Using Change to Create New Habits – A Personal Challenge


Do you ever take your route to work when you mean to go to the supermarket? If so, it is down to the power of habits. Those things you do routinely, almost unconsciously – there’s more of them than you think. I was on the plane to Melbourne recently when an article on ‘the force of habit’ in the New Statesman caught my eye. The article’s author Teal Burrell says “the best times to break habits or create new ones are when we go on a trip, change jobs or move house.” As it happens I was just about to live down under for ten weeks, so I decided this was an ideal time for me to try create some new positive habits. Here is how I am getting on.

66 is the magic number

Habits are good as they streamline our lives but it is hard to break and to form new habits. The evidence suggests that habits are contextual and the best time to change habits is when you change context or environment such as going on holiday, moving house or job. Changing and forming habits also takes time, typically 66 days or almost 10 weeks, the time I will be away. So I wanted to see if I could form some positive new habits during my stay down under to help me stay updated and informed in a fast changing world. Here is my take on Teal’s article, my plans and my success so far.

You are on autopilot 40% of the time

Habits are important because they make our lives easier. The reduce the amount of focus we need to give certain tasks, we can do them on autopilot. This allows us to think of other things when we drive or brush our teeth or just relax. The New Statesman article reports on research by Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California that as much as 40% of our daily tasks are habitual.

Ann Graybiel, a neuroscientist at MIT believes that the brain chunks up habitual behaviour so you don’t need to think about it. Her research shows that neuronal activity occurs at the beginning and at the end of a habitual activity suggesting the brain has packaged the actions together to avoid wasting energy when they are repeated. This is great for streamlining our thinking but it can make it hard to break old habits and form new ones. It can be easy to slip back into habitual patterns such as driving to the office when you actually going somewhere else.

Selecting an anchor for new habits

I have previously written about habits and even set out 5 tips to create a daily learning habit. The most important tip in my view is to use a current habit as an anchor. Thus you can decide you will do something after, before or during an event that you do every day. After is the preferred way for BJ Fogg, who’s very good on setting Tiny Habits to create new routines.

Providing physical cues to support you

Habits are triggered by certain cues and contexts. Simple, concrete steps are generally more effective. This might as simple as having your notebook by your bed as Teal Burrell does to encourage you to write something each evening. Another might be keep the yoga mat at the end of your bed to encourage you to stretch each morning.

Be precise and start small

The evidence suggests that you can start with small changes, which allow you to be very precise about what you are going to do. BJ Fogg uses the example of flossing your teeth. To make that a habit, start with flossing just one tooth. Next week you can move onto two.

Be self-aware

In Teal’s article she refers to the importance of self-awareness, what do you find easy and what do you find easy. Start with the easy stuff. Teal highlights Gretchen Rubin’s advice that the first step to breaking and creating habits is self awareness, understanding yourself, your triggers and responses.

My targets

I decided to start with some simple targets that I feel confident I can do and anchor these to a current daily habit either before or after something. My simple targets were:

  • Stretch with some simple Yoga positions before I shower each morning.
  • Share and comment on one article each morning when I read news articles online prior to starting work. I think sharing and commenting is important in helping to create a smart team.
  • Read an article every day from a scientific publication such as New Scientist via my personal feed on AI and big data

My last new habit was the most ambitious and that was to write some fiction every day, ideally 1,000 words but even a paragraph would be ok. I aimed to do this each evening before I retired to bed.

Don’t fret about slip-ups

It can take up to 3 months to change or form new habits. A study by University College London found it took an average of 66 days to forms new habit but there was a significant variation. Rubin says “people who do better are the people that show themselves compassion.” So I have decided to go easy on myself.

My progress and reflections

So far my progress has not been as good as I had hoped (so much for going easy on myself). The yoga and stretching is working fine. I think this is because I enjoy it and it is easy to do. It is already becoming a habit maybe because it was also tied closely to an anchor. Some mornings I have even backed out of the shower realising that I hadn’t yet stretched.

I have also done reasonably well on reading a scientific article about big data or AI. I think again this is because I enjoy reading such articles and I already have a good habit of reviewing my feeds and reading many articles each morning. So it comes quite naturally.

I have fared less well so far on my other two targets.

I have only shared a couple of articles I have read and not really commented on them. I haven’t really anchored this to an existing habit and it also takes time to make an informed comment. I think I haven’t really seen it as important as no one is expecting me to comment on an article. That said I am not short of opinions and I have commented on news articles on Facebook.

My idea about writing some fiction every day died after day one. I think I was too ambitious as I was very busy already and writing fiction so far has been squeezed out as I prioritise work tasks. I also think my idea of writing in the evenings was a bad mistake. I knew that I focused on work fairly much from the time I get up so I thought I could get work out of way and write later in the evening. The reality is that I have been too tired to write in the evenings. I also didn’t anchor this to a specific daily task, just a vague time of day. I need to rethink this task. I think it may be too much for me to take on whilst I am currently travelling. Maybe I should have just focused on a few tasks to start with.

Is it working?

I think using a change of scene to forge new habits is a sensible premise. However, I think understanding yourself and starting small is critical. I also think choosing a very specific anchor is very important and failing to do this reduces the odds on forming new habits. I didn’t specifically anchor my idea of writing in the evenings to an existing habit. Also I learnt that jet lag also doesn’t help you write in the evenings. Hopefully I’ll get over that soon.