Why Habits are Important
Habits can be our best friends or our worst enemies.
Habits turn our our brains on auto pilot for repetitive tasks like brushing our teeth, so we can free up mental RAM for more important things.
Yet it’s this same tendency to go onto autopilot that gets us into trouble when we develop bad habits, like eating poorly, working inefficiently, or not making time to exercise or see our friends.
The more I learn about habits—through books like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit—the more I realize that if you’re not actively cultivating and tending your habits, you’re asking for trouble.
The Anatomy of a Habit
When thinking about developing new habits, it’s important to first recognize the existing habits you have in place.
According to Duhigg, the typical habit consists of 3 parts: (1) a cue, (2) the routine, and (3) the reward.
And once that “habit loop” is established, the brain automatically associates the reward with the cue. It even starts to experience the reward—on a neurochemical level—before the routine has started.
Remember Pavlov’s dogs? The cue was a bell and the reward was food. But after getting food every time the bell rang, they started to salivate just by hearing the bell.
That’s when a habit is born.
“Hacking” Your Habits
Duhigg says it’s rarely possible to get rid of a habit loop once it’s developed. But you can “hack it”.
Your best bet for change is to take the existing cue, swap in a different routine…and then to add in a similar reward.
So for example: if you’re in the habit of eating junk food to feel better when you’re stressed, you could take that same cue (stress), and swap in a healthier routine like taking a walk or jog, and then get a similar reward with the rush of endorphins. Not easy to implement, but definitely a way to “hack” that habit loop.
Ok, so now that you know a little more about habits, you might be wondering: which habits should I be developing (or hacking)?
Here are 11 positive habits that you can help you have a brighter, healthier, happier and more productive new year:
11 Positive Habits You Can Cultivate
First, there’s the obvious ones you’ve heard before:
1. Regular Exercise, Healthy Eating, and Getting Enough Sleep – You know these already, so I’ll just count these 3 as 1 (hey, I’m not greedy). But if you don’t already feel good about these 3 things, you may want to give them some attention. They are so fundamental and affect so many other areas of your life.
And then there’s some less obvious habits:
2. Establishing a Morning Routine – There’s a ton of research and anecdotal evidence from successful people that shows that a regular morning routine helps create a calm, focused mind, and greater productivity for your entire day.
3. Practicing Gratitude – It’s easy to forget all that we have. But if you spend any time in a 2nd- or 3rd-world country, you see why, just from a sheer comfort perspective, we are so blessed. And while it may sound silly, the process of being thankful can actually be tremendously beneficial and boost your happiness.
4. Cutting Yourself Some Slack – One of the terrible habits many of us have is consistently dishing out bad “self-talk.” That inner voice that beats you up every time you make a stupid little mistake. You didn’t just make a wrong turn in your car, you’re a complete idiot-loser, etc. While it’s critical to hold yourself to high standards, there’s no benefit to beating yourself up when you make a mistake. Everybody messes up. And you have the choice of how to react. As Shakespeare said, “…there is nothing either good either or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Why not give yourself a pep talk instead of beat yourself down? That mistake that happened isn’t you, it’s just something that happened.
5. Taking Regular Breaks – Studies have shown that taking regular breaks can boost your productivity, make you more resilient and happier overall. Yet some people are still afraid to take 9 minutes to go outside and smell the fresh air. I’ve been guilty of this, and it’s a habit loop I’m going to continue to try and hack in the new year.
6. Planning (Real, Non-Family Related) Vacations – You know that break thing we were just talking about? This is the same thing…just a little bit more “travely.” And with (hopefully) less family drama to deal with.
7. Scheduling Time With Friends – When we were younger, we just rode our bike down the street to see our friends, or just walked across the dorm hall. As we got older and responsibility descended on us, life got more complicated. Now we actually have to make plans to see each other. But when we do, it is so vital to our well being.
8. Putting Your Shit Away…Sustainably – There’s an old saying: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” I’ve always known about it, but hadn’t given it much thought until Art of Manliness did a great article on manly aphorisms. Suddenly it made so much sense. It’s that first part (“a place for everything”) that’s important. Look around your house and find the items of clutter that never seem to get put away. Maybe it’s because they don’t have a place they SHOULD go. They don’t have a home. You’d be surprised at how much easier it is to put something away when it has a place it’s supposed to go. (I know, mind BLOWN…).
9. Developing Your Curiosity – As we get older, it’s easy to get stuck in our own little worlds, reading the same websites and books, watching the same shows or movies, hanging out with the same people. But it’s vitally important for our brains to keep getting new input and to be stretched in different ways. Developing the habit of curiosity helps ensure we continue to learn new, and stimulating things, keeping our brains healthy and happy.
10. Automating Your Savings – The beautiful thing is, this is a habit on steroids, because you can use technology to help ensure that your “routine” is implemented regularly without fail. If you’re not disciplined enough to save regularly, establish an automated transfer that happens every time you get paid. You can start with as little as $50 a paycheck. If you never see that money, you’ll never spend it. Meanwhile, it will be piling up in your savings account, and before long you’ll be able to buy a yacht. Ok, maybe not a yacht, but something else useful…
11. Taking Small Risks…and Learning from Them – One of the best books I read in the past few years (besides The Power of Habit) was Little Bets, by Peter Sims. The central idea is that you can use low-risk “bets” to learn and refine your approach to pretty much anything you do. Sims talks about successful people who’ve used this approach—from Chris Rock trying out jokes in small clubs before a big tour, to architect Frank Gehry building skyscraper models out of cardboard. Sims even made his own “little bet” when pitching this book: before starting the manuscript, he used the typical 3-page synopsis letter he sent to publishers to first get feedback, then continue to refine the book idea and his pitch. The beauty is that if you don’t know how to proceed, these “little bets” help you take forward action with very little risk, all the while helping you figure out the right path.
Wrapping it Up and Looking Ahead
So hopefully that gives you a few ideas of new habits you can develop (or hack) in the new year.
If you’re just starting these habits anew, the best thing BY FAR is to start small. Don’t try to do 5 of these things at once. Focus on 1 at first, maybe 2 if you’re extremely disciplined.
And even then, don’t shock your system by trying to do too much. The key to making these changes part of your life is making them SUSTAINABLE. To do that you’ve got to start small, give yourself positive feedback as you go, and gradually build up to where the activity truly becomes a habit.
I’ve got a really good feeling about this year. Who’s with me?
Let me know what habits you’ll be working on in the new year. Leave a comment below!
Note: the links to the books above are Amazon affiliate links, so I do get a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you end up buying them. Frankly I recommend the heck out of these books even if I don’t make any money. But it doesn’t hurt to have a few extra bucks to keep the servers (and the coffee) on.