Forming good habits is one of the most powerful means of pursuing what matters most. That’s because habits make up more than 40% of the actions people perform each day, as noted in Charles Duhigg’s 2012 bestseller The Power of Habit.
Today is an especially great day to begin a new habit. That’s because today is the first day of Lent, a period of 40 days of preparation leading up to Easter Sunday. Although the primary focus of Lent is not habit formation, many Catholics and other Christians seek to adopt better habits during this time. As this article in the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, non-Christians also use Lent as a chance for a resolution reboot.
So, how can you create a habit that sticks? To answer that question, we first need to understand how habits work.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg describes the way a habit works in this three-stop process, which he calls “the habit loop”:
- Cue: A cue signals our brain to automatically perform the habit.
- Routine: We perform a certain physical or mental or emotional sequence.
- Reward: At the end of the sequence we get a reward that incentivizes us to turn the process into an established habit.
For me, for example, the end of dinner is a cue. At that cue, my mouth begins watering as I walk mindlessly to our pantry, in which I have stockpiled a bomb shelter’s worth of candy. I inhale said candy, thereby capping my post-dinner routine with a sugary reward. (What can I say? I’m a simple mammal, folks.)
How to Form Good Habits
Habits take root naturally. That’s because our minds aggressively seek to replace decisions—which demand considerable effort—with habits, which require much less effort. To that end, the mind goes so far as to create neurological cravings for our habits, which propel us toward them.
In the case of bad habits, this function of the mind can be discouraging. But we can use this process to our advantage. We can deliberately instill good habits—habits that propel us toward what matters most. The way to do so is by taking control of “the habit loop.”
Specifically, to help create a good habit, we can:
- Choose a Cue. If you wanted to start running each morning, for instance, you could place your shoes on the floor by your bed so that as you get out of bed you are reminded to lace up your sneakers.
- Choose a Reward. It could be an external reward, especially in the beginning, like drinking a smoothie after the jog. Or it can be an internal reward such as the sense of accomplishment you get from recording your miles.
- Create the Craving. “Cravings are what drive habits,” Duhigg writes. Over time, the brain will supply the neurological craving for the habit. Most runners want to run. But in the beginning of habit formation, you need to sort of manufacture the craving by imagining and anticipating the chosen reward.
Lent: A Great Time to Form Good Habits
Habit formation takes time. With Lent being 40 days long, it provides a runway long enough to help our habits take off.
A new habit that I am being invited to establish this Lent is not to use my iPhone at all from the time I return home from work until the time the kids are in bed—a period of about 2.5 hours, typically.
Smartphones are incredible tools, and I use mine regularly to save time, as I described in this post. But it can also intrude on my ability to be present with my family.
I hope to build the habit of not using my phone at home during this period of time by creating a habit loop. When I return from work, I always set my stuff down in my home office. Entering that room will be the cue. At that cue I want to just leave my phone on my desk.
As a reward, I will allow myself to have a drink after the kids go down if I’ve succeeded in leaving my phone aside until that time. Otherwise, no drink. I can foster the craving, I guess, by thinking about which drink I would like to have. You know: peaty scotch or non-peaty scotch. . . .
By the end of Lent, I expect that that extrinsic reward won’t even be necessary as I will come to prefer what I already know to be better: uninterrupted time with my family.
How Can You Harness the Power of Habit this Lent?
As I reflect on my typical day, I can identify many habit loops. Some are for habits I’d rather not have. Some are for neutral activities like backing the car out of the garage. Others are for good habits that I’ve tried to cultivate. Many, not surprisingly, are designed to help me have more time and money, as I see those as two of the biggest levers in pursuing what matters most.
How about for you? Are there good habits that you’d like to build this Lent and beyond? How will they help you pursue more fully what matters most to you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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