On the edge of making a habit

Every now and then, it’s important to try and do something just for yourself.

I’ve been trying to get back into reading for years. I think back to my school days and how I could easily read 1000-page long novels and series. But, these days, I sometimes struggle to read an 8-page journal article. My eyes glaze over as I read the same line multiple times but I still can’t seem to absorb the information.

At the start of this year, I set a (very ambitious) goal to read 100 books. Just for the fun of reading it. It’s been a while since I finished a book. I was going from 0 to 100. Literally.

It’s safe to say that, considering it’s already August and I’ve only read 11 books, I’m probably not going to reach my goal. (Unless I cheat and read a bunch of picture books. But where’s the fun in doing that).

The point of this goal wasn’t to just read 100 books but I wanted to make reading a habit again. Something that I could look forward to. Something to help me unwind after a long day.

Lately, I’ve been reading a non-fiction: “See what you made me do” by Jess Hill, an investigative journalist who focuses on reporting Australian domestic abuse. This book has won many awards and was recently adapted into a free documentary series which I plan on watching after I finish the book.

It’s been an interesting, although confronting, read and I’ve really taken my time with it. In the time it took me to read up to about 35% of this book, I’d finished FOUR other books. Four of the 11 books that I’ve read this year.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “if you’re stopping so often, then why don’t you just… stop reading it?”

Maybe it speaks to my stubbornness but I didn’t want to just give up – it was still a very interesting and informative book. It was just emotionally taxing to read. So, I saw this as both an opportunity to expand my knowledge on issues of domestic abuse and as a personal challenge to stick to my original goal: make reading a habit.

Habits

Habits are automatic behaviours that we do in response to a cue (e.g., a situation [after doing the laundry] or a time in the day [at 11 am]) that we repeatedly and consistently did in the past1. These habits can even override our best intentions at times. Think of the number of times you’ve travelled in auto-pilot and just headed home instead of going to the shops or running an errand.

Although some researchers suggest habits can be formed in only 21 days, others find it’s often not as fast – the average hovers around 60 days2,3.

Forming new habits

The main idea behind creating a new habit is based on animal learning models – doing something frequently in response to a (fairly consistent) cue or situation. The more you do it, the stronger the association and more likely it will become an automatic response. Although there are other factors at play (e.g., motivation and self-control), you still need repetition to form that basic link between being in a situation and doing something in response.

There are 4 stages in creating a new habit:

  1. Deciding to make a habit
  2. Turning intention into action
  3. Repeating the action whenever you see the cue
  4. The action becomes an automatic response (a habit!)

Along the way, there are some challenges. The main one being overcoming the barrier from stage 1 (thinking about it) to stage 2 (actually doing it). Researchers call this the “intention-behaviour gap”.

To make this “intention-behaviour gap” a small jump rather than a chasm, many behaviour-change interventions encourage us to make a plan1,3. One thing that has helped me is to schedule time to do it. It sounds really simple but it’s quite effective.

Creating a new goal in Google Calendar on my phone

This week, I learned about a handy feature in Google Calendar – adding goals. Now this isn’t a new feature but I only noticed it when I was adding an event on my phone.

They ask you a few questions about your goal: What is it? How long do you want to do it? How often? And what are the best times (morning, evenings, etc.)?

… Then voila! It schedules in the times. When the goal comes around, it asks if you’re ready. If it doesn’t work for you, then you can press “Later” to reschedule. You can even drag the task to another day or time.

Over time, the calendar learns your preferences to schedule upcoming sessions so it gets better the more you use it.

When you’ve done the task or goal, just mark it off and feel proud that you’ve overcome probably the biggest hurdle: turning a thought into an action.

For me, I’ve started fairly simply – just try and read for 30 minutes before I sleep or when I wake up in the morning for 5 days a week. Often I find that once I get started, I end up reading for much longer.

Once I’d started intentionally setting aside time in my day, I’ve manage to make good progress. I’ve read more of this book in this past week than I had in the several months before it…

Now this isn’t a long-term fix. It’s only useful to help you get started. In fact, people can even become dependent on these reminders. That’s how you have people going back to their old routine after an intervention program. Their cue wasn’t the situation itself, it was the reminder to do the habit within the situation.

Tracking my goal/habit on Google Calendar

As I mentioned earlier, consistent repetition can only get you so far.

Eventually, to make it stick, you’ll need to generalise. This just means to do it in a bunch of different contexts and situations so that your brain links all these cues to your targeted habit. That way, you’re not relying on only one thing to prompt you. This is especially important for broader goals like “eating healthy foods” or “doing more exercise”. You don’t want to find that you’re forgetting your newly formed habit whenever your prompt doesn’t appear.

Planning the jump

Sometimes life can become too busy and things can fall off the radar. That’s ok. I find that being intentional, making a plan and trying to schedule time for myself is really helpful.

There are so many apps, devices and tools that all seem to target habit formation so it can be hard to decide where to begin. My approach is to try a few things and use what works. It will be slightly different for everyone.

What’s a habit you’re trying to create or do for yourself?


References
  1. Lally, P. and Gardner, B., 2013. Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup 1), pp.S137-S158. [Article here]
  2. Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H. and Wardle, J., 2009. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), pp.998-1009. [Article here]
  3. Keller, J., Kwasnicka, D., Klaiber, P., Sichert, L., Lally, P. and Fleig, L., 2021. Habit formation following routine‐based versus time‐based cue planning: A randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Health Psychology, 26(3), pp.807-824. [Article here]
  4. Carden, L. and Wood, W., 2018. Habit formation and change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 20, pp.117-122. [Article here]

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