“When we change our habits, we change our lives.” —Gretchen Rubin
Do you ever find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator at the end of a long day searching for inspiration for what to cook for dinner? Despite there being plenty of options to choose from, you can’t actually decide what to prepare. After several minutes of staring, you begin to feel mentally paralyzed—incapable of making a decision despite the plethora of food combinations available right in front of you.
This scenario, and others just like it, has played out just like this many times over in my house. It has only been in the last year or so—as I’ve started studying the power and science behind habit and productivity—that I’ve come to understand the reason for this state of mental paralysis.
Decision fatigue is a major contributing factor to a lack of mental energy and stamina. I believe that low mental energy and stamina has a significant impact on overall wellness. When energy stores are low, we often don’t make the best decisions or have trouble making decisions at all. We have a hard time finding the energy to tackle the daily tasks on our to-do list—not necessarily the “must do” things (like feed the children) but the things that would, if we did them, move us closer to the goals we’ve set for ourselves (think taking the time to do some food prep for the next day). Our relationships suffer because we don’t take the time to invest in them. A true sense of happiness, joy, and contentment is hard to come by when our lives are not in order. And it’s hard to keep our lives in order when we are constantly mentally drained.
This is where habits can come in to save the day—if we choose to harness their true power. Habits are things that we do over and over again without much thought or effort. Once an action or set of actions becomes a habit—like a morning coffee routine—we perform them in an automatic fashion. It’s almost as if our minds are on autopilot. This is the power of habit. They help us to avoid having to dip into our energy and willpower reserves for every single thing we do within a given day. Every decision we have to make—from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed—depletes us of a portion of our energy allotment for the day. Willpower and mental stamina are not unlimited resources; the more we automate things by creating habits, the better we can hold on to this precious resource for other higher-order things, like preparing for that major interview coming up or completing the huge project due next week.
…It’s hard to keep our lives in order when we are constantly mentally drained.
Need more convincing about how impactful habits can be? According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, about 40% of what we do each day we do every day. Since so much of our day is spent doing the same things, the habits we chose to employ—be they good, bad, or neutral—can have a major effect on our lives. As Gretchen Rubin states in her best-selling book Better Than Before, habits are the “invisible architecture of daily life.” By focusing on and changing our habits, we can literally change our lives.
Based on all of this, it stands to reason that habits affect our mental health and wellness too.
The key, then, is to choose wisely when it comes to which habits to implement. It’s also important to understand how to stick to these habits.
Forming a New Habit
All habits, at their core, work the same and involve three components—the cue, the routine, and the reward. The key to forming a new habit is to understand how these things exist within the framework of the habit you are trying to form. As an example, take the habit of drinking 16 ounces of water first thing every morning. The cue might be seeing a full glass of water on your bathroom counter in the morning (yes, this will require a separate habit of putting said glass of water on the counter the night before). The routine is to drink that glass of water as soon as you see it on the counter and the reward might be the satisfaction you receive from getting off to a good start with drinking the recommended 64 ounces of water for the day. Another reward could be the refreshed feeling you have as the water works to get your internal systems going.
Now that you’ve established the cue, the routine, and the reward for this habit, the biggest key to success in forming this habit will be the habit strategies that you implement along with it. I always suggest tracking your progress, as most people do a better job of managing the things that they are actually measuring versus not. Create a handwritten chart in your planner or download a habit app (I like Habit List) and simply note when you’ve accomplished a given habit. Not only will this provide you with a consistent reminder about what you are trying to accomplish, but as you stack up consecutive days of having checked this item off of your habit list, that success will motivate you to keep it going.
Another strategy is to make it as convenient as possible to achieve the habit. This is where placing the glass of water on the bathroom counter the night before comes in handy, as it is hard to have an excuse not to drink the water when it is sitting there right in front of you.
A few other things to consider regarding forming better habits:
- Do your research! Two books that I recommend reading are Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
- Take care of the basics first by focusing on habits that contribute to the foundations of your life, such as rest, exercise, diet, and your physical environment.
- What works for others may not necessarily work for you. Develop your own set of strategies to stick to your habits based on your unique personality and tendencies. For example, if you’re not a morning person, trying to develop a habit of working out at 6 a.m. every day may not be the best approach for you.
- Recognize that developing new habits is hard work, but it is doable. Enjoy the journey—the goal isn’t perfection!