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How creating small habits leads to big rewards

"All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits" - William James

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creating small habits
creating small habits

Spending more time at home has become an unexpected new normal for many of us across the world. This unending expanse of ‘free time’ can feel both daunting and saddening, but has also opened up opportunities to spend more time exploring interests or ideas we were unable to spend much time on before. 

According to The Express, “Britons love their home “more than ever” – after spending an extra eight hours a day in it during recent months.” As a result, people in the UK are spending more money making their homes feel cosy buying furniture and baking ( the UK had flour and yeast shortages during the height of the pandemic). But how do we make the most of our time at home? How do we ensure that we are still productive, motivated and looking after our physical and mental health? An answer to this is to establish habits.

Habits shape your life far more than you probably realise. According to ‘The Power of Habit’ author Charles Duhigg, habits are an important force that our brains cling to because they create neurological cravings where specific behaviour is rewarded by releasing “pleasure” chemicals in the brain. For you, this might be baking every Sunday, listening to a daily podcast, of exercising at a particular time of day. For many people, this habit also brings a sense of routine and pattern to their day, helping create structure and milestones. 

Habits allow us to live without being conscious of our every action. If we didn’t form habits, we’d find it very hard to get much more done during the day. Each time we do something for the first time, our brains are fully engaged. This is very tiring and draining, so creating habits is a great way of preserving energy. 

Creating good habits creates a reward cycle that makes the habit stick in your mind, becoming routine, and then becoming automatic. Take a look at this habit loop

  1. Cue/trigger: A location, a time of day, certain people, an emotional state,
  2. Routine: Watching TV, smoking a cigarette, eating chocolate, biting your nails
  3. Reward: The pleasure chemicals released in the brain because of the routine.

When starting a new habit, it is essential to start small and to be realistic and bout what you can fit easily into your life and what is going to give you joy. You can even start with a mini habit to ensure success. What’s important is not how much you do it, but how consistently you do it (Life Optimzer).

An example starter habit might be 10 minutes of yoga three times per week, and an established habit might be 30 minutes of yoga every day.

During the UK lockdowns, I took the opportunity to create new habits. The idea of working and living from my small flat felt quite daunting, and I wanted to create easy routines which would create structure, keep my mind from being bored, and give me new skills or knowledge. I started learning French, do pilates four times per week and go running three times per week. These activities have now become habits for me.

I look forward to doing them and have time allocated in my diary to make sure I have time and energy to do these amongst other daily activities. These habits have given me a great sense of achievement whilst being attainable. 

So how did you start creating new habits?

Step 1: Create a list of all the things you enjoy doing which you could do from your home or outside for exercise. Try to create a list of potential habits which will make a positive difference in your life, and you will enjoy.

Step 2: Categorise your list by putting them into buckets such as cooking, art, sport, reading, courses.

Step 3: Within each bucket, number each item in order of importance starting at number 1 (being the most important). This will help you get a global view of your interested habits and not feel overwhelmed or stressed by one very long list.

Step 4: Take the top three items from each bucket and think about how you might plan these in your average week, e.g. will you go running twice a week in the morning before work, listen to a new podcast series during a work break every day, or you will cook a fresh meal from scratch every Sunday. Do not try an implement every habit on your list! 

Step 5: Once you have planned your small habits, spend the next couple of weeks implementing them and seeing if they are the right fit for you. Do not feel discouraged if a habit is not sticking for you. Remember your time and resources are not limitless. It might mean that it is not the right habit for you at this time in your life. Instead, move onto the next habit in your bucket. Keeping track by keeping a tally chart of your habits is a useful way to see if a habit is ‘sticking’.

Step 6: Keeping motivated with your habits is key to success. Remember to reward yourself for your achievements. These can be small things such as the delight you might feel when ticking a habit off the list, or you’ve created a piece of art, or completed a course, or listened to a whole podcast series. 

Step 7: After you have built some successful habits, what can you do to keep going? By doing more of a habit or making a new habit related to it. For example, if you were going running 20 minutes 3 times a week, you could increase this to 4 times per week, or run for 30 minutes to increase the challenge. Or you could add a new habit such as learning a language. But be careful not to burn yourself out, you are not in a competition. 

The important thing with building new habits is to be intentional in creating them. Build a system. Make it a priority. And you will develop your effectiveness, develop routines for your day, and learn new skills, leading to big developmental rewards for your health and happiness. 

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