Creatures of habit

Human beings are creatures of habit.

That’s what they say, isn’t it? I know some of us balk at the idea of structure and routine and like to think we’re spontaneous, completely flexible and revel in the thought that variety is the spice of life, but let’s bring it back to basics for a minute. How many of you generally get out of bed at the same time every morning, brush your teeth before you go to bed, have the same cereal in your bowl for breakfast, park in the same spot when you drop the kids off at school or stand on the same spot on the same platform to get the same seat on the same train every morning, probably sitting next to the same person who you still haven’t introduced yourself to yet?! Starting to sound like you? Even for those of you who are thinking that’s not me, I have a different breakfast every morning and take 5 different modes of transport into work each week just to experience something new, you could argue that is a habit! It’s a pattern of behaviour that you slip into because it suits you, your life and the way you want to live it.

Introducing a changeLearning to establish a new habit requires conscious effort

If we’re so good at routinely sticking to our habits, often without giving it a second thought, then why do we find it so hard to introduce a new one and stick to it? Because it’s NEW I hear you cry!! Well yes, it is. However when we think about making a change in our life, and lots of us do, it all starts with introducing a new habit, a shift in our patterns of behaviour that enable the change to occur and ideally, if we are happy with the change, make it stick. But change is difficult because we have to re-train ourselves to do something different. We become consciously incompetent again and often this feels icky!!

Establishing new habits

Recently, I’ve been reading and listening to people talking about establishing new habits. I’ve heard lots about being specific with your goals, about choosing to make a change where the benefits are so compelling you just can’t argue against it and finding a friend or someone who can hold you accountable for the choices you make. I cannot disagree with any of these. However, based on personal experience and my experience of coaching others, I believe the most important starting point is knowing yourself well. I mean well enough to understand what your patterns of behaviour actually are (sometimes its so unconscious we don’t even recognise it), how they change and why, and what is most likely to work for you, regardless of what others are doing or saying.

A simple example

I used to work with a lady who was always impeccably dressed, everything was colour co-ordinated, including her jewellery, scarves, nail varnish and lipstick. “How do you manage that, day after day?” I asked one morning. “Well Sarah, I know I do my best work when I feel good in the clothes I wear. I also know that I’m rubbish in the mornings, I’m always running out of time and when I’m under pressure I start to make silly decisions. So, every night, after I’ve brushed my teeth and taken off my make-up, I decide what I’m going to wear the next day. I set it out in my spare bedroom, then sit down for 5 mins and paint my nails to match. This has become part of my bedtime routine and helps me to relax and settle down ready for a good nights sleep, knowing I’m prepared for the morning when I’ll be rushing around and haven’t got the time to spend staring into my wardrobe not knowing what to wear!”. Wow! She knows herself well. She knows what she needs to be at her best, she knows what happens when she’s under pressure and she’s come up with a habit that also enables her to sleep better, anchoring her routine onto something that she does without thinking – brushing her teeth at night😊. She’s benefitted in so many ways from just getting her clothes out at night!

Natural waves of willpower and motivation

Another thing to pay attention to are your natural rhythms or waves as Dr. Rangan Chatterjee calls it. I can highly recommend his latest book. It’s really simple and makes perfect sense! For example, I’ve noticed that I have a weekly wave or rhythm. My willpower and motivation are stronger at the start of the day (I’m an early morning girl!) and at the beginning and end of the week. So, I’ve introduced most of my good healthy habits at the start of the day and I’ve learnt to not introduce new things or do anything that requires an additional energy boost on a Wednesday or Thursday!

My 5 top tips to enabling healthy habits:

  1. recognise and accept who you are and how you behave. Work with it, not against it.
  2. focus on the behavioural goal first, before you become too attached to the outcome
  3. break the change down into tiny steps – ideally something that takes 5 mins or less
  4. anchor the new habit to something you already do, habitually
  5. repeat repeat repeat!

The more engrained the new habit becomes, the more motivated you will become to do more. New habits often start to replace old habits without any conscious thought… although I’m still struggling with the old habit of reaching for the biscuit tin at 11am with my morning coffee! Perhaps I’ll switch it to a banana instead… starting Monday 😊

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