How I changed my habits and changed my life

Daily rituals, routines, habits. Lately this seems to be a popular point of discussion. Up until about a year ago, though, I hadn’t given much thought to my habits, other than when I was trying to break a bad one. But since I’ve started to form new habits, my life has changed significantly, for the better.

What are habits? ‘Habits,’ writes Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits, ‘are the invisible architecture of daily life.’ They are the things we do every day, often automatically.’ She continues:

We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.

Most of the time we are engaged in habitual behavior, from how we sleep to what we eat, even what we think. We seldom stop to question these things. Aside from the obvious benefits of stopping bad habits like addictions, and adopting healthier habits like an exercise routine or mindfulness practice, habits have another important benefit. They free up time. They do this by cutting out the decision-making process. Modern life has an abundance of options, and the freedom to choose between them. Yet all this freedom can result in anxiety. As Kierkegaard puts it, ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.’ Habits free you up from having to make decisions so you don’t have to expend energy on self-control and discipline. When habits become automatic, you no longer have to think about whether you should or shouldn’t do something. You don’t have to worry about making the right choice, or use willpower.

dizziness

Hayashi Takahiko, Untitled, mixed media on paper (1998)

The issue of willpower is key. Habits may be started through will, but willpower won’t sustain them. Exercising constant self-control is exhausting. This is why our willpower often fails at night time, after spending all day trying to stay in control and make all the right choices. And stopping something through will alone is seldom if ever successful. Why you do something is the most important factor behind it effectiveness. I found that when I was inspired to change my habits not because I felt I should or out of a sense of guilt, but simply because I wanted to be happier, this is what made them stick.

Habits are comforting, too. Gretchen Rubin writes:

When we’re worried or overtaxed, a habit comforts us. Research suggests that people feel more in control and less anxious when engaged in habit behavior … When we’re anxious or tired, we fall back on our habits, whether bad or good … For this reason, it’s all the more important to try to shape habits mindfully, so that when we fall back on them at times of stress, we’re following activities that make our situation better, not worse.

Habits are the building blocks of change. There are various theories about how long it takes to form a habit, ranging from 21 days to two months. I like Tim Ferriss’s idea of trying something new for two weeks. He also recommends trying to form more than one habit at the same time, to get momentum. The idea of momentum is another important aspect in making any kind of change, and one that motivational expert Tony Robbins talks about a lot. If there is one person who is able to get you moving forward even when you feel hopelessly stuck, it is him, and if you don’t read any further, I highly recommend listening to this talk, which has inspired millions of people to take action, many of whom have gone on to find great success.

Robbins talks a lot about changing your state. He says you can’t make any kind of change if you are in a state of low energy. You can say all the positive affirmations you want, grit your teeth and do you everything you think you ought to be doing, but it won’t work if you haven’t first primed yourself, and got yourself into a state where your energy is elevated enough that you are able to believe what you are saying or doing, to feel it in your body and not just as a rational concept. He especially recommends movement, preferably first thing in the morning, but there are other options like taking a very cold bath or doing gratitude practices (you can listen to his ten-minute practice here).

What is great about habits is that anyone can start doing them straight away and experience increased well-being, whether you are a successful entrepreneur or a struggling student. You don’t need special skills or money or extra time. You can begin right now and experience more contentment throughout the day. Conversely you can be a billionaire or CEO with poor habits and not be happy moment to moment, despite your external achievements.

Below I have written about various different habits from morning routines to creative pursuits. I started writing this piece a few months ago, and having been off work for a few weeks, I’ve found some bad habits creeping back in and hope that this will give me the push I need to get back on track.

For motivation before making any changes, I highly recommend listening to any of Tony Robbins’s talks (see the link above), or this interview with Marie Forleo. I also recommend Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris, where he has distilled hundreds of hours of interviews with inspirational and successful people asking them about their daily rituals. And this article by James Altucher. He believes that just as it’s true that we are the average of the five people we surround ourselves with, we are also the average of the five things we do every day.

Sleep

‘Sleep is the best meditation.’the Dalai Lama

This is the one I struggle with the most. I resist going to sleep and honestly wish we didn’t have to sleep at all. It feels like a waste of precious time. But I know now that getting more sleep has more impact than anything else on my mood, anxiety and energy levels. The problem before was that I never tried it out for long enough to see the effects, which are not necessarily instant. It takes a while for the body to adjust to new sleeping habits. As Albert Buhr writes in his book about overcoming anxiety, Angel of Fear, ‘You can’t catch up in one night of extra sleep, it takes a few weeks for your body to stop producing stress hormones that keep you awake to go back to its natural rhythm.’

Here are some tips I have found useful for getting more sleep.

  1. Turn off technology at least one hour before bed. Set a reminder on your phone one hour before you want to go to sleep. At this point, turn your phone onto airplane mode and put it in another room or out of reach. I got this idea from Mimi Ikonn’s vlog on her morning routine, which has some simple but really useful tips.
  2. Don’t eat or drink anything three hours before you go to bed. (This is a tough one for me, as I really like late-night sweet snacks, but I’ve found that when I follow it I have a much deeper sleep and feel better the next day.)
  3. Do a relaxation exercise or meditation before bed. If you find meditation difficult, try listening to one of Tara Brach’s guided meditations or Louise Hay’s evening meditation, which you can do in bed before you go to sleep. There are also many different meditation apps you can download.
  4. Have a bath with Epsom salts and lavender oil. The magnesium in the Epsom salt is also great for calming and regulating mood, especially if you are magnesium deficient, as apparently many of us are. It is used in emergency rooms for patients with irregular heartbeats. You can also use magnesium spray or take supplements. The most easily absorbed forms are magnesium citrate, glycinate taurate or aspartate and some chelated forms. Avoid magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate and oxide as they are poorly absorbed. I take this one.
  5. Close the curtains and dim your lights after sunset. If you don’t have a dimmer you can drape something over your lampshades or use candles.
  6. Stick to the same sleep schedule every day, if at all possible going to bed and waking up at the same time on weekends, even if you don’t have to go to work. Your body takes time to adjust, and it doesn’t work to sporadically catch up sleep.

grace hartigan dreams

Grace Hartigan, The dream, oil on canvas (1922)

Morning routines

The first thing you in the morning has a big impact on the rest of your day.

  1. Don’t go on to your phone first thing after waking. I used to go straight onto social media, and it was effective in waking me up, but also left me feeling mildly irritable and stressed. I  started to do this again recently and after months of reduced social media, the negative effects were very noticeable. Of course there are many positive aspects to social media, but there’s also a lot of pessimism and posturing, and I am still trying to figure out how best to approach and use it as a positive platform without being guilty of the things I least like about it. Also avoid checking emails before work if possible.
  2. Drink a large glass or two of water straight away on an empty stomach, before you brush your teeth or have breakfast. This is really good for digestion, and rehydrates you after several hours of no liquid. Also if like me you struggle to drink eight glasses in a day, this is an easy way to ensure you get at least one or two glasses in. Apparently this is something many Japanese women do for its health benefits and especially for improving skin tone.
  3. Write in a gratitude journal. I recommend Intelligent Change’s Five Minute Journal created by Mimi and Alex Ikonn. Remembering the things you already have to be thankful for and setting positive intentions for the day is a much better way to start it than worrying about your to-do list or the things you didn’t get round to yesterday. As Tony Robbins says, it is impossible to feel anxious or depressed and grateful at the same time. You can make your own journal, by copying these headings into a notebook. In the mornings, write these three headings:
  • I am grateful for … (list three things)
  • What would make today great? (list three things) and
  • Daily affirmations. I am …

And in the evenings:

  • Three amazing things that happened today
  • What I could do better tomorrow.

You could also try Julia Cameron’s morning pages or alternate between both.

  1.  A short exercise routine, preferably cardio. Even 5 to 10 minutes on an exercise bike can shift your state and raise your energy levels.
  2. Say some affirmations out loud. The most important thing about affirmations is to feel and experience what you are saying as true, rather than just repeating words. To do this, use a positive, upbeat and energetic tone. Phrase everything in the present tense (you can use continuous tense for things that are in the process of happening). Start with what you already have and build up to what you are manifesting. You can also voice gratitude for things as if they have already materialised. Saying affirmations didn’t come easily for me at first.  I felt silly and fake and didn’t really believe what I was saying. I listened to some of Louise Hay’s talks, which helped, and spoke out loud in front of a mirror, which though uncomfortable is much more effective. If you are feeling stuck about where to start, or find it hard to use positive self-talk, you could start with a suggestion from Japanese naikan therapy, which recommends taking the time to acknowledge the fact that everything in your life, from the phone you use every day to the food you eat, exists because of the effort of others. Someone invented and then made the computer you use, someone grew and harvested the beans that became your coffee. So basically we can be grateful for absolutely everything. You can listen to David Reynolds, who based his Constructive Living Approach on naikan therapy, on The One You Feed podcast. He says: ‘We are all supported by many different factors, we do not do it on our own. Success does not just come from ourselves. Every action we take is supported by the food we eat, money, technology created by others.’ This is echoed by Albert Einstein in his essay ‘The World as I See It’:

Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

  1. While you are making breakfast or getting ready for work, listen to an audiobook or podcast. Some recommendations: The Tim Ferris Show, The James Altucher Show, Tara Brach, On Being with Krista Tippet, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons, The One You Feed, Think Again, Design Matters with Debbie Millman, Philosophy Bites, The New York Public Library Podcast, Between the Covers, Lit Up, Happier with Gretchen Rubin and The Partially Examined Life.
  2. Take supplements. I take a multi-vitamin (see Dr Mark Hyman’s recommendations on what to look for – I recommend Alive Max Daily Multi-Vitamin), magnesium, Vitamin D (make sure it is D3) omega and probiotics. There will always be debate around whether we need to take vitamins (see the above link to Dr Hyman’s article), but I have definitely noticed a difference in my skin, hair and energy since I started taking them.
  3. Meditate. Even if just for five minutes. You can use an app, or simply do a relaxation exercise where you run through each body part from head to toe consciously releasing tense or clenched muscles, and focusing on your breathing. For some other ideas, you can try tonglen or metta meditation.

During the day

  1. Identify your most important task. I recommend following Intelligent Change’s productivity planner, created by Alex Ikonn. You can make your own if you don’t want to buy one – all the headings are shown on the website. The idea is to limit your activities to five main tasks. The first one would be your primary task, the one thing that if you achieved would make your day feel worthwhile. Then identify two secondary tasks followed by two additional ones. Alex recommends breaking each task into 45-minute sessions. You could use a timer for this, which tends to help keep you focused. At the end of the day you can rate your productivity out of ten and make a note for improvements. In the past I usually put at least 10 items on my daily to-so list and felt like I’d failed when I didn’t complete them all,
    so this has really helped me.
  2. Try to get outdoors every day and get some sunlight and fresh air.
  3. Try to move around as much as you can. In my previous job I spent a lot of time at my desk, so I would sometimes walk up and down a flight of stairs for about 10 minutes. I found I came up with a lot of my writing and other ideas while doing this. I definitely believe that moving, or walking, helps you to think more clearly.
  4. Have moments of presence. Even twenty seconds of being completely conscious and aware of what is happening inside your body and in your surroundings can alter your brain, moving you from limbic reactivity to the more evolved prefrontal cortex. As Yongey Rinpoche suggests, setting aside lengthy slots of time for meditation, which often discourages people from doing it at all, has less effect than meditating for brief moments and off throughout the day, stopping to take in what is around you with all your senses and stepping out of your thoughts. I’d recommend his book for some useful tips on meditation.

After work

  1. Do something creative. This could be writing, painting, dancing, playing the piano. Many books have been written on the importance of creating. It seems that once our basic needs have been met,  we spend most of our time trying to get through things, ticking off to-do lists, worrying about money and the future and what other people think of us, when ultimately what we are here to do is create. However this is still seen as a luxury, the thing that day after day gets pushed to the bottom of our lists, put off until tomorrow. This neglect and denial of our true purpose is the source of much, if not all, suffering, and it can go on for years. As it did for me – all my life I wanted to write, and fantasised about a life where I wrote every day, but only started doing so the year I turned 38. The turning point for me was an exercise mentioned in Natalie Goldberg’s excellent book Writing Down the Bones. I think this could be applied to any activity. The idea is to trick your mind into committing to only ten minutes of doing something every day. With the writing exercise, you start by recording the time, and then continue for ten minutes without stopping. Don’t edit or stop to think. You can continue past ten minutes, but don’t stop before then. You can also try using a kitchen timer, setting it for ten or more minutes and not stopping until it rings. And there is the Japanese kaizan technique, which I wrote about here. Forming a writing habit has been the single most transformative change for me, and if I had to choose one word to write on a billboard, it would be CREATE.
  2. Do some exercise. Anything from running to dancing or swimming. I find music always helps to lift my mood, as does being outdoors if possible.
  3. Avoid TV or series if you can. If like me you live alone and really enjoy watching something in the evening or while you eat dinner, instead of a TV show you could try YouTube – there are many inspirational YouTubers out there, and their videos are usually under 20 minutes long and posted daily or weekly, so you won’t find yourself getting as easily sucked in to watching several long episodes back to back. I’ll sometimes watch a talk or interview, like this ten-part series based on Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth. Or a Marie Forleo interview, a talk by Pema Chödrön or one of my favourite fiction authors, or one of Mimi or Alex Ikonn’s vlogs. And for something lighter, Marian Keyes or Zoella, whose down-to-earth natures, warmth and compassion I find comforting.

How to create extra time

  1. Reduce social media. Try to establish a rule about how often you will check your phone. While I was off work this went out the window (with detrimental effects), but I am trying to go back to checking it on average four times a day — after breakfast, at lunch if I have time, and once or twice in the evening. This may be extreme, but I have also permanently turned off all notifications on my phone, so that I am not compelled to respond straight away to every message that comes through, which for me used to quickly turn into lengthy back and forth texting or the temptation to start browsing and moving between apps after I’d checked the initial message. I would often find that hours had gone by and I was still on my phone after I had picked it up to look at one message.
  2. While you are doing housework or getting ready for work listen to an audiobook or podcast – you could study another language, learn about topics that interest you, and get ideas and inspiration.
  3. Sacrifice one thing, and more than likely this thing will be TV. I love watching series. But I’d never have been able to do all the writing, reading and listening I have over the past year, or started up new habits like meditation and daily exercise, if I’d continued watching series every day.
  4. Realise that time is self-created and not an imposed reality. Gay Hendricks writes about this in The Big Leap, referencing Albert Einstein’s theory that time is relative. Hendricks explains that time is not something fixed ‘out there’, but something we produce. We are responsible for how we experience time and can take ownership of it. It is a mindset, and if you believe and tell yourself you have enough time do the things you want to do, you will.
  5. Use a timer. The pressure of anticipating an alarm going off and then assessing what you’ve achieved in 45 minutes or an hour definitely makes you more conscious of how you are using your time.

wilhelmina

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Line series with circle, mixed media on paper (1975)

Maintaining and replacing habits

There is of course another side to habits, which can enslave us if we are too rigid about maintaining them. Change is an inevitable part of life, necessary for growth, and this applies to habits too. I find I need to keep adjusting, developing and improving habits, as I have a tendency to get enthused about things and then lose interest unless I maintain a feeling of inspiration, which I do by reading new books, listening to talks and following the leads and recommendations that come up in these.

And lastly, when it comes to breaking bad habits, it’s true that the best method is to replace them with new ones. So I try to keep adjusting and finding ways to replace any habit I have dropped out of choice or necessity with something healthy – to prevent an old bad habit from creeping in.

 

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