Ugh. I really should exercise today… You think, throwing off the sheets and looking down at yourself self-consciously. It had been days since you’d gotten actual, true physical activity, more than walking back and forth from the fridge to the couch and hopping in the car to drive to work or school, where you spend even more time sitting. Today would be the perfect day to get in a little exercise. Glancing over at the clock, you shrug lazily, feigning a sigh though the only person you had to fool was yourself.
It’s already too late. If I would’ve done it, it would have been earlier in the morning. I have stuff to do… you think, fully aware that the so-called “stuff” was laying on the couch, watching Netflix with a handful of cheesy Doritos that coat your hands in orange dust. You simply can’t bring yourself to do anything because somewhere deep down, your brain says, “Why do something you don’t need to? It’s a waste of energy.”
The clock mocks you as you settle in, unconsciously unlocking your phone without a single thought. Clicking on the red and black Netflix icon, the time whirs by in a blur. At the end of the day, as you lie down to sleep, the things you didn’t do torment you, and they attack your brain ruthlessly until you fall into a restless slumber.
But nevertheless, you wake up the next day and do it all over again. Why? Habit. Breaking these habits can be hard, and forming good ones is, debatably, even harder. But I’m here to help you with five easy tips for integrating new habits into your life and destroying the old ones.
1. Start on Monday
I know, I know. Not the advice you want to hear, necessarily. Mondays are most people’s least favorite day of the week, for obvious reasons. It brings on the end of a fun weekend and welcomes the start of another long week of work or school. Though it may be the worst day for many of us, we also have to look on the bright side.
Mondays, as painful as they may be, are the perfect habit-breaking and habit-forming day. Why? Because they are a fresh start, quite like a mini-version of New Year’s. If you choose to form a new habit like a diet, exercise, or perhaps daily writing or journaling, try starting on Monday. Since it is the beginning of a new week, you will feel psychologically compelled to continue the habit each day for the rest of the week because you, “already did it once, so why not keep it going?”
Or, in the case of breaking a bad one like smoking or alcohol use, not smoking a cigarette or drinking on Monday sets a healthy tone for the rest of the week, making you less likely to give up during the following days.
2. Make a schedule
Though it may seem simple, many habits are formed in our downtime, where we have nothing specific to do. To break bad habits, or form good ones, first try to recognize the times that are problematic- where you are lazy, doing nothing, just generally a bad time for you.
For me, once I get home from school on the bus or once I get back from track, I tend to overeat instead of having a small snack like I should. Most people have trouble in the mornings, where they could spend hours on their phone or lying in bed, dreading the day ahead. Once you’ve identified these specific periods of time where bad habits form, or where good habits should be taking the place of unstructured time, make a schedule!
It’s simplicity is what makes the schedule so wonderful. You simply write down each span of time and what you will be doing in that time, adding in times for things like exercise or language learning, and scheduling out times you would use to smoke, drink, or do other things considered to be a habit to break.
People with schedules are more likely to stay organized and get everything done that they want/need to. Sometimes all you need to inspire change in your life is a simple, handwritten schedule.
3. Do it the same time, same place every day
Studies say that repetition of doing something the same place and time every day can be the key to forming new habits. Somethings are just so ingrained in your brain that you feel like you are on autopilot, a robot mindlessly going through the motions.
Say, brushing your teeth. Do you have to think about how you hold the toothbrush? The motion of the bristles, sliding back and forth? Chances are, you don’t. Why? Because you’ve (hopefully) brushed your teeth the exact same time: the instant you wake up and again, right before bed. It’s just habit, through repetition in the same location.
We can use this same concept to attack the difficult task of forming new habits. If you would like to form a new habit, start on a Monday. Schedule it out, picking a specific time frame in which you want to do this activity. Then, pick a location in your home. After the first few days (or weeks, depending upon the person), you will begin to naturally perform this, building it into a healthy thing you do without cue.
4. Recognize triggers/cues
Pictured above is a classic example of what we call a “habit loop.” This is basically the cycle that can form habits. The cue (also known as the trigger) causes you to do the activity. Routine is the actual action, and the reward is the pleasure you get from doing it. Usually, the reward comes from the brain in the form of dopamine releases.
For example, cigarettes. Your cue can be being in a certain place or at a certain time of day (which is most common).The routine is simply going through the motions, mindlessly lighting it and smoking without any real thought. The reward comes in the form of dopamine, a happiness inducing chemical, being set off in your brain when the nicotine from the cigarette attaches to the nicotine receptors. This pleasurable, dopamine-induced sensation causes an addiction, and it makes smoking a bad habit that becomes incredibly hard to shake.
So, to break a bad habit, whether it is as serious as smoking or as minuscule as biting your nails, it is important to recognize your trigger so that you can effectively put an end to the habit loop.
Perhaps you chew your nails when you are bored in class or at work. That’s the cue. Now that you’ve recognized that, you can put a new routine in place of the old one. Next time that you are bored, recognize the trigger and instead of chewing your nails, do something else like tapping on the desk three times. This can eliminate the old, harmful habit simply by recognizing the cue and replacing the routine, eventually this habit will produce a reward much like the one you got from the bad habit.
As for forming new ones, you can create a new cue for yourself. Perhaps you have a clock that chimes every hour. After you wake up, you can get used to starting your exercise when the clock chimes in the morning. Eventually, you will fall into this habit and it will require almost no thought at all.
5. Habit trackers
Habit trackers don’t need much explanation- it’s in the name! Made popular through bullet journaling, habit trackers are a great way to visualize your progress and keep on track. For more information about bullet journaling, see my post, https://lifeandlemons.net/2019/02/03/how-bullet-journaling-could-organize-your-life-with-examples/
Now that you’ve delved into the world of how habits are formed, how to break them, and how to make new ones, try using these tips in your daily life. You’ll be surprised how much of a difference they will make.
“5 Ways to Increase Dopamine Without Smoking Cigarettes.” Quitter’s Circle, 29 Aug. 2017, http://www.quitterscircle.com/staying-smokefree/5-ways-to-increase-dopamine-without-smoking-cigarettes.