In “ADD-Friendly ways to Organize Your Life”, the authors identify 10 steps to developing a new habit. The current blog entry will explore these steps considering various commonly desired habits.
STEP 1: Tie a New Habit to an Old One
Consider daily habits that you usually practice. You might think of activities like brushing your teeth, drinking coffee, checking email, eating meals, etc. Now consider the habit you are trying to develop.
Might it correspond with an already existing habit? When trying to develop the habit of flossing, I tried tying it to teeth-brushing. Despite the natural link between the two activities, teeth-brushing did not work. Then I tried flossing in the shower. For a number of reasons, tying flossing to showering actually started to work!
To illustrate this step using habits associated with mental health, I will address some of the other behaviors mentioned above. Consider medication compliance. A person could link taking medication with
eating dinner. With exercise, some people generally tie “going to the gym” to leaving work. In order to maintain a schedule, it often helps to develop the habit out of consulting a calendar. Such calendar-consulting can occur when drinking your morning coffee or as part of your “getting-settled-into-work" routine. Many people tie a meditation practice to their morning routines so that the habit becomes linked to a number of pre-existing morning rituals.
STEP 2: Make the Habit as Easy as Possible
This step is part of what I usually call “do what works for you.” A lot of therapy involves finding methods of helping others attain their goals in ways that work for their personalities, lifestyles, and resources. Regarding my new flossing habit, I found flossing in the shower easier than flossing when brushing my teeth. In the shower, I do not have a
toddler wanting to be held and the mess of flossing is more easily washed away.
Many people take medication with meals because everyone has to eat and we often eat at the same times every day. If you are one of those people, however, that eat on the run a lot and forget medication at home, it would be easier to tie medication compliance with a home-based habit. In another example, people often go the gym after work because it prevents them from settling in at home and then deciding to forego their workout. Having athletic gear already in the car also makes the new exercise habit much easier to pursue.
These steps sound similar and relate nicely, so I combined them. Reminders to perform the new behavior can take several forms. My
three favorite include sticky notes, alarms, and items needed to perform the tasks. With flossing, the most effective reminder has been simple: the dental floss is in my shower. One of the helpful features on smart phones is the alarm. Medication compliance, calendar-consulting, and meditation often respond well to alarms and/or sticky notes. Always having a gym-bag or calendar on your person can make such newly-developing habits difficult to ignore. Furthermore, a daily alarm that sounds at 7:30am to “consult your calendar” would likely lead to a temporary break, allowing you to briefly review your schedule for the day. For analogue folks, sticky notes placed in visible locations can be very helpful as well.
STEP 5: Visualize Yourself Doing the New Behavior
When visualizing yourself engaging in the new habit, start with the steps leading up to the behavior, be very detailed, and end with the steps you take once your complete the activity. You can even visualize your new life as a result of this new behavior. With flossing, I like to incorporate the image of a cavity-free dentist appointment.
Visualization can sometimes be complicated and require some creativity. A woman trying to building daily exercise into her post-work routine might have to visualize the following:
“When I get home from work, I pack a gym bag with that cute workout outfit I got the other day. That will make me want to wear it. I put it in the car that night so that I don’t forget it in the morning since mornings are so hectic. At the end of my workday, I lock up. I look at the sticky note on my desk that says “GYM” and then the photo of myself when running the Boston marathon 10 years ago. I take a deep breath, get in my car, and drive straight to the gym. I grab the bag. I walk into the gym, head straight to the locker room, put on my outfit, look in the mirror, and remind myself that it feels good to be in
Many people fail to initiate new behaviors because they cannot picture themselves engaging in them. Visualization is a very effective technique used in sports psychology as well as in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and many other psychological issues.
STEP 6: Practice “Instant Corrections”
An instant correction occurs when you notice that you have failed to enact the new behavior and then immediately do what you can to
correct this failure. For instance, if I notice that I forgot to floss in the
shower, I immediately go into the bathroom and floss. Instant corrections are fantastic for anyone who tends toward statements like “I didn’t do it today. I guess today is ruined. I’ll start over tomorrow.” NO! Instantly correct yourself! If you did not go to the gym immediately after work, do a 10-minute workout at home or go for a walk. If you did not consult your calendar in the morning, do it now no matter the time.
We have all heard people utter sayings like “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” or “it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up” or “fall seven times, stand up eight” and, of course, “if you fall off the horse get back on.” Failing to stick to your new habit is not a signal to throw in the towel. In fact, not doing the new behavior is not even a failure, it is a hiccup, mistake, slip-up, lapse, etc. Imagine a life where every time you did something incorrectly you quit that
activity. Have I forgotten to floss since beginning my new habit? You bet! Do I just throw the floss out and say “forget it, Teeth, you’re just going to get the brush for now on”? Absolutely not! Remember that “habits take time; forgetting is not failure. It is part of developing a habit (Kolberg & Nadeau, p. 22).
When trying to engage in the new behavior it can be helpful to expect 80% success. Such an expectation allows for flexibility and moves you away from the unrealistic prospect of perfection. Furthermore, you
learn how to overcome obstacles rather than feel defeated by failure. If you didn’t meditate this morning, then meditate tonight or just reset tomorrow. After all, meditating 5 days out of the week is better than not meditating at all. Medication compliance can be a bit trickier; if you skip a dose call your doctor immediately and determine the best course of action.
STEP 8: Problem-Solve if it’s Not Working
After a few slip-ups it may be good to look at your approach and determine whether it might be appropriate to adopt a new one. When
trying to floss as part of my teeth-brushing routine, I noticed a rarely actually flossed. Certain problems arose. For example, my son usually wanted to be held, play with trash, or examine our very
interesting toilet. Often, the floss was nowhere to be found. At other times, I was not in the mood to deal with floss-related mess (i.e., saliva, food, etc.) getting on my face. For some people, such “problems” would not deter them, but I found it very difficult to floss under these conditions. Clearly, flossing after brushing was not working. When in the shower, however, my son is elsewhere, the floss is already there, and the water washes away floss-related mess. Consequently, the shower became the solution.
A common problem people face when trying to establish a regular exercise routine after work arises when they go home to pick up their workout clothing. The person usually walks in the door and suddenly realizes,“I am so tired...in fact, I'm too tired to work out." Another reaction to entering the home involves getting caught up in
home-related activities. For example, mail needs to be read; garbage needs to be taken out, family members need things, etc. Before you know it, little time is left for the workout. Leaving a gym-bag in the car is a great alternative!
STEP 9: Practice the Habit for at Least 30 Days in a Row
Develop a plan based on the aforementioned tips, pick a start date, and get to it. It can also be helpful to identify exactly what date is 30 days away so that you can see the finish line. Furthermore, it usually helps to not pick a start date too far in the future.
STEP 10: Reward Yourself
At the onset of starting the plan to bring this new habit into your life, choose a way you will reward yourself at the end of the 30 days. The reward does not have to be contingent on you engaging in the new habit every day. You can simply reward yourself for putting forth your best effort or maybe choose a reasonable percentage (remember the 80% rule!) for which you can reward yourself. For example, you can reward yourself with a dinner at a nice restaurant if you go to the gym 24 of the 30-day period. Rewards must in fact be rewarding and cannot be something you have regularly.
What will be your new habit?
These ten steps are courtesy of “ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize your Life” by Judith Kolberg & Kathleen Nadeau