Habits: An Experiment


Like you, I have thought a lot about making healthy changes in my life, adding some good habits to my daily routine. It is, after all, that time of year when one starts thinking about saying goodbye to the old and looking forward to the new, the better version of you. But like you, like many of you, I have failed to do so.

Every year, when January rolls around, I am determined to make a go of it. THIS year I will – go to yoga, take up meditation, write in my journal, drink a glass of lemon water upon rising, call my mother in the evening, run, bike, hike, . . . you name it, I’ve failed it all.

Despite my best intentions and enthusiasm, I cannot make it stick. Sometimes, I cannot even make a start.

One year, I decided to give up swearing for Lent. Yeah, I know. I didn’t even make it out of the church parking lot! Some idiot decided to cut me off just as we were trying to exit the gate!

So habits are hard. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you. They’re hard for many reasons, not the least of which are

  • They’re unfamiliar – trying to form a meditation practice from scratch, when you’ve never tried it before can be difficult–you have to learn it as you’re doing it
  • They’re overwhelming – how am I going to run a 5K when I can’t even jog to the end of the road without seeing spots before my eyes?
  • They interrupt your other routines–how am I supposed to call my mother in the evening when I have to cook dinner, then supervise homework, then Scandal . . . when? When can I fit it in?
  • They fall to the wayside when you have to travel or are sick or when that big project hits at work
  • They’re not fun. Let’s be honest. If we were trying to make a habit of eating donuts, or binge-watching television on a Saturday afternoon–no problem! But good habits . . .
  • They require effort – squeeze lemons, heat water, add, stir, . . . or . . . you could skip the whole idea.

It’s so much easier to just keep on doing what we’ve always done–the law of inertia (it’s his first for good reason!). Once we fall into a groove, jumping out is difficult, and creating a whole new groove. . . ? Fuhggehdaboudit!

Still, there is a certain romance about starting a new habit–the novelty, the promise of fulfillment, the hope that this time it will be forever . . . there must be or we wouldn’t persist in trying. I wouldn’t persist in trying.

And I do. And I did.

A couple of months ago, I signed up for B. J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits Program. It works on three basic principles: pick something simple, make it small, anchor it to another, established habit.

So far so good. I liked that he kept the process simple and straightforward. I’ve tried those other programs where you have to prepare to get ready to lay the groundwork to . . . and already I’m exhausted!

Anyway, it sounded promising (aaaand I had a week off), so I thought I’d give it a go.

The program asks you to select three tiny habits that you will shoot to complete each day for five days–that’s it. No further commitment required. So this is what I chose:
1. After I put the kettle on to boil, I will set out my multivitamin.
2. When I take off my shoes after my morning walk, I will do one sun salutation.
3. When I plug in my laptop at work, I will think of one priority for my day.
The idea is to make the action really small–“I will set out my multivitamin,” instead of “I will take all my supplements,” or “I will do one sun salutation,” not 10. The second key point is to anchor the new habit to an old one–“After I put the kettle on . . .” or “When I take my shoes off . . .” or “When I plug in my laptop . . .” The two habits, old and new, must follow each other very closely.

So how did I do?

Not too bad.

Interestingly, I had the most success with the sun salutation (interesting because I hate exercise). I think I owe this success to the fact that I walk EVERY day, so for those five days, it was easy to just go into a sun salutation once I had taken off my shoes (I also always take off my shoes immediately following my walk–I don’t like to drag dirt into the house). This regularity assured my success.

By contrast, I didn’t do the laptop thingy every day because Monday was a holiday, so I didn’t go into work, so I didn’t plug in my laptop, so I didn’t think of a priority for the day. Lesson learned: If you are trying to add a daily habit then you need to have a daily anchor. Otherwise, just make the habit a 5-day a week habit, or not a daily one.

As for the multivitamin, it is true that I did set out my multivitamin every morning after I put the kettle on, but I didn’t always take it. Why? Because I usually like to take my supplements with food, and I don’t eat until a couple of hours later. So some days I remembered to take the multivitamin when I was eating, and some days I didn’t. I guess I should have used breakfast as the anchor instead of tea. But here’s the thing; I don’t always eat breakfast (some days I skip it; others I take it to go) but I always drink tea. So, on the one hand, the tea is a better anchor, but on the other it is the wrong anchor for the habit. Make sense?

Still, it was a good experiment. I think I learned a lot about myself, but also about just how difficult it is to make a habit of something.

I know you’re wondering–how many of these habits have stuck? The answer is none. You see, one of the things the program doesn’t discuss is motivation. They’re just trying to teach you the process and the logic behind it. I really couldn’t care less about the habits I chose, or rather I should say, I don’t care enough about them. Why not? Because they do not bring me joy. They’re just another list of shoulda, woulda, couldas. And who needs more of those?

When I think of all the “habits” I have made and have maintained over the years, they all bring me joy in one way or the other–walking, reading, writing in my journal as the sun comes up, making myself a cup of tea in the afternoon, tucking my kids in at night–these are things that give me pleasure or peace or both. I want them in my life. You never have to ask me twice to go for a walk–any time, any day. I can read all day (and do–yikes!). As for my kids, I can never get enough.

So the part they don’t tell you about is motivation. You have to not only want to do something, you have to take pleasure in it.

Some key takeaways about creating habits include

1. Make it small with the understanding that once the habit is established you can build on it (one sun salutation will grow to three and then to ten)
2. Anchor it to something that is operationally tied to the habit (multivitamins to breakfast, not tea, for instance)
3. Make it pleasurable. We are creatures built for pleasure.


Folks, if you liked this post or if you know someone who might find it useful, please feel free to share it.

Target Audience: Any one who is trying to form a habit, people interested in personal growth, the Tooth Fairy

Categories: Reflections

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5 replies

  1. Great post. I think the more specific the goal (or small as you descibed) is the key. It can’t be a vauge or a “big”picture goal. You have to lay out all the tiny details. 🙂

    • Yes. I’m realizing it’s important to do both. I always had big picture goals but then felt overwhelmed by them. Then this year, I used the big picture goal and created a vision board from it with the understanding that these were not goals I was working on on a daily basis. It helped me feel less frustrated. I’ll probably do a post on it next month to wrap up the year.

  2. Very interesting post! I struggle to put my intentions of better habits in to actions. Taking it into smaller steps might be better for me.

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