Following on from our last blog post, in which we talked about marginal gains and how they are one of the keys to sustainable recovery, today’s post is going to look at how you can build habits that last and which benefit you in the long-term.
Habits are incredibly powerful
Habits are so powerful that we do them every day without even thinking. Whether it’s brushing your teeth in the morning, or flushing the toilet after you’ve used it, habits form a huge part of our daily behaviours. In fact, a 2014 study revealed that habits account for around 40% of our daily activities.
But if habits account for almost half of all the things we do each day, why is it seemingly so difficult to build new ones?
Well, one of the reasons is because people attempt to do too much too soon. It’s a recipe for failure. For example, let’s say you want to do more exercise and get fitter. So you set yourself the goal of jogging every day for 30 minutes. To someone who isn’t used to jogging, this goal is probably out of reach to start with and you’ll ultimately fail. A better habit to form would be something much easier, like taking the stairs instead of the lift at work.
Remember, it’s all about marginal gains.
So how can you boost the chances of forming a habit and making it stick?
Here are 5 tangible tips to increase your chances of success:
1. Identify your why
Back in January, we published this blog about why best laid plans go awry. In it, we talked about how the motivation behind starting something new or implementing a change is so important and has a direct impact on the chances of success. Exactly the same is true when you try and form a new habit.
First and foremost, you need to identify why you are bothering to develop this new habit. What’s your motivation? Some people simply say, “Because it’s good for me,” but that’s unlikely to be enough to make a habit stick. Sure, you might stick to it for a few days or even weeks, but long-term sustainability is unlikely.
With the people we support, many of them are experiencing pain and/or fatigue, which can mean that forming new habits feels that bit more challenging. But by adopting a longer-term focus and moving from fire fighting to fire prevention, they often achieve much better results.
The key is to shift from thinking, I should do this, to, I want to do this. In other words, focussing on the ‘why’ you’re ultimately trying to achieve and keeping that at the forefront of your mind. Of course, the important thing is that you do actually want to do this. Because if somewhere in the back of your mind you’re not really sure, guess what… you’re unlikely to succeed.
Helpful tip – Give yourself a few minutes with a pen and a note pad. Under the heading ‘Why do I want create the habit of ‘…X…’? Write down 3-5 expectations of how having this new habit will help you feel, how it will help you think, how it will help your body and how it will help you in your relationships/work etc.
2. Find an ally or crew member
Everyone needs a helpful crew full of allies. You’re no different.
Look at movies. Heroes rarely operate alone. So why do we think we can achieve things alone – especially when we often don’t have to.
Asking for help to make something happen is a significant step towards creating the conditions to allow us to do what we want to do. It could be one person or a small group. The bottom line is allies not only help us in the actual forming of the habit, but also keep us accountable going forward.
You are the captain of your ship and a good captain always looks to bring in a skilled crew who will support them. Decide who you want to bring on board.
Helpful tip – Look around in your social group (friends, family, colleagues) and identify anyone who has successfully achieved what you want to do and who might be helpful in embedding this new habit.
3. In sight, in mind
You know the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind”? Well, the opposite is also true: “In sight, in mind.” In other words, if you have a visual prompt associated with your new habit, the chances of you adopting it are going to be significantly boosted. If there isn’t anything to remind you visually, you are unlikely to do it.
The great thing is there are loads of helpful apps out there that can aid with this aspect. One such app is the HiFutureSelf app. Download it, install it and then set reminders to yourself to carry out your new habit each day.
It’s also good to place something that reminds you of why you are forming the habit in your line of sight. What symbolises or reminds you of what you want to embed? This will act as a visual reminder of your end goal and further boost your motivation.
4. Break it down into manageable chunks
As we mentioned earlier, you are far more likely to succeed at forming a habit if you tackle it in chunks. Trying to do too much too soon will likely end in failure. You need to be realistic and only add habits into your daily routine that are manageable.
For example, meditating for one hour every day is going to be a big jump if you’re currently doing zero meditation. An initial goal of 5 minutes meditation per day is much more manageable (and far more achievable). Start off slowly and gradually build up to what feels most helpful to you.
Apps can really help with things like this. One app we are particularly fond of is InsightTimer and, in particular, the Linda Hall offerings.
Helpful tip – One of our patients once said, if you try and eat the elephant in one go, you’ll end up with indigestion. Find a metaphor or a phrase for how doing something in manageable chunks is helpful. The saying: ‘Look after your pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ can be adapted to: ‘Look after the detail and recovery will look after itself.’
5. Tag the new habit to something you do already
In addition to understanding your ‘why bother’, having an ally, leveraging apps and using visual reminders and having a realistically sized habit, you can further boost your chances of embedding a new habit by tagging (also called stacking) it to an action you already habitually do. Like in our last blog post when we said you can help to embed the habit of rubbing/massaging your feet by doing it each time you put your socks on in the morning.
The reason tagging works so well is because your existing habits are already built into your brain, which means it’s more likely that you’ll stick to the new behaviour too. Whenever we build a new habit we are developing the neural networks in the brain to support and deliver that habit. We are also building the muscle recognition and memory of that habit and developing the associations necessary to drive our motivations to do the habit.
Helpful tip – Give yourself permission to experiment with what you tag your new habit to. At first glance it may look helpful to tag a new habit of tracking in a notebook how many painkillers you use, to the same time that you actually take them and then realise that’s not working. It may be more helpful to jot the number down after you’ve had breakfast each day, it’s worth experimenting with.
Treat it as an experiment: Design your experiment. Do your experiment. Review your experiment.
Some people find it more helpful to set themselves a non-negotiable new habit. This means that they will do the new habit each day come rain or shine. This takes out any anxiety about whether to do it or not, the decision is made and that means no further discussion.
Others find it helpful to have more flexibility about their new habit and so it can be helpful to have a reference range to work within. This can be something like each week I’ll do this new habit at least 5 out of 7 days. This gives you some slack and can reduce risk of feeling guilt or failure if for whatever reason there’s a day or two in the week when you didn’t do the new habit. This doesn’t of course stop you from doing it 7 days out of 7 when that works.
We often believe that habits are for life and in reality they may turn out to be lifelong habits. But you don’t know that yet. Set this up as an experiment. Like all good experiments you’ll need to decide on how long you are going to do it for. Three weeks or 21 days is often a helpful timeframe. This will give you long enough to experiment with how it goes to do the habit and how it feels when yo do it.
Do your new habit every day for 21 days and then review. Schedule time in your diary in three weeks time to review your experience and assess how it’s been. Ask yourself questions like: Has the habit been helpful? What did I like about it? What didn’t I like about it? Is there anything I can change to make it more helpful? Trust your experience and take your cue from your answers. If the habit has not been helpful to you, stop doing it and shift your focus to another habit and do another experiment.
If it was helpful, set your sights on doing it for 66 days. Why 66 days? Because that’s the amount of time it takes for a habit to be formed, according to research (Lally et al., 2009). Remember to use the 5 out of 7 approach or the ‘non-negotiable’ approach depending on what works best for you. Count forward 66 days in your diary and make a date with yourself to review at that point what’s happened and how this habit is now embedded in your life.
In just over two months, your new habit will be embedded, your neural pathways in your brain will be wired in place, your muscle memory and your associations will be formed and the habit will be part of what you now simply do as if it’s on autopilot, which means it’s become an unconscious habit and will be delivering for you the benefits you were hoping for when you started.
There is one caveat…
If you are experiencing a multifactorial condition, such as ME/CFS, Burnout, Fibromyalgia or IBS, which is causing you pain, fatigue and other Sherlock symptoms, your recovery will be more robust and consistent by using the marginal gains approach (5% improvements) and building strong helpful habits.
However, there is no silver bullet and there are likely to be other things that need to be addressed in order to aid your recovery.
While forming more helpful habits is an important step forward, it’s important to bear in mind that you’ll need to support all your six areas of health: Mood, Symptoms, Food/Nutrition, Activities, Relationships and Sleep. It can be challenging to understand what to address when and how to best proceed. You may benefit from extra support for your individual experiences – and that’s where we can help.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor