By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
COVID-19: People are more likely to resolve to make habitual changes during periods of transition. Be it New Year’s Eve, a birthday, a new job or even a divorce, we tend to use temporal or situational markers to bring about desired changes within us. Thus, we are prone to making statements like, “I will start exercising after my exams,” or “I will stop binge watching Netflix when I move to my own apartment.” The pandemic and the consequent lockdown have motivated people to break out of addictions and embark on new routines. With kids to mind 24/7, parents working from home, both on the domestic and professional front, perhaps, this is an opportune period to adopt healthier lifestyles by questioning ingrained habits of a pre-Covid-19 world. Based on the bestselling book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, I share tips on how to make habitual changes that endure in a two-part series, of which this is the first article.
What is a Habit?
Clear defines a habit as a “routine or behaviour that is performed regularly-and, in many cases, automatically.” As it becomes automatized, it frees up our attention for other tasks. Overcoming baneful habits or cultivating healthy ones can have huge payoffs, provided we “stick with them for years.” The initial stages can be arduous because the benefits aren’t discernible; in fact, you may not notice any transformation until you reach “a critical threshold.” Success rarely entails dramatic, overnight shifts but is instead the “product of daily habits.”
How to strengthen your willpower
Most people believe that habitual change is a function of the goals we aspire to and our willpower to achieve them. Clear advises us not to focus on goals but on the “processes that lead to those results.” Further, he encourages us to frame our habits as part and parcel of our identities. Thus, instead of pledging, “I want to read two books a month,” tell yourself, “I want to become a reader.” Then each time you finish a book, it reinforces your identity as a bibliophile, thereby propelling you to read more books. As Clear succinctly puts it. “you become your habits.”
Four Steps to Nurturing New Habit
Every habit involves four steps- a cue, craving, response and reward, says Clear. The cue, which could be internal or external, serves as a trigger for “your brain to initiative a behaviour.” Your craving is the “motivational force” that propels you to either engage or disengage in a particular behaviour. The response is the “actual habit you perform,” which, in turn, results in a reward. Often, we are unaware of the cues that set off habits in us. So, the first step entails becoming more conscious of internal or external signals that provoke a habit.
A Proven Method to Inculcate a Habit
A proven method of inculcating a desired habit or overcoming a deleterious one is to create an “implementation intention.” Instead of merely relying on goals you set for yourself, create an action plan with specific details on what you will or will not do. For example, if you want to eat healthier, you may promise yourself, “When I feel hungry at 5 O’clock, I will eat a fruit.” Or, if you want to reduce your dependency on devices, tell yourself, “I will not check my phone between 4 and 7 pm.”
The more clear-cut your plan, the greater the likelihood of your sticking to it. You may also use a well-established habit as a crux to cultivate a new one. This method, called habit stacking, involves pairing a new habit with an oft-repeated one. So, if you would like to respond to emails in a timely manner, tell yourself that you will answer them every morning before you eat breakfast.
Further, contextual cues also shape our habits more than we realize. If you want to remember to take your medicine every night, place the pill box by your bedside table. The more overt the cues, the more likely you will comply. Likewise, instead of trying to exert willpower to prevent yourself from eating cookies, create a “more disciplined environment” where only Granola bars are available at home for snacking. Clear advocates that you make the “cues of your good habits obvious” and those of bad ones “invisible.”
How to pair a new habit with an activity you enjoy
You may also reward yourself by pairing a new habit with an activity you enjoy. So, if you wish to walk for 40 minutes on a treadmill daily, treat yourself by watching your favourite Netflix show on your phone or tablet as you burn those calories.
Additionally, you join a group that places a premium on your desired behaviour. Enroll in a book club if you want to read more or join a yoga class, either real or virtual, if you want to get more flexible. Being part of a “tribe” can also enhance motivation.
(The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Views expressed are the author’s own.)