Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

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