Tips from psychological science to help you start and maintain a daily habit.
Posted Jun 18, 2020
As we emerge from months of quarantine, many of us are switching up our old routines to adjust to a “new normal.” If you’ve been thinking of starting a new habit, this could be an ideal time to build it into your daily schedule. Though it has been incredibly disruptive to have our daily lives upended by a global pandemic, our collective discombobulation provides an opportunity to break out of old “ruts” and consider ways in which we might want to live differently.
In runners’ parlance, “streaking” refers to the practice of running every day for any consecutive number of days (…what did you think we meant?). The same strategies that help run streakers hit the pavement each and every day can be applied to any new habit you want to start. (Reading the news? Learning a new instrument? Underwater basket weaving? The possibilities are endless.)
Taking on a new daily habit can feel quite daunting, and yet, it doesn’t have to be. Reflecting on our experiences as clinicians (and runners) helping patients (and ourselves) develop patterns of doing activities that make life feel fun and meaningful (i.e., behavioral activation), we’ve identified some tips that can help you start a new streak and keep it up.
1. Daily commitments reduce decision fatigue. By some estimates, we make upwards of 30,000 decisions every day. In the words of pop star Taylor Swift, “like, this is exhausting” (Swift, 2012, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). Each of those small decisions takes a toll on our limited cognitive resources. Fortunately, habits allow us to hack this. President Barack Obama, for example, chose to wear only blue and grey suits every day to cut down on decision fatigue.
When we commit to doing something each and every day, the decision-making process is much easier. Rather than asking yourself “will I run today?” (or paint, or read to your kids, etc.), the question becomes “when will I run today?” This frees you from the responsibility of having to decide each day whether or not you will maintain the habit, while also giving you the flexibility to decide when and where it will happen.
2) Show up. There’s a saying among runners: “You’re a runner because you run.” When we start something new, our minds might generate thoughts like “I’m no good at this” or “I’m not a real [runner/musician/underwater basket weaver].”
Thank your mind for that thought, and then get going! Using running as an example, all you need to do in order to be a runner is put on sneakers and head out the door. There will be days when you feel great, and others when everything goes wrong and you give up halfway through. That’s okay! The important thing is to show up for yourself and maintain your commitment.
3. Reward yourself. Many of us begin new habits because we want to improve ourselves, or some meaningful part of our lives, in the long-term. Reminding ourselves of long-term goals is great, but in reality, those goals are not always motivating in-the-moment.
Short-term rewards, on the other hand, can provide what psychologists call “proximal reinforcement” to help you stick to your habit each day. In the middle of a tough workout, for example, looking forward to your favorite snack or beverage when you get home — something you can touch, taste, and smell — can give you one more reason to push through to the end.
4. Pay attention to positive results. When we do something that makes us feel good, we tend to keep doing it (because it provides us with “positive reinforcement”). To keep yourself motivated, notice how you feel when you’re engaging in your habit, as well as after you’re done.
Are there moments of simple joy? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment? Pay close attention to these emotions! If you can, try turning your phone off and reducing distractions so you don’t miss them. Make them last longer by reflecting on them later or telling someone else about them. Simply put, if you enjoy (at least some) parts of your habit, you will be more likely to keep it up.
5. You can start a new streak any day. We’re human. Our lives are unpredictable. Try as we might to keep up a daily habit, there are going to be days when it doesn’t work out. In the case of a running streak, a person might not be able to run on a particular day because they are sick, traveling, or just too busy.
The great thing about streaking: You can always start over the next day! Although it’s exciting to see our number of consecutive days increase, the real work is in the process. Don’t beat yourself up. And get some rest, because tomorrow is a new Day 1.