How to form a habit: a practical approach

2013-12-04 21.30.15By March our new years resolutions are usually either firmly in place or have fallen by the way side. Why do some habits stick and others don’t? In my experience the key has been to identify and specify the motivating factor behind the desire to create the habit and to “automate” the small decisions which hinder or block me from taking the action.

I began a regular asana yoga practice around two years ago during a time when I was very unhappy at work. Unlike many of my failed attempts to form new habits, this habit formation was almost instant and thinking about it now I recognise that I unconsciously set myself up to succeed.

Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit identified three factors which are present in an established habit. Firstly there must be a trigger which is the event that starts the habit. Secondly Duhigg identified a routine, in other words the performance of the action or habit itself and finally there will be a reward or benefit of the action.

Applying these principles to my scenario, the routine was the yoga, the trigger was my dissatisfaction at work and the reward was the almost immediate easing of stress after the yoga class. Those rewards over time became greater: body strength, less headaches, a desire to learn about the wider principles of yoga.

Most of us inherently and theoretically understand the process of habit formation. However, this still didn’t quite explain why this habit stuck where others haven’t. What seemed to make the difference was two fold: the motivation behind the desire to form the habit and the practical circumstances surrounding the habit. Importantly my motivation was craving a sense of wellbeing rather than an external motivator (for example my usual diet motivation of loosing weight to fit into my skinny jeans!). Secondly and practically, the routine was easy to follow: the studio was right beside the office and I could fit in a class before or after work. There were showers in the studio and I could leave my yoga mat there. These points may sound minor but on reflection they were vital. For other habits I had tried to form I often found I was having to make multiple decisions each time I tried to take the action. For example if I was attending a class after work and had to pack my toiletries and take my yoga mat to work I might not bother because I didn’t want to carry those items around with me when I met a friend for dinner after class. The practicalities surrounding the routine had to be as simple, easy and adaptable as possible. Effectively I automated the decision making process and therefore removed the barriers to completing the behaviour.

Fast forward to recent my travels and although I was in India (the home of yoga) I didn’t practice for around three months. I had left my job and I was loving seeing the world but I missed the feeling of calm and physical strength the asana practice gave me, so I decided to complete my yoga teacher training in India in November. Upon reflection, getting up at 5:30am to meditate then undertake 2-5 hours of yoga practice every day was not an easy thing to do. While I wouldn’t say I loved every moment, it wasn’t difficult. The reason, of course, was because the activity was my sole focus. The trigger, routine and rewards were clear, there were no barriers to completing the action and I had the added benefit of eight other women all going through the same thing. This was a reminder that a community and its accountability is also incredibly helpful in forming a new habit.

When I arrived in Melbourne I joined a new yoga studio and assumed that developing a regular practice again would be a walk in the park. Yoga had become part of my life in London and practicing in India had been a joy, so it must be embedded? However, here I had a new set of circumstances and it was a reminder that a habit must always be viewed in context. Just because one routine worked in one set of circumstances doesn’t mean it will transfer to another. A new apartment, a new job, a new set of practicalities to work through and I quickly found that I was skipping classes. So I signed up for the studio’s 21 day challenge (3 weeks of yoga 6 days per week). Low and behold it kicked me into really putting in place a set of practical actions and my habit was pretty much back on track.

The psychology behind forming habits is complex. Practically for me I need to really think about how I can minimise the actions which I need to take during that period where my brain is telling me that it’s just too difficult to go to class that day. Once I hit that snooze button the battle is usually lost for the day but if I know that my yoga kit is already out on the chair, that battle with the alarm clock is a little easier.

Vitally, I think the reward or benefit gained must be identifiable. Mentally recalling the reward helped me look back and remember how good I felt. Obviously the more often this good feeling is re-inforced the easier your brain will find it to summon that feeling from the recess of your brain. I’m certain that my habit will continue to be challenged and I will still loose that battle with the snooze button occasionally, but in thinking about why and how I formed that habit in the first place has helped me come back to these key ingredients of successful habit forming for me:

  • Mentally recalling how well I felt when I was regularly practicing yoga and my motivation (wellness as opposed to dress size)
  • Automating the decision by physically making it easy to do the practice (kit ready, studio close by with times that suit)
  • Putting the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that in order to snooze I’d have to get out of bed which is usually enough time to mentally “check in” and figure out if I do need that sleep or if I am just attempting to self-defeat.
  • Contextualising the habit: what works in one set of circumstances might not work in another.
  • A supportive network/ someone to hold me to account.

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