Establishing a habit

Habits are actions that we repeatedly do, like brushing teeth, driving a car, or getting dressed. When you watch a toddler learning to get dressed, it makes you realize some advantages of mindless performance rather than thinking about the steps that go into choosing an outfit or putting on a shirt. Life without habits would be much more complicated.

Three steps go into forming a habit:

  • Reminder (a trigger or cue)
  • Routine (the action)
  • Reward (benefit gained, either from the behavior or one that encourages you to act)


One habit that I’m committed to forming is completing NUTs (nagging unfinished tasks). I keep a running list of tasks in the back of my journal to choose from, depending on weather and inclination. I don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes daily on these projects. Small steps over time will get the jobs done and list whittled. I’ve established a reminder by placing the tools, hardware and my work gloves where I will see them.  Having a job finished, while intrinsically rewarding, is not compelling enough, or I wouldn’t have a list of unfinished NUTs. For motivation, I’ve pinned completion to a more immediate reward. Before I can relax with a cup of tea, I must complete the day’s task, which is a bit like bribing myself. The penalty for non-completion is failing to honor the commitment I’ve made to myself—a matter of character.

Some hints for creating new habits:

  • Plan to work on just one thing at a time. Don’t dilute your efforts with changing/starting/stopping multiple habits.
  • Piggyback a desired new habit on something you routinely do. (e.g. combine with your commute driving with a new habit of praying—which may not be a bad idea anyway given mean streets and outrageous driving)
  • Use an analog calendar and mark an X to signify goal completion. Jerry Seinfeld gets credit for this technique. “Don’t break the chain.”
  • Use your online calendar’s feature to set up text or email alerts for events, bills, or a reminder on a new habit
  • Find an accountability partner to cheer your successes and support your difficulties. 12 step program sponsors act in this capacity by providing guidance and encouragement.
  • Use a fitness device for counting steps or tracking workouts. Weighing yourself regularly on a bathroom scale helps monitor weight and encourage workouts and healthy eating.
  • Setup if / then propositions — e.g. if I go for an after-dinner walk, then I can have dessert.
  • Set a timer for a certain amount of time—e.g. 10 minutes of focused writing or for stretching.

Only you can decide if you are truly committed to a particular goal. If so, break big goals into manageable steps. Make a task small enough to get a quick win. Go for low hanging fruit by doing easy first. The ball’s in your court.

© Joan S Grey, 16 Feb 2018

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