3 Unconventional Strategies to Form Good Habits

The power of habits isn't that they're a substitute for willpower.

Posted Sep 22, 2019

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When others write about how to form good habits, the focus is usually on how people can get themselves to consistently do things they don't always feel like doing. The gist is that habits will help maintain desired behaviors in moments when folks are lacking motivation or willpower.

However, this is a pretty narrow and boring way to understand habits. The core definition of habits is that they're how you tend to act (or think) in response to a particular set of triggers. Here are some alternative ways to think about how to form good habits that aren't about how to get yourself to "stick to" challenging or tedious behaviors. 

1. Observe routines that you enjoy much more than you'd expect.

Whenever I take a trip, I often spend the last full day holed up in the hotel room doing work. My spouse will take our 3-year-old out for the day to do typical vacation activities, while I'm sitting in the room, glued to my computer.

While this sounds like a routine I might resent, in reality, I don't. I like slow transitions. I like to start anticipating and planning the week ahead of me. I also prefer not to come home to work problems that need sorting out on top of all the usual jobs involved in returning home from a trip (like laundry and grocery shopping).

How did I discover this habit that works well for me? I naturally fell into it, but it took a while before I noticed the pattern. Now that I have noticed it, we can plan for it: My spouse and child can have an activity in mind that they want to do without me.

Experiment: Recognize natural habits you enjoy. How can being cognizant of these habits help facilitate you being able to do them?

2. Focus on context-driven habits rather than time-driven habits.

A time-driven habit is one you do at a particular time; a context-driven habit is one that's triggered by a particular context. A common context is a place: When I'm at a hotel, I'll use the gym each day.

Routines you enjoy often stop being fun when it seems like you have to do them—for instance, if you have to drag your butt to yoga every Tuesday no matter how you're feeling. When you form habits that are based on context triggers, they're less monotonous.

Context-driven habits often naturally line up better with the type of mood you're in. For example, when I'm traveling, I often eat Chipotle and enjoy it, but when I'm at home with full access to my own kitchen, there are other meals I'd rather have. As far as vacation food goes, Chipotle is a good choice. Now I tend to book hotels that are close to a Chipotle!

Context doesn't need to just relate to place. You can use stress or other cognitive-behavioral states as a context cue too. For instance, when I'm having difficulty concentrating due to something major going on in my life, I'll often do a lot of walking.

Experiment: 

  • Identify: What habits do you have that are based on a place trigger rather than a time trigger? 
  • Identify: What habits do you have that are based on an internal trigger (a particular thinking or feeling state)?

3. Consider two condition habits: context cue, plus "Do I feel like it?"

People sometimes make the assumption that a habit is something you need to do regardless of whether you want to at the time. However, a habit can also just be a strong tendency to behave a certain way under a certain set of circumstances. You can easily structure some habits so that you only do them if a condition is met, plus you feel like it.

For instance, if I'm going to drive the 25 minutes to Costco, it's almost always on a Saturday morning. The only time I typically think to do it is a Saturday morning. However, if I have other priorities for the day, I do other things. Another example might be that your social circle has a regular meetup, like after-work drinks on Fridays, but whoever feels like it on a particular Friday shows up.

For some habits, consistency is an important aspect, but not always.

Experiment: Identify a habit where if you're going to do a behavior, you tend only to do it under a particular circumstance, but where it makes sense to also take into account your mood and other priorities.

Wrapping Up

The suggestions here are particularly aimed at people who feel resistant to too much routine or whose lifestyle needs to retain some flexibility. In reality, if you think you don't like habits, you probably just don't like having compulsory and inflexible habits.

Habits arise because cues exert a powerful level of control over behavior, and constant, novel decision-making is inefficient and exhausting. But you can treat habits as helpful decision shortcuts rather than obligations. Thinking of habits only in terms of skills you want to practice more regularly, perhaps that you're trying to hone and improve, is too narrow a definition of habits.

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