The habits of our days create the scaffolding for our lives. Whether we’re aware or not, about forty percent of our daily lives are routinized behavior, things we do every single day, with or without thinking about it. Consider this: When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you reach for your cell phone and check Facebook? Roll out of bed and into a downward dog for morning yoga? Did you brush your teeth before or after you took a shower? Did you grab a donut from the kitchen counter, or did you drink the smoothie you made before bed last night? How did you get to work? Which route did you take? When you got to your desk, how did you begin your day? Did you read the New York Times, your favorite blogger, catch up on email, or type out your to-do list? For lunch, did you have a salad or chicken nuggets? And when you got home, did you take a power nap or walk the dog? Help your kids with their homework, or turn on the news? Most of our daily choices feel like decisions, but actually, we’re following habits.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores the science behind why we do what we do in our in our lives. He says that if you believe you can change, if you can make a habit, then the changes in your life can begin to materialize. The truth is, our habits are what we choose them to be, so when you choose your habits, you choose your life’s direction. The difficult thing is that most people want a secret formula for creating or changing a habit, a scripted process for rapid change. “It’s not that formulas don’t exist,” Duhigg says. “The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.”
“It’s simple to change habits, but it’s not easy,” Gretchen Rubin wrote in her book, Better Than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits—to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. She has discovered that people often point to the creation of a new habit as the root of a boost in their happiness. And when they were unhappy about a change they’d failed to make, it was often related to a habit they couldn’t seem to keep. Habits, the keeping and the not keeping, seem central to our freedoms and happiness.
So where does a person begin to make the right changes? How do you know which habits to change? If I’m going to make a change, I want it to be the right one. I want to make a change that’s realistic and tangible, one that will have a domino effect to bring more areas of my life in order. Because let’s be honest: for better and for worse, I like the habits I have in place. They’re comfortable and mine. (Diet Coke for the win. Every day.)
Gretchen says it’s most helpful to begin with the habits that most directly affect our self-control, and she calls these the Foundation Habits. She says that if we can begin by tackling these foundational habits, other things will begin to fall into place, because Foundation Habits tend to support and reinforce each other. If you’re trying to make a lifestyle shift, great or small, Gretchen suggests you start with these four habits:
Sleep. Here’s an interesting phenomenon Gretchen discovered: feeling tired pushes us to sleep, but feeling exhausted pushes us to stay up later. It actually calls for a good bit of energy to get ready for bed, and when you’re too exhausted to face the thought of letting out the dogs one more time, turning out the lights, setting the alarm, taking out your contacts, brushing your teeth and washing your face, you’re more likely to delay going to bed. It’s normal; we all do it. Gretchen says the way to battle it is simple: get ready for sleep earlier. If you normally go to bed at 11:00, try getting ready for bed around 9:00. That way when it’s time to go to bed, you have no reason to delay the process.
Move. Gretchen says exercise is a magical elixir for practically everything. It is energizing and calming, and it makes life easier. If you’ve started an exercise program and dropped it, that’s likely because you chose it because you wanted to lose weight, fit into different clothes, or follow someone else’s suggestion. But the truth is, you’re far more likely to stick with the program if it matches your temperament and schedule. Choose your exercise habits carefully, based on what motivates you, what you prefer, and what is convenient. These are habits you’re far more likely to keep.
Eat and Drink Right. Eat when you’re hungry; stop when you’re satisfied. It’s simple, really, but harder than it sounds. Often we eat not from hunger, but “from routine, social influences, the sight or smell of food, and external triggers,” Gretchen says. Let your habit be your choice to pay attention to your body instead of the routines you have in place. Your brain needs food, and when your brain is fed, you’ll tend to make better decisions in every other area, too.
Unclutter. For a lot of people, myself included, a clean and well-maintained environment makes me feel like I’m on top of the game. It fosters a sense of good decisions and command of my world. You can boost your day by putting things in their place, tackling nagging tasks, and getting rid of the things that aren’t beautiful or useful. This surge of energy makes you feel more equipped to ask other things of yourself, to trust yourself to be someone who follows through with commitments and keeps habits in place. You have to decide on the clutter that needs fixing: perhaps it’s your kitchen counter, your closet, your inbox, or your bookshelf. If you unclutter the central part of your environment, you’ve made room for the habits you want in place.
Tricia Lott Williford is a remarried widow, a writer, teacher, reader, and thinker, and the author of three books. Her newest book is You Can Do This. Thousands of readers join her each morning for a cup of coffee as they sign online to read today’s funny, poignant stories that capture the fleeting moments of life. She collects words, quotes, and bracelets, and she lives in Denver with her husband and two sons. You can get to know Tricia through her regular posts at tricialottwilliford.com.