I am a creature of routines and rituals. Whilst I enjoy indulging the occasional impulsive whim, most of my days would be fairly easy to predict.
Every day, I wake up at a similar time and complete the same morning routine. I do a little physical and mental exercise before I check my phone. I write my diary whilst I have the same breakfast. I make the same sandwiches before I set off at a similar time and take the same route to work. When I arrive I have a short routine of making a cup of tea, stretching and meditating before I check my to-do list and set off into the garden to start my work for the day.
Don’t get me wrong, every day is unique, with something new to see, something new to learn and something different to enjoy, but by creating a regular structure to the day and making these activities habitual means I now do them as if on autopilot, freeing the rest of my concentration, willpower and energy for more cognitively demanding tasks.
One habit I have developed and refined since I started at Dew Pond House is my end of day routine. The process of cleaning and returning the tools to their correct place in the shed and tidying my working area each evening as I work my way through a mental checklist means I am reassured that all the tasks for the day are finished and everything is back where it should be.
When I used to do gardening rounds I had the annoying habit of leaving one tool behind in the garden when I left. In many cases this would be somewhere we may not be returning to for another two weeks. I quickly built a routine where tools were checked off the van at the start of a job, and back on at the end, to reduce the need for return trips.
The topping and tailing of the day with these routines makes me feel as though I have given the day the best possible start, and have completed everything I need to at the end of the day. I can then switch off from work for the evening without any nagging thoughts I have forgotten to do something.
They are not always good habits. Like many people I have developed the annoying habit of reaching to check my phone whenever I feel my attention waning from the task in hand. The trouble is, making bad habits is just as easy as making good habits. So how can we go about building more useful habits?
The first step is identifying our habits. By taking notice of our regular patterns of behaviour we can start to notice the different elements of the ‘habit loop’ and find a way to convert our routines into beneficial ones.
We first need to identify the triggers that initiate our repetitive behaviour. By recognising the ‘trigger’ and the routine associated with it, we can use that same trigger to prompt another, more beneficial behaviour.
The middle part of the loop is the behaviour itself, the action we want to alter or replace with a new routine.
The final part of the habit loop is reward. If the reward when we perform our routine behaviour is positive, it will become associated with that behaviour and we will naturally want to repeat the action the next time we experience our trigger.
I recently used this principle to train for a half marathon. I hated running when I was younger, but have since managed to create a habit loop that enabled me to train regularly and last weekend, I completed my first ever half marathon.
Usually my alarm would go off and I would get out of bed to turn it off. One of my initial reactions would be to start checking my email, and before long my concentration was lost to it. Simply by placing my running kit by the phone I knew what needed to be done and I was quickly able to replace the habit with a new one. There were days when I struggled to stick to it, but I reassured myself every step I took was one closer to my goal. Eventually I began to look forward to my run. The run itself got the blood pumping and the drop in blood pressure gave a shot of endorphins which acted as a reward. When I got back, I would give myself a glass of juice as reward, and post my run details on Facebook. I know for many people it may seem annoying, but the little kick of dopamine I got every time I received a virtual pat on the back from one of my friends as a like or comment meant the reward was further reinforced throughout the day, making me even keener to get out and run again.
Even after I have completed my goal of running the half marathon, that positive habit of wanting to go for a run before I dip into my phone each morning is still there and will become even easier every time I complete the loop. Now I just need to create a new habit that will stop myself checking my phone every few minutes during the day.