Embracing Real Habits (to free up your mind)

There’s a ton of positive energy surrounding the beginning of January – a new start, a clean slate, a chance to take on projects that we’d been putting off during the previous calendar year. We’re now halfway through that month, and it can be around this time that our enthusiasm about our New Years goals and resolutions has started to wane a bit. “Resistance” is showing up, and it’s getting harder and harder to push on. 

There’s research indicating that our willpower is finite, or at least requires training, and I think most of us have experienced this anecdotally. Going cold-turkey on chocolate is fine for the first week, but when you’re offered a candy bar for the fifth time after a long day at work, it takes a whole lot more to withstand the urge to gobble it up.

This concept is called “decision fatigue,” and it’s best illustrated by an oft-cited 2011 study by Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso:

The authors collected 1,112 judicial rulings (made over an 10-month period by 8 different judges) and analyzed the results. These judges were overseeing parole boards, and were primarily tasked with approving or denying parole requests. The researchers noticed a very particular trend in their decision-making, one that seems to undermine the idea of an impartial justice system: the judges were significantly more likely to rule in favor of granting parole at the beginning of their day or directly after a snack or lunch break. In fact, rulings in the parolees favor went from 65% to virtually 0% by the end of the session! The conclusion? Making decisions creates its own type of fatigue, that can be remedied like any other type of fatigue (with rest and nutrition).

Dealing with decision-fatigue

In my view, the takeaway is this: make as few decisions as possible. But how do we do that while still achieving our goals that likely require we make hard choices? BUILD HABITS.

Habits are special because when something is TRULY habitual, it requires no conscious thought or effort. For most of us, brushing our teeth in the morning is a habit, and a good one. Your daily drive to work that you no longer even think about? Habit. But when there’s suddenly traffic on your normally quick commute? Stressor, something you need to think about, something that requires real brainpower.

Whole books have been written on habit change, and last year I read a bunch of them. The best was James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and I recommend you read it right now if you haven’t! He breaks down the process of creating a habit (and breaking old ones) into four straightforward laws:

The Four Laws of Habit Change

In other words, if you want to start a new habit, make it easy on yourself to actually do it. If you want to break a habit, make it as difficult as possible to actually do that behavior. I used this process last January to (temporarily, for health reasons) give up coffee, my lifeblood. To do it, I removed ALL coffee-related products from eyesight – drip coffee maker in the closer, French press stored away, gave all my good coffee beans to friends. I decided to replace my coffee habit with an herbal tea habit, so I made a nice little tea station right next to my kitchen and bought a new stovetop kettle. I made it as EASY as possible to drink tea and as HARD as possible to drink coffee. 

It worked! I was coffee-free for three weeks, right until my doctor said it was fine to drink it. Then I got a cappuccino and all was well.

In lieu of just regurgitating the book, I’m going to focus a series of posts on how I’m building some new habits this year, using both this basic template and some other tips from the book. 

First up, daily yoga.

My new focus on bodybuilding and high-frequency training has left me feeling pretty stiff and sore every morning. As someone who loves working out, this isn’t entirely unwelcome, but I recognize that I should be doing what I can to recover quickly so I can do more work in the gym. My answer to that has been daily yoga.

I’ve tried developing an at-home yoga practice for years and it never stuck. I love going to class and could probably turn that into a habit very quickly, but I’m opting to save a little money by practicing at home.

Following along with the four laws of habit change above, the first thing I did was make my yoga mat really visible. It sits right on a chair in my living room, and I stare at it when I sit on my couch. When my alarm goes off in the morning, I go through my normal hygiene routine, then automatically get a French press brewing, and once the water’s hot, that’s my cue to get out my mat. To make it a little more enjoyable, I light some candles, maybe put on some relaxing music, do the whole thing. 

Most importantly, I practice for no more than 10 minutes most days. I do EXACTLY what I feel like doing: as long as it’s on the mat, I’m accomplishing what I set out to do. And as soon as I’m done, my coffee is ready and waiting. There is no greater reward than coffee at 7:30am. None.

I’ve been at this successfully since the Jan 1. It’s still not a habit –  I have to think about it, remind myself that I’m doing it, write it down in my little journal and check it off (a reward on its own). Maybe this time in… March it’ll be ingrained. We’ll see!

Quick takeaways:

  1. Shoot for acquiring real, unconscious habits in order to free up your brain space for the important decisions you need to make every day.
  2. To do that, make new habits easier to keep up with by making some part of it very visible in your life (like setting up your yoga mat in a highly traffic part of your home).
  3. Start with the bare minimum – the goal is to create an unconscious action, and that is much easier when you’re looking to do something that takes 5 minutes vs 50 minutes.

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