Old habits die hard. You've probably experienced this when you vowed to eat all salads forever, only to crash and burn a few days later. Building new habits takes time. A lot of time. For me, turning my habits into calendar appointments made a huge difference. Here's how this might work for you.
Picture: sdecoret (Shutterstock)
In an ideal world, we'd all easily develop habits that set us up to succeed. Of course, reality is a party-pooper, since building new habits takes constant, concerted effort and repetition. Oftentimes, the challenge lies in just remembering to do the damn thing every day.
Technology to the rescue!
Things have gotten a hell of a lot easier when I started outsourcing these reminders to the alert feature on my calendar, which syncs across my various devices. Hey, if I already fill my weekly calendar with must-do tasks and reminders, then it makes sense to also include a habit I'd want to better develop throughout the week as well. Every time I need to, say, take my creatine supplement, the alert sounds off on my phone and I do it (especially if it takes only a minute).
Simple, right? Except there are juuuuuust a few steps before we get to scheduling any new habit. While we've discussed a similar method for simple habits before, mine is a bit more specific to health and fitness. Here's the first thing to be done:
Break Down the Habit
The time you carve into your calendar must be respected (or else, it becomes pure anarchy). When the alert goes off, you must act on it. What you put as the appointment alert is an important consideration.
The key is to break down the habit to its smallest repeatable step and put that on your calendar. Avoid putting something like "Get better at eating breakfast" because there's nothing specific about getting better that you can really act upon on a daily basis. Rather you might benefit from having something like, "Prepare overnight oats for breakfast tomorrow" instead.
In other words, think about a relevant and low barrier-to-entry for you to consistently practice that habit, even if it's begrudgingly at first. The upshot of breaking down the habit to its most elementary, repeatable step is that you also get to develop the foundational skills to become better and better at the ultimate form of the habit.
Figure Out the Time and Frequency
Ask yourself how often you'd like to realistically do said habit. Based on what you know of your own quirks and schedule, nail down a time or day (or both!) that would be most feasible for you to be available and able to take action. Even if you like to aim high, set the bar low enough that you can stick to this frequency in the long run. Over time, you can raise it as you get better.
For instance, if you were to make those overnight oats, you probably could carve about 15 minutes right before bedtime on a Sunday night to do it. If the habit is something like working out more often, you might want to be alerted three or four times a week in the morning or evening (based on your preferences) to start with.
Add the Main Action Items to Your Calendar
It's time to set the actual alerts. From here, it's about the messaging. In my experience, messages in the forms of commands and questions tend to be more effective.
Homecooked meal with family tonight. versus Prepare a home cooked dinner with family.
Have you worked out today? versus What have you done so far to reach your goal of 3 workouts a week?
What to Do When You Ignore Your Alerts
Many calendars will allow you to set up multiple alerts, but one alert should suffice. The paradox of using appointment alerts to help build habits is that you may eventually become numb to your own alerts.
It's important to honestly assess your progress with the habit. If you find that you are constantly telling your own appointment to shove it and not getting anything done, it could be one of several things:
- Immediate task is too convoluted and not the smallest, repeatable action you can take. Break it down further.
- There could be conflict in the time and frequency; try another time slot and reduce frequency.
- You've associated the alert sound with something else and may ignore it. Try tying a specific sound to your habit appointments.
Remember, in order for this to work, you need to promise yourself to act on each alert as it comes in. If you slack off too much, you'll have a harder time turning it into routine.
Help Drive the Habit Home
Eventually, I find that I'll start to work on the habit before the alerts even come, at which point I delete them or reduce the frequency to bi-weekly or once a month for the occasional reminder. Overall, I chalk it to a success if I've worked it into my routine in some manner — doesn't have to be perfect.
Here are a couple of things to consider to further take that habit home:
- Have follow-up alerts. Set up additional alerts that revolve around the main habit. If you wanted to write in your journal nightly, you may have, "Think about the highs and lows of my day" followed by "What did you write about tonight?"
- Make yourself accountable. Someone to keep you accountable is one option; you could also turn this into a game by rating yourself at the end of each week on how well you did with practicing your habit. 0 for Didn't do sh*t or a 5 for Nailed it!
- One habit at a time. It's hard enough developing one new habit, so trying to master several at once will only make your head explode. Stop it.
- Make sure your life is in order. Excess stress and many life circumstances can interfere with your efforts to build a new habit. For example, if you want to work on improving sleep habits, it simply won't happen if you're working 80 hours a week and taking care of family obligations. It's best to wait for (or force) your situations to become more congruent with your habit goals.
Still, if you find yourself missing alerts here and there, don't call it a wash. These small bumps over the long road have no measurable impact in the long-term — as long as you don't completely throw in the towel.
Some have said it takes 21 days to make a habit stick.
A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology debunked that, concluding that it can take a hell of a lot more time than that — anywhere between 18 to 254 days, according to their findings. That's 2 to 8 months, depending on the habit, the person and the circumstances. Ultimately, though, don't be stuck on specific timelines, only that you should put forth consistent (not perfect) effort over a long, long period of time.
So, if you have trouble building healthier habits, try turning them into appointments that you need to keep because you're investing in yourself. It will get easier with time.