Reality Check: The Making of a Habit

The coming of the New Year inspires many of us to make New Year’s resolutions. If you have been thinking that a change in your behaviour is in order, then the New Year is as good a time as any to make that change.
Resolutions often involve giving up some kind of indulgence. For example, lots of folks choose the New Year to resolve to stop smoking, to cut out unhealthy foods, or to reduce or eliminate some other enjoyable activity that you perceive as not being good for you in the long run.
Sadly, resolutions often get tossed to the wayside by the time February comes rolling around. If you want a life-long change, then look at it as making a new habit.
All of us have habitual behaviours, and they can be very helpful. Something as simple as the habit of putting your keys in the same spot every time frees you from having to wonder where they might be.
The habit of going for that walk every morning means you don’t have to think about whether you really want to go out in the cold. It’s just what you do.
Similarly, a habit can be helpful for building or maintaining a relationship. For example, choosing to call your daughter at the same time every evening ensures that you maintain ongoing contact. There’s no need to have something special to discuss if you’ve made it a habit.
Habits can be comforting rituals. They relieve us of the effort of making a decision about every small thing. And because they are repetitive, it’s worth putting some thought into what habits you want in your life.
So if you’re in the mood for trying out new behaviours for the New Year, here are a few things to consider that could help your habit-making be more effective.
1. Do you have control over what you’d like to improve? There is a difference between resolving to lose 10 pounds versus resolving to limit desserts to three per week. You can directly control how often you eat dessert. You don’t have such direct control over how your body responds. Choose habits that reflect actions that you can actually control.
2. Connect your new habit to something you already do. If you want to build a better relationship with your daughter, and you know that more frequent communication would be helpful, then connect that to an existing habit. If you always have a cup of tea after dinner, associate that with your phone call. (Obviously, this will only be effective for your goal if your daughter agrees that she wants this habit as well.)
3. Start small. While lofty goals can be great for the ego—it’s fun to brag to our friends that we’ve resolved to run for half an hour at 6am every morning—excuses can start cropping up pretty fast the first day it’s wet, our back hurts, or we’re too busy. Make it small. It might not impress anyone if you’re walking 5 minutes every morning, but remember the point. You are building a habit; a new pattern in your life that you don’t have to think about. You can always expand your habit if you wish, but first you need to develop it.
Any change benefits from recording and measurement. Keep a calendar, a journal, or even a checklist. Note every time you made a relationship-enhancing call. Record the duration of your walk. If you get discouraged—and most of us do at some point—look at your records. Recognize your achievement. Then forge on with good faith, creating the habits that create the life you want.
Have you ever deliberately set out to form a habit? How did it work for you?

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