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5 Good Ways to Construct Habits

Jun. 9, 2022 Psychology Today

Many people are interested in establishing better habits. There are easier and harder ways to do this. We have more affinity for developing some habits than others. When you utilize this knowledge, it can make habit curation easier.

1. Use natural deadlines.

Have you ever tried to construct a “fake” (self-imposed) deadline to get yourself to do something? That rarely works very well.

In contrast, research shows that externally-imposed, short deadlines successfully influence our behavior.

This quirk of human nature can work against us when it leads us to prioritize relatively unimportant tasks with imminent deadlines ahead of more important work that has no or a far way deadline. However, we can also use this phenomenon to serve us. How?

Use natural deadlines to support your habits.

Two examples. 

  • I currently have monthly doctor’s appointments. I get labs drawn the day before each appointment. I don’t like having blood drawn, so often I will put this off. However, I want to review the results with the doctor. That motivates me to keep up the habit. The doctor also complimented me on how conscientious I am about it, so now I want to keep up my ‘star pupil’ status!
  • My trash company picks up our trash and recycling on Wednesday mornings. That motivates me to tidy up and fill up the bins on Tuesdays. If I don’t use that space in the bins each week, it’s permanently lost as I can only put out what fits in the bins. 

2. Observe when you already do the behavior you’re trying to make a habit.

My latest book, Stress-Free Productivity, is about using self-knowledge to personalize your productivity. Instead of adopting other people’s systems and suggestions, you can reverse-engineer your own. If there is a behavior you do sporadically, identify if there is any pattern to when you do it.

“When” could be related to time (e.g., day of the week, month of the year), or it could be related to circumstance (e.g., when your partner is out of town or when your kids go back to school after vacations).

If you already have a bit of a habit, you can strengthen it, including to built habits of doing behaviors you enjoy more. For example, I like listening to author Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast specifically on road trips. But, I don’t always think about doing this or downloading episodes ahead of time if I have poor service.

3. Observe your best windows of self-regulation.

Most of us have windows of time when we’re more focused and on-task than other times. My best windows are Mondays to Wednesdays, from when I wake up until about 1 pm.

Work with your natural rhythms rather than against them. If a habit is critically important, plan to do it within your best windows of self-regulation.

Too often, people plan to do their most important tasks when they’re already exhausted from other work. For example, you think you’ll work on your most important long-term project at 3 pm after you’ve finished all your urgent work to-do’s.

4. Use “resets.”

Research shows that when our existing habits are disrupted, we’re most apt to build new habits. You can engineer this through different types of “resets.” For example, periodically delete all your YouTube or podcast subscriptions, and see which ones you miss.

If you’re even more game, you can do the same with paid memberships, like Costco or Netflix. Periodically cancel all (or some) of them and try a habit reset.

What other ideas do you have for how you could “reset” your current habits and allow new ones to emerge in their place organically?

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