How to form a new habit

The cool part about habits is that they’re your brain’s way of saving on thinking. When you try something new, your brain records what you’re doing and after you do the same thing multiple times, your brain says, “I’ve got it! You can run on auto-pilot now.”

That’s why you don’t have to think about how to drive every time you get behind the wheel of a car. And how when you take a shower or brush your teeth your mind can wander. How many of us come up with brilliant ideas in the shower? You can thank your shower habit for taking over giving you time to think.

A great way to form a new habit is to tie it into an existing habit. Then your brain can use some of the same cues you had for an old habit and re-purpose them into a launch pad for a new habit.

Let’s say you want to start exercising. What habit can you tie into to make this a successful launch? You have thousands of habits strung together that make up each day. What are you going to bump out or add to?

Pema Chodron talks about using “compassionate inquiry” as a non-judgmental way to figure out how you spend your time. Let’s practice compassionate inquiry in an exercise looking for 20 minutes to exercise.

To keep this simple, let’s look at a few of the habits that make up your morning:

  • What time do you generally wake up or get up to an alarm, and how much sleep do you need?
  • Do you make the bed as soon as you get up, make it later, or leave it as is?
  • Do you brush your teeth and shower before you eat breakfast or after?
  • When you take a shower and brush your teeth, do you straighten the bathroom as you go or as you leave?
  • Do you eat breakfast? What do your normally eat and how much time does it take to prepare and eat?
  • While you’re eating, do you watch TV? Read the paper? Read a book? Cruise the web? Talk to others? Or just eat?
  • When you get dressed, if something is ripped, do you pull it out of the closet or drawer to be taken care of later, put it back where you found it or fix it?
  • Do you pack a lunch for work or buy lunch out?
  • Do you clean the dishes as you go, put them in the dishwasher, or leave them until later?
  • Do you walk, run, bike, or drive to work?
  • Do you tend to run on time or are you generally late? How much flexibility do you have about what time you get to work?

Now that you have a picture of some of the many habits that make up your morning, where you can find 20 minutes to start an exercise habit?

  • Wake up 20 minutes earlier (and go to bed 20 minutes earlier) and exercise first thing in the day
  • Change from a complex breakfast (eggs, toast) to a simpler breakfast (yogurt, smoothie) to save time
  • Concentrate on eating in the morning without any distractions – then hustle outside for a walk or run
  • Move morning chores, like bathroom or kitchen straightening or weeding out drawers, until later in the day. I’ll note here that I hate leaving the bed unmade, dishes in the sink, or a torn item in a drawer – but I would steal this time to get started on an exercise routine, and trust that once I got in the exercise habit, I’d also get the bed made and laundry into the right place before heading out for a run 🙂
  • Get exercise on the way to work or while running chores. Or walk, run, or bike to outside events and park further away so you can walk in
  • If you pack your lunch, do it the night before
  • If your work hours are flexible, arrive 20 minutes later

Or maybe you look at these ideas and realize that exercise in the morning is something that is not going to work for you. Great! Now you know!

So what habits can you change at lunch? Or in the evening? Here’s a helpful video from (love this site!) about best times to exercise.

Wherever you find your 20 minutes, step two is to schedule time into your planner. When you put something in your planner you are making a commitment to yourself to get it done. Plan the time. Mark it if it got done. And if you didn’t get to it, move it to the next day.

At the end of a week, look at how you did. If the timing didn’t work, make adjustments and try a new plan for the next week. And the next. By planning, tracking, and adjusting, at the end of a month, you’ll have a new habit that you can think about less – and may actually enjoy doing.

Remember – we never get everything right. And doing new things takes brain power! And if the change doesn’t happen all at once, at least you’ve put a crack in the sidewalk. And where there’s a crack, something will grow. Crack into your habits and see what happens this week.

Crack in the sidewalk

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