“You’ll Never Change Your Life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
Now that we’ve already talked about the framework for habit change, and we’ve assessed our own personality, we can use all that information to try to effect change for the better.
In my last post, I wrote about changing a bad habit I have of foraging for some kind of snack in the late afternoons while I sit at my desk. So far, I’m a week in and I have little progress to report. My schedule has been variable and I haven’t been home at my desk in the afternoons, so my alarm would go off (with the dog barking alert) but it didn’t cue me to do anything. I will keep trying!
The good news is that there is good information out there about habit formation. Knowing what to do is half the battle. Unfortunately, the other half is harder. It’s putting our knowledge into action.
In Gretchen Rubin’s book, “Better Than Before”, she outlines four “pillars of habits”, which are four important strategies to help you stay on track. We’ll tackle two of the four here.
The first strategy is called monitoring. This is nothing new, but understanding how it can help you, and what type of people this strategy is useful for, is extremely helpful. Says Rubin, “Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control.” She cites an example of a roadside speed display bringing awareness to people’s driving and causes them to slow down. A widespread example of monitoring is the step tracking bands, which are super popular and cause folks to become more aware of their activity level. And that has a positive side effect of them now want to move more (to achieve their step count goals).
Rubin states that in order for this strategy to work, you must be able to clearly quantify the act you want to monitor. It can’t be broad and unspecific. For example, “See my parents more” sounds good but isn’t as specific and measurable as “Call my mother every Sunday”. Or, the goal to “get in shape and exercise more” can be replaced with “At 10:00 each day, get up and walk around the office twice.” The latter is specific and can be tracked so you can take pride in your progress.
Monitoring is an effective strategy and can help lots of people change their habits. Monitoring has benefits outside of changing habits; you can track a behavior to see if it even warrants a change (i.e. self-awareness). For example, you can track your time to see how much time you’re spending watching TV, or aimlessly surfing the internet. And then, you can use the strategy of monitoring once you’ve followed the habit change structure to change that habit into a more productive one (if that’s what you want to do).
People use food diaries all the time to change their eating habits. Doctors recommend it and a lot of people find it very effective. I’ve tried it several times in the past and each time, failed miserably. I would start but never finish. And, I found that whatever I wrote down didn't motivate me or compel me to change my habits.
Why is it more effective for some than others?
It goes back to knowing yourself. Rubin states that monitoring appeals to upholders and questioners. Rebels could use this strategy if they wanted to, but obligers (like me) struggle with this. This is maybe why the food diary never “took” with me.
Next up is the strategy of Foundation. It’s useful to be aware of this. Rubin states that when looking at changing habits, it’s useful to start with habits that “boost feelings of self-control, and in this way strengthen the foundation of all our habits.” For example, she states starting with habits having to do with sleep, moving/exercising, eating, and decluttering are good places to start. She says that once you start sleeping better, you feel better. Not only do you feel great physically, but you feel great about mastering that habit. And that one small change can cause a snowball effect.
It happened to me. One day, I decided that I had to dust the blinds in our living room (my kids have pretty bad allergies). This will make me sound like a bad parent, but I hadn’t dusted those blinds in….forever. I started with the living room, and then I felt compelled to continue with my kids’ room. Then, it spread to the entire house. It was weirdly energizing—I had to keep going!
When my husband saw me tackling the blinds, he decided to rip out the carpet in our kids’ room. Our doctor had always recommended removing the carpet and replacing it with hard flooring. We’d never done it because there just never seemed to be a good time. With no plan in place, we ripped out the carpet.
Then we decided to repaint their room. And then I had to clean out my office. And file all of the kids’ school projects. And then I created a system to file all the mail that used to pile up on our kitchen table. My newly formed routine of keeping my office and dining room table clear of mail, school projects, etc. all started off with decluttering and cleaning the house. Rubin calls it a foundational habit and Charles Duhigg calls this a “keystone habit”.
A keystone habit starts small. Once you accomplish it, it causes you to take on additional habit changes. An example of this is flossing. Popular advice says to start with flossing one tooth. Before you know it, you end up flossing all your teeth, all the time! It’s a classic keystone habit, where one small habit snowballs into larger and bigger things.
And although Rubin recommends starting with one of the four foundational habits, she advises that you must always start from a place of knowing yourself. Know thyself, and go from there.