If happiness is the goal, habits are the means. Habits are systems to nurture your mind and body. I cannot will myself to be happy. However, by creating healthy habits, I leverage the subconscious influence of my environment to enhance my wellbeing. Below I break down a couple important considerations that I use when I create a habit.
It takes 66 days to create a full habit on average.
I break down my habits into smaller bite size pieces. 66 days can seem long. If I wanted to start a meditation practice today (everyone should meditate), my first goal is to meditate today. I make habits manageable by decreasing the time frame. The 66-day mark is too far away. I need to meditate today and make sure I meditate tomorrow. Soon I will have meditated for a week. The 66 days becomes 59 days. If I can meditate for a week, then I can meditate for the next week. Adding up a couple weeks together, and I have meditated for a month. I’m halfway through creating a healthy habit. By breaking down my goals, I can establish long term habits.
Habits are best created when started at the beginning of a new experience.
It is called the Fresh Start Effect. When a new week starts, I have the mindset that I am a new person from the last week. The imperfections of my previous habits are erased at the start of a week. The fresh start effect can be applied to weeks, months, and years. We create New Year resolutions and goals for habits after a birthday. Beyond these temporal landmarks, new locations can create fresh start effects as well. When I moved to SF, I engaged in many new behaviors. I’ve been running, meditating, writing, and journaling every day since I moved.
Streaking is a good thing.
Streaking does not have to do with nudity. It means performing a task every day and not breaking the streak. Humans are loss averse, and would rather not lose something than gain a reward. Breaking a streak is a powerful negative motivator that uses loss aversion to strengthen habits. I stopped drinking for 8 months to prepare for the Appalachian Trail. Not drinking was easy. I could justify to myself that I hadn’t drank for months, so I wasn’t going to then. After the trail, I was hesitant to break my non-drinking streak because I knew recreating the streak would be difficult.
My dad has created an excellent habit of running by streaking. He runs every day and has been running every day since July 2014. He started by creating a goal to run every day of July. He expanded that goal to run every day since. Even when it is cold, wet, and gross out, he runs. Even when injured, he runs. His impressive history motivates him to continue.
Sometimes streaking can feel like cheating. I’d like to know I have the mental fortitude to start a habit at will. However, habits are difficult to form. If streaking is the only way to keep a habit, it’s a great tool. I would rather rely on streaking as a method than limit the habits that I create.
Our subconscious would love to sit on a couch, eat fried food, and watch Netflix. If I want to change how I act I must make it super easy. I have to actively work against my subconscious. To start a habit, I must make it insanely easy to perform the action.
I set out my clothes to run the night before so that I don’t look for them in the morning. I put my journal next to my bed so I can easily journal when I go to sleep. If I want to eat healthy, I need to have a fully stocked fridge of healthy items. When I browse for food, the healthy options are immediately apparent. Every small barrier to goal completion reduces the likelihood I complete a task. By identifying and eliminating barriers, I can more easily accomplish my tasks.
I came off the Appalachian Trail thinking I would make a daily habit of running 10 miles a day. For a thru hiker, this didn’t seem absurd. Only an hour and a half a day of exercise paled in comparison to my previous exercise levels. I never created this habit; I couldn’t run for the first month after my trip. My knees hurt too much, and I thought I’d give myself a rest. Running 10 miles a day seems excessive now.
I could try to run 10 miles a day, but creating that habit from scratch is difficult. I might be able to run that much for a couple days in the row, but eventually I would lose motivation. Motivation will ebb and flow, but systems stick. By creating a system where I run at least a mile a day in the morning, I can create healthy habits. Small goals can add up to significant achievements. Setting manageable expectations is important because happiness is the difference between expectations and reality.
I create habits to subconsciously impact my happiness levels.
I rely on starting with small accomplishable goals to create long-term habits.