How To Build Good Habits

how to change your habits‘You’re getting to be a habit with me,’ sang the great Frank Sinatra in a timeless song describing how the lucky recipient of his affections gradually becomes an essential part of his life.

That’s what a habit is — a component of our behaviour and our thinking which is woven in to the fabric of our daily lives, and is so automatic that we hardly ever question its place in our view of ourselves.

Think of habits as a series of practices which can sustain and nurture you in all areas of your life.

Regularly doing things in certain ways will help you to create the home environment that suits you, to develop and maintain good relationships, to flourish at work, to have the kind of social and cultural life that you enjoy.

Identify what you would like to change

One way to do this is to create a general picture of how you would like to be, of what you would like to have going on in your life.

  • It might be a calm, uncluttered home, or a lively and colourful home (or actually just a home would do).

  • You might see yourself getting on better with a difficult friend or family member, or having more regular or a different kind of contact with your pals.

  • You might see yourself coping well with your workload, or making more of an impact at work.

  • Perhaps you’d like to play more sport, get fit, read more, discover art or a different kind of music.

You could keep this picture in your head, or write down key words and phrases. If you like, you could make a montage or a mood board which conveys the essence of your thoughts.

Start with something very small

Choose where you want to begin, and decide on one action which will make a difference. The action can be as small as you like.

If you want to get into the habit of reading, always carry a book or an e-reader or tablet. Don’t worry about when you’ll find time to get to it, etc, just make sure you automatically put it in your bag. That’s a good start.

If you want to develop the habit of prioritising tasks, try starting every day by doing one thing which relates to an important item — yes, even before you check Facebook.

Be consistent

The key to building a successful habit is to do it consistently. Little and often does work.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld developed a consistent writing habit by drawing a red cross on a calendar through every day on which he wrote something. A consecutive run of crosses made a chain which he found he didn’t want to break, so each day he produced something.

If you don’t want to break your chain, do something small, but just do it.

If you forget now and again, it doesn’t matter. That’s just a blip.

Make time and place work for you

Sometimes, the environment and way of life that has evolved around us works to our disadvantage.

  • You want to read, but reading gets pushed to the end of the day, when you are in bed and can hardly keep your eyes open.

  • You keep forgetting to take a vitamin tablet because you keep them in your bedside drawer.

  • You’d like to be the person who sends nice birthday cards but you can never find one when you need it and you haven’t got any stamps.

  • You’d like to keep on top of your personal paperwork, but the room in which the files are kept is the coldest in the house so you put off going in there.

So you could:

  • Schedule a time for reading when you are alert. Five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour — the length of time doesn’t matter, but fix a time and stick to it.

  • Keep your vitamin tablets near the kitchen sink, or near your tea or coffee, so your hand goes to them automatically.

  • Make buying suitable greetings cards part of your regular shopping, so that you always have a stash. Buy a book of stamps and replace it as soon as you use the last one.

  • Move your paperwork to a place which is comfortable to work in.

A habit isn’t a goal

It might be tempting to tick a box and pat yourself on the back when you achieve the change and go for a run, or have a healthy meal, or have got the hang of always putting your keys in the same place. But there should be no need to.

The idea of building sustaining habits is to build a more enjoyable and fulfilling way of life. The new way of behaving should smooth some rough edges, make you feel better, brighten your life. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

Move on

If your new habit doesn’t work for you, find out why. You might need to alter something about the way you do it. But it might just not be the right thing, right now. In that case, choose something else. After all, even the immortal Mr Sinatra had more than one habit in his lifetime.