Blog Post

Keep Going: How to Create and Maintain New Habits

Web workers are creatures of habit. Those of us who are lucky enough to control all aspects of our work — schedule, location, process, and output — depend on such habits. We may schedule work hours for peak productivity, batch process our email, and even find a way to do household chores in between. But most of us also have destructive habits. These may include digital fiddling, spending too much time on social media, and working such long hours that our health pays the price.

How, then, do we then create and maintain our good habits while avoiding the bad ones?

1. Know your motivations well

The first step to changing one’s habits is to understand why you’re doing it. Since you’ll be going against your default behavior, you’ll need extra motivation to make the change.

Recent research shows that when we go against the default choice, the part of the brain involved in decision-making (the prefrontal cortex) and the part that’s significant for motivation (subthalamic nucleus) showed increased activity. According to a post on Psychology Today, “These brain analyses suggest that going against the default in difficult decisions requires some kind of extra motivation or confidence.”

It might also help to dig deeper into your motivations. It’s probably not enough to say something like, “I need to stop compulsive email checking so I can focus on work.” Know why you need to focus. Is it to improve your work output? And why would you want to do that? Are you hoping for a promotion?

By getting to the root of why you want to create a new habit, you can see how it is related to the goals you want to accomplish. Once you make the connections or, even better, get them on paper, you’ll have something positive in mind during the most challenging days of habit formation.

2. Start small

How much self control do you have? That’s a tricky but necessary question. After all, your sense of control will allow you to negotiate how you’ll form your new habit — how much time you’ll spend, how often you’ll do it, etc. Then again, estimating control is tricky since we all suffer from restraint bias — our tendency to overestimate self-control. The more self-control you think you have, the more you expose yourself to temptations that will allow you to break it.

If your bad habit is impulse-based, such as digital fiddling or compulsive email checking, the more you have to be aware of your own restraint bias. The way out of this seems to be to underestimate your own self-control and start with baby steps.

For example, instead of promising yourself to avoid Facebook or video games until the end of your workday, why not set a smaller goal? Aim to completely focus on your work for 15 minutes. Then reward yourself with a short break and start another 15-minute set of focused work. Keep going until you’ve reached the bigger goal of separating work and leisure.

By starting with easier goals, the limitations we impose on ourselves will feel less threatening. This prevents us from falling off the wagon and undoing any progress we’ve made.

3. Do it daily

When habit formation is discussed, the “21-Day Rule” is often brought up, which says that you need to be able to do something daily for at least 21 days before it becomes a habit. That sounds easy, right?

Sorry to disappoint you, but the real number varies. Researchers from University College London found that the number lies between 18 to 254 days, with 66 days being the average (via PsyBlog). Though you have to work on the habit daily, it’s not worth it to worry about skipping a day or two as long as you get back on track. The goal here is to get to the point where a task or process feels automated — you no longer feel forced to exercise before your workday, wake up earlier, or work standing up. It just becomes part of you.

4. Use cues to your advantage

Even with your initial hard work, it’s easy to fall back on bad habits when something triggers them. Once that happens, you may have to start from scratch. According to research from MIT, some cues can be used to undermine newer habits in favor of older ones. Lead researcher Ann Graybiel says, “This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well ingrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.” For us web workers, this may mean disconnecting the Internet for a while to avoid digital fiddling, or hiding your laptop in a cabinet after working.

This idea is also applicable to creating new habits. You can use cues such as music, a closed door, or specific clothes to signal that it’s the start of your workday. Other cues can be in the form of a reward after successfully completing a task.

5. Track your progress

You’re likely to stay motivated when you see how far you’ve gone. Coupled with the motivations you’ve established in the first step, you’ll feel even more encouraged to keep going because you can see how your effort is paying off. After that, your bad habits, or even the simple laziness of maintaining the status quo, won’t seem attractive anymore.

What habits have you tried changing and creating? Which techniques worked for you?

Photo by flickr user liz_noise

4 Responses to “Keep Going: How to Create and Maintain New Habits”

  1. Nick Green

    Hi there Celine!
    Good post.
    Knowing your motivations is a big one, but one thing I’d probably add for myself is ‘Commit.’
    I think that we often rhetorically commit, but committing to me is about sabotaging your opportunities to give up or making practice convenient.
    The way I see it, it’s a battle between the you right now and the you tomorrow. Self-motivation is all well and good, but it’s problem is that it’s a temporary effect. I don’t know about you but my mood can change from day-to-day; sometimes I’m motivated and thinking actively about the future, and this is a good time be in ‘planning mode,’ but the tomorrow me might be lazy, passive, thinking only about what’s in front of him.

    An obvious example of what I’m getting at is committing to, say, Spanish classes once per week. The hassle of cancelling might even be enough to push you to go, and ensure you don’t fall off altogether.
    Another one – talking to people who use gym trainers or go to aerobic classes often rave to me more about the fact that these ‘force’ them to train than the trainers/classes themselves.
    Perhaps there’s more creative ways to get the same effect?

    Keep in mind that your motivated, actively-thinking self can get over-excited, and later you might be falling off a habit because, more honestly or in practice, you don’t really want to be learning russian (for example!) as much as learning from interesting blogs or whatever is distracting you. But if you’ve really thought it through (your true motivations, what your sacrificing etc.) then perhaps get looking for more ways to commit rather than saying, ‘I commit.’

    • What you said is so true, Nick. Commitment is a deeper way to get involved with forming a habit, especially if you take advantage of barriers (remove them for convenience, or add them to discourage slacking off).

      Your last paragraph reminds me of how difficult it was for me to establish physical exercise as a habit. Web workers don’t really need to move around a lot, and I noticed that I was getting sick once a month and I wasn’t as strong as I used to be. I was also becoming more moody/depressed. I really didn’t want to exercise at first, so I kept breaking my schedule to do so. It was easy to make excuses since my goal wasn’t the exercising per se, but the long term effects I could get from it. The turning point was “thinking it through” (as you wrote), where I realized that it was something I had to do if I wanted to continue doing the work that I love doing as well as have the energy/motivation to do other things. Now, it’s something I look forward to and things don’t “feel right” if I slack off because it’s become a habit.

  2. This is awesome and I think #5 is really important. I use teuxdeux for my to do lists. Once you cross an item off your list, it turns a light grey, but stays on the list. When I feel like I am not making any progress, I can look at that, even back on the week and see how much I’ve done.

    A friend once was told, “you have to stop and admire your work.” After she had completed a landscaping project, she put away all her tools, then got in the car and drove around the block. Seeing the results of her beautiful work from that perspective was a self-pat on the back!