Habits are seriously powerful things. Bad ones can make you ill (smoking), make you stressed (procrastination), ruin your gut health (junk food) or stop you from achieving things (Candy Crush Saga: The Return of Cupcake Carl).
Good habits, however, can supercharge the positive bits of your life and help unlock your potential. After all, the only way to get really good at something – painting, public speaking, making friends, making bread (we should know) – is to do it on the regular. So how can we break bad habits and build good ones?
Well, first let’s talk about good habits and the brilliant benefits they can have. Everyone has different goals in life, and it’s these goals that determine the habits we should adopt. However, some habits seem to be pretty much universally positive. Here are three simple things that, if done regularly, might just help you release that inner genius.
“Three good things”
A study carried out by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman in 2005 showed that getting into the habit of listing the things we’re grateful for has hugely positive effect on feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Try it. At the end of every day, write down three good things that happened. Then expand on each one by adding a bit of detail about how it came about and how it made you feel. Turn this into a habit and you might find that positive thoughts and feelings come a lot more naturally. (You can read more about this here.)
Give mindfulness a go
Everything we experience in life, we experience though our minds. So it makes sense that looking after our minds, through activities like mindfulness meditation, might be one of the most important habits we can learn. It’s easy for us to get carried away by our thoughts, which can often be negative or self-critical. But setting aside some time for a daily session of mindfulness meditation can help to quiet our minds and give that poor old grey matter a well-earned rest. The easiest mindfulness technique is simply to sit quietly and focus on the breath. Each time you notice that you’re lost in thought, bring your attention back to your breathing. That’s mindfulness meditation in a nutshell. Do it for ten minutes each day and see what happens, or try one of the many excellent meditation apps that are now available. You never know, it could be a game-changer.
How to break a bad habit
Bad habits can be seriously tricky to quit, and that’s because they always serve an important function. It might sound strange to say it, but all bad habits are, on some level, beneficial. Smoking can relieve stress, junk food can provide comfort, binge-watching an entire box set of The Fresh Prince every night can be really, really fun – in the short term.
But in the long term… well, not so much. It’s the power of repetition that makes bad habits so damaging and good habits so valuable. Quitting a bad habit is never easy, but if you can work out what need it is addressing and meet that need in a more positive way – in other words replace the bad habit with a good one – you’ll be far more likely to succeed.
Building good habits
An unflinching look at our bad habits can help us decide what our good habits should be, but habits can be a powerful way for us to achieve our wider ambitions, too. A good way to approach this is to look at your goals for the year and break them down into the things you’ll need to do regularly in order to achieve them. These are the good habits that will, little by little, edge you towards your goals and ambitions. (You can read more about how to set goals (and actually achieve them) here.
Top tips for habits that stick
So you’ve worked out which habits you’re going to take up. Now all you need to do is stick with them until you achieve your goals. Easy right? Well, not always. But there are some simple strategies that can help keep you on the straight and narrow. Here are a few tricks to give you the best chance of making your new habits a permanent fixture in your life.
Let’s be honest, good habits aren’t always super fun in the short term, as anyone who’s dragged themselves out of bed for a run a 5 o’clock on a December morning will attest. This is where rewards come in. Treating yourself for small victories along the way can help keep you feeling jolly about the whole affair, and feeling jolly means staying motivated. Naturally, the rewards you choose need to be a good fit with your overall goals. However, treating yourself to something wholesome from time to time – an exhibition, a trip to the movies, a new book – can work wonders in keeping you feeling good about your habit. And if you stay positive, you’ll be far more likely to stick with it.
Manage your own expectations
It follows that anyone committed to building a new habit will have high hopes of success. Well, rightly so. The thing to bear in mind, though, is that the power is in the repetition (we’ll say that again – the power is in the repetition). The positive effects of any habit take time, so don’t expect overnight miracles. Track your progress to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, sure – but try to be patient. With habits, slow and steady wins the race.
Buddy up with a friend
If you have a friend with a similar goal, why not team up with them? If it’s an activity that you can do together, like cycling or playing a musical instrument, then great. But teaming up with friends can be really useful even for habits that seem more solitary (things that involve lots of writing or reading, for example), as you can share things you’ve learned, egg each other on, and set deadlines that you can take each other to task on.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Building good habits isn’t always easy and it’s likely there’ll be setbacks along the way. The important thing is to acknowledge this fact and plan for failure (failures are stepping stones on the pathway to success, after all!). One useful technique is to think of all the ways you could fail, look at the possible reasons why these may happen, and head them off at the pass. Here’s an example: imagine your goal is to make some new friends; you might decide to join a local book club. But let’s say you see yourself as quite flaky and are worried you won’t commit – you’ll just never make a habit of it. The question to ask yourself would be: “why am I flaky?”. One answer might be: “I always feel tired”. Well, the thing to do then would be to look at ways to boost your energy, whether it’s making some changes to your sleep routine, your exercise regime, or your gut health so that the failure is less likely to actually happen. Whatever your ultimate goal is, hoping for the best and planning for the worst gives you the best possible chance of achieving it.