When people think about habits, they often think about a narrow and stereotypical range of these, like going to the gym, food choices, teeth brushing, drinking more water, bedtimes, and technology use. To fully harness the power of habits, you need to think more broadly about which habits you could improve, and think about your cognitive-emotional habits as well as your behavior.
As a bonus, making tweaks in other categories of habits is often easier than consistently dragging your butt to the gym every day or passing up cookies.
1. How you habitually react to feeling overwhelmed or self-doubt
Cognitive habits (related to thinking) are just as important as behavioral habits. When people feel overwhelmed or self-doubt in response to a challenge, they either retreat or navigate a way forward. The strategies you habitually use in response to these feelings can have a huge impact on your success in life.
Here are a few examples of strategies I use:
- When I get an email that stresses me out, I re-read it with fresh eyes the following day. This helps me not overreact and see situations more clearly.
- If I feel overwhelmed, I break down the task into the parts I feel intimidated by and those I feel confident about. This helps me see that it’s not the whole task that’s difficult, just parts of it.
- I often find that I can’t think clearly about an overwhelming task until I’ve taken a nap or gone for a walk, since those strategies calm me physiologically and allow my brain to think more clearly.
- If I’m procrastinating, I make a deal with myself that if I’m going to procrastinate I have to do something instead that’s objectively more important than whatever I’m dragging my heels on.
- How can you improve the ways you habitually respond to anxiety-related emotions, like feeling overwhelmed and doubt?
- What strategies help you see those situations as more manageable and navigate a path forward?
2. How you react to envy and frustration
If you’re an ambitious person, you may find you get annoyed (envious, frustrated, resentful, etc) when you observe someone else who is having the success you would like to have yourself. Having these emotional experiences is no problem whatsoever if you use them correctly. You can use these feelings as a trigger for positive cognitive habits.
For instance, in response to envy, you might:
- Check for unhelpful thoughts. Thoughts like “It’s not fair, that person has so many advantages” might be true, but typically aren’t that helpful for moving forward.
- Ask yourself: Whatever superstar skills the other person has, have they put more effort and practice into them than you? Is it worth it for you to practice those skills in a more focused way? What’s your plan? What are the small, easy wins you have available to you in terms of improving how well you perform that skill?
- Identify what that person has that you would like to have. Try answering the question—”That person has the freedom to….. and I would like that.” This question is a useful check against feeling envious about types of success you don’t actually want. For instance, I’d never want to have lots of employees.
Challenge: What are your current habitual ways of responding to envy? What cognitive habits would be more useful?
3. Habits that help maintain your close relationships
Others who write a lot about habits tend to focus on personal self-regulation, but many of the principles for improving self-orientated habits also apply to improving your social behaviors. Your relationship habits are incredibly important to your happiness in life. For instance, we know that how couples handle daily partings and reunions is closely tied to relationship health (typically involving how partners say goodbye on the way to work, and how they say hello again at the end of the day.)
Challenge: If you have a partner, identify what your current habits are when your partner:
- Asks you to do something.
- Expresses something they’re unhappy about.
- Has a success they want to share with you.
- Has a problem they need emotional support about.
What are your strengths, and where is your behavior ripe for improvement?
4. Whether you have a habit of doing things that are novel and challenging
Creativity often comes from novel experiences: e.g., working with a new collaborator rather than the person you always work with. People who habitually take on projects that are new and challenging are always adding to their skills, resilience, relationships, perspectives, etc.
If you have this habit, you’ll cumulatively end up in a really good place. If your daily habits are too static (e.g., you’re rigid about always needing 90 minutes a day for the gym), you’ll have less room for novelty in your life.
Challenge: How is your balance between doing things that are familiar versus trying novel approaches and working with new people?
The idea that good habits are about being consistent with the same daily rituals and practices is a very limited perspective. Consistent practice at specific behavioral skills is only a small part of what it means to have good habits. Your cognitive habits, your emotional habits (like being emotionally accessible and responsive to your loved ones), and having a habit of curiosity (including an interest in choosing the novel over the familiar) are equally important in terms of healthy habits.