

Stay tuned for progress updates and best of luck with your own resolutions.

DIYariane valle