How to make and keep habits
The other day I read a chapter of the book The Social Construction of Reality, a noted work on the sociology of knowledge by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The chapter I read, “Society as Objective Reality”, discussed what might happen if two completely different people met on a deserted island – for example, the castaway Robinson Crusoe and the Carib man he called Friday from Daniel Defoe’s famous novel Robinson Crusoe. Berger and Luckmann indicated that, at first, the two men would be very wary of each other, and much of their attention and focus would be taken up with trying to figure out what threats exist due to the other’s existence. Gradually, however, over time, the two men would start to discover and understand the other man’s habits. One man might prepare meat the same way every day at around the same time of day, and the other man would eventually start to recognize this habit as a non-threatening, productive activity, and even join in to help out. Eventually, even without a shared spoken language, the days of these men would be filled with comfortable daily habits that would allow their minds to relax and focus on other things.
Among other things, this reading stressed the importance of habits in human life. Without habits that we can rely on day after day, even simple tasks like making lunch or getting ready for bed would seem confusing or even life-threatening. With a little bit of initial effort, however, we can form useful habits that, after being formed, can enrich our lives and help us to dedicate our mental energies on matters more pressing than simple daily living.
Incorporating good habits into our daily lives
I’ve always been interested in good health and proper nutrition, so over time I’ve experimented with different changes in my diet and exercise regimen, including vegan, vegetarian, paleo, and gluten free diets. What I discovered from trying those diets is not the focus of this post, though I’d be glad to discuss health and nutrition with anyone who is interested. The focus of this post is how I incorporated those changes into my life over time.
I found that making an initial change is difficult. Take adopting a gluten-free diet, for example. If you’re going to cut gluten out of your diet – this includes items like wheat bread, pasta, noodles, pastries and much more – you may initially find it very hard to do. Your body is expecting gluten, because you’ve been eating it every day in your sandwiches, cookies, crackers, cakes, and breakfast cereal. It’s such a huge part of your life that the thought of cutting it out may seem preposterous. How could one possibly live without eating any of those things? Surely you’d starve!
Those initial few days are hard. You have to work to seek out substitutes for the things you’d usually eat, and discover new dishes to prepare that don’t contain gluten. You need to step out of your comfort zone to try new dishes – plant-based dishes like fruit and vegetable medleys, for example – that may not be what you’re used to. At first you might not like the taste of these dishes, for several reasons – for one, your body is not used to eating them, and for another, you’ve never cooked them before, so you may not yet be very good at it!
But after a few days, your body starts to change. The habit of not eating gluten becomes your reality. You find that you’ve become adept at creating gluten-free dishes, and your body comes to expect gluten-free nutrition every day. After a while, the thought of eating gluten is the thought that seems strange to you. Would your body be able to digest the gluten? Wouldn’t eating that big hunk of bread or piece of cake make you feel bloated or stuffed?
And there are many other changes that you can make to your lifestyle that will seem difficult at first, but will quickly become habits. Exercise is one. If you’ve been sitting on the couch every evening for the past several months watching TV, your body is not going to want to get up and go running around the block a few times. The thought seems alien to the sedentary lifestyle that your body has become accustomed to. But if you start going running every day at, say, 4:00 PM, after a little while, when 3:45 PM starts rolling around, your body is going to be in the mood to go and get some exercise. In fact, if you don’t go running, that’s when your body will start to feel strange.
Changing your habits to be more productive at work
If you’re working as a professional, there are many ways that you can incorporate daily habits into your working life. If you find that you often don’t arrive to work on time, or feel groggy and unfocused when you do arrive at the office, you can make a habit out of waking up early or eating something lighter and more nutritious for breakfast every day. If you find that you are unorganized, you can make a habit of taking 15 minutes each morning to take stock of your day and figure out what tasks you need to accomplish and when they should be done by. If you feel you’re not productive enough, you can make a habit of not checking your email for stretches of an hour or two each morning and afternoon, or of not checking Facebook or Twitter until lunchtime. You can also unbreak bad habits… if you are in the habit of checking Facebook every 10 or 15 minutes, it will be hard for you to get any work done throughout the day, as your mind and body will continually want to switch into “play mode” after only a few minutes of work.
Making habits to achieve personal goals
Creating effective habits is also a great way to achieve your dreams. For example, if you’re a project manager who is interested in getting PMP certified (a frequently discussed topic on this blog), creating habits around a study schedule is a terrific way to get there. When you first look at all of the steps needed to become a PMP certified project manager – gathering work experience, applying to take the examination, and then studying and mastering PMI’s project management framework – it can be rather daunting. But if you make a habit of spending half an hour every day preparing for the exam, after a few weeks have passed, you’ll be well on your way. If you study for only half an hour a day, after two months you will have studied for 30 hours! After half a year – 90 full hours of study! With this sort of preparation you’ll be well set to sit for the examination.
There are lots of other personal goals you can accomplish by applying daily habits. Writing a book, learning a computer programming language, mastering a musical instrument, trying out new recipes, volunteering to help others, or understanding more about your spirituality and self are some examples that come immediately to mind. If there’s something that interests you, sit down and figure out how and when you can incorporate it into your daily routine. When that time rolls around every day, ignore your body’s desire to do what you’ve always done instead. Force yourself to create the habit, and eventually it will become a comfortable part of your lifestyle.
Sticking to the habit
Remember that making habits is going to be frustrating for the first few days or weeks. Your mind might want to make a change, eager to get and stay healthy or to achieve personal or professional goals, but your body is perfectly happy doing what it’s been doing comfortably for the past several months, years, or even decades. In order to change your “body’s mind” you’re going to have to work hard, and it’s going to be very frustrating and seem unnatural at first. Just stick with it, and eventually those habits will become second nature. When that happens, it will be easy to stay on the path toward a better you.
I hope that you’ve found this post at least somewhat informative! If you have any habits that you’ve adopted that you’d like to share with me, I’d be pleased to hear about them. Good luck!