Spring clean your habits

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We spring clean our homes and wardrobes, so why not our daily habits? Remove the unwanted actions and get some new ones with three easy steps

Happiness is a formation of our habits. Or, at least, that’s according to positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has estimated that 40% of our happiness depends on the habits we repeat daily.

From breathing exercises to gratitude journals, happy people engage in habits that help them to sustain their positive wellbeing even in the most challenging situations. With that in mind, spring cleaning our habits once in a while can help to build positive habits, and kick out unwanted ones. Here are three ways to do it effectively:

1. Identify external cues for your habits, and decide your response ahead of time

Each habit begins with an external cue, that is, a trigger for you to act. Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, says that instead of hoping that you will just remember to stick to your positive habits, introduce an obvious cue that will trigger you to choose the right habit. Decide ahead of time that if X happens, then I will do Y. For instance, when I make a cup of tea, I will take my vitamins; when I brush my teeth, I will do breathing exercises; when my alarm rings, I will reach for the gratitude journal. The more specific the cue (cup of tea, breathing exercises, or alarm), the more likely you will follow your new positive habit.

When it comes to any unwanted habits, the same logic applies – but, this time, decide ahead how you are going to change your response to a more positive one. For instance, if a stressful situation is a cue to activate a craving for sugary food, kick the unwanted habit by deciding ahead of time how differently you are going to react to the stressor. Perhaps you swap the sweets for dried fruits, or go for a walk instead?

2. Change the first step

Before your selected behaviour becomes a habit, you will need to repeat it multiple times. Harvard professor and author of The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, reminds us that the less effort your brain needs to put in taking the first step, the more chance you have of sustaining the desirable behaviour. This means making the first step towards positive habits as easy as possible by applying the ‘path of least resistance’. Want to drink more water? Have a jug at your desk. Want to start a gratitude journal? Have it next to your bed. Want to run every day? Leave your sports gear next to your front door.

While making the first step easy is the key to building positive habits, the opposite is true for unwanted habits: you want to make them tricky to implement. And this is where ‘the path of more resistance’ comes into play. For instance, if you want to stop eating sweets, put them in the highest part of your house so that in order to reach them you need to go to a different room to grab a stool, come back with it, climb the stool, open a cupboard, and so on… Similarly, if you wish to watch less TV, take the batteries out of the remote control and hide them in a different part of your home. The harder it is to complete the unwanted habit, the less likely it is that you will continue with it.

3. Integrate positive habits into your identity

James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, introduces the concept of identity-based habits. Let’s say you wish to start meditating. Having an outcome-based habit means that you say ‘I am going to meditate three times a week’. Opposite to that, the identity-based habit encourages you to ask ‘What kind of person do I need to become to mediate?’ You might answer: ‘Well, I need to become a person who sticks to their routine and never misses a session. So even if I have only five minutes today, I still do my meditation because I’m the kind of person who sticks to their commitments.’ Clear shows that people who have identity-based habits are more likely to stick to the new habits after their initial enthusiasm washes away, than people who create outcome-based habits.

So, it’s out with the old, in with the new. Just remember, habits don’t form overnight, be patient with yourself and set realistic goals – small steps are key to reaching new heights.


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