In the last few weeks I’ve given several webinars on how to maintain health and well-being during the current pandemic. Some common questions at the end of the presentation include how to stay focused, how to cope with stress, and how to maintain healthy relationships when we are all in each other’s space all the time. As a result, I’ve decided to publish a series of posts answering these questions. This one is about the benefits of creating positive habits.
Good habits are repeated actions that bring about predictable positive results. The best way to achieve a sense of control and a sense of mattering is to make helpful habits. Many of us have started something new during the pandemic, like spending more quality time with our kids, but few of us continue. Mark Twain said that quitting smoking was the easiest thing. He did it a thousand times. Like him, many start quitting, but few stick with it. Many start exercising, few keep it up. Many start volunteering, not many return. The trick is to turn a positive behavior into a habit, not into a false start. How can you turn a phone call to your mother into a routine? How can you say a good word to your employees on a regular basis, and not just during festive occasions? There are two principles that have proven useful in maintaining positive habits.
Know your habits. Most habits, good and bad, happen automatically, and outside of our awareness. We brush our teeth automatically after we get up. This is a good thing. We snack on junk food. The doughnuts, cookies, and potato chips are just irresistible. That is a bad thing. They are there, so we eat them. To eliminate your bad habits (ignoring emails from your colleagues, procrastinating on work assignments, eating junk food, yelling at your kids), and reinforce good ones (showing kindness and respect to your colleagues and family, eating mainly fruits and vegetables, learning new things) you have to become a detective. Find out what things you do automatically, and how they relate to your goal (saving more for retirement, becoming more productive and compassionate, volunteering in the community, eating more veggies).
Keep track of your daily behavior. Like a detective, you are after clues. What situations elicit a positive habit? Under what circumstances do you engage in negative habits? To do that, you need to know your ABCs.
Know your ABCs. Behaviors are usually preceded by an Antecedent, and followed by a Consequence. These are the ABCs of habits. If you plan on responding to emails after dinner, but as soon as you get on your computer you go on social media, the antecedent is social media, and the ensuing behavior is procrastination. You may experience a momentary good consequence: satisfy your curiosity about the whereabouts of friends and celebrities, or the death toll of the current pandemic, but the long term consequence of procrastination is not good. To alter a habit you can modify the antecedents. Make sure there is no social media when you get to the computer. This is a way to suppress a negative behavior. Put your gym clothes next to your bed so that you remember to exercise every morning, even if you cannot go outside (The New York Times has a wonderful section on 6 minute routines you can do at home). This is a way to augment a positive one.
You can also work on consequences. If you feel good about sticking to your workout routine, reinforce yourself. You can tell yourself that you are becoming the person you want to be, healthy. If you made an effort to listen attentively to your spouse’s concern, celebrate the fact that you are becoming an empathetic partner. You can also reward yourself in other ways. Get up and stretch if you just worked for an hour straight.
Some rewards for negative habits are so tantalizing, however, that it is better to avoid the antecedent altogether. The cookie jar in the kitchen, the automatic notification of a news event, or a text from your best friend. These cues release dopamine in your brain, a powerful neurotransmitter that turn us into reward-seeking machines. It is better to control the antecedent than fighting your willpower. The chocolate fudge cake in front of you will win every time.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.