Creating Habits

On the corkboard over my desk at home in Boston, I have a bunch of stickies, all with sayings that I want to remember written on them. One of them says,

You are what you do every day. So what are you doing every day?

It’s a reminder to myself about the power of habit. I wrote it because I realized something in a very concrete way, a way that had to do with my own body: if I exercised every day, even for only ten minutes, my body looked and felt different than if I didn’t. The daily habit of exercising made me a different person, both physically and functionally. And I thought, I bet everything works like that. I bet if you do something every day, it changes you. It forms you. You quite literally are the sum of your daily habits.

So I started trying to create habits of various sorts, daily but also weekly, monthly.

A habit is something you do habitually: without thinking about it too much. For example, every morning, I make my bed. I don’t think about it too much. I just make it. My bed is very easy to make: just fluff up the pillows, straighten the top sheet and coverlet. If I don’t make the bed, the bedroom looks messy, and I feel messy. Internally messy, as though I had left something important undone. At night, I wash all the dishes, so the next morning I can wake up to clean dishes, dry and waiting to be put away. I put them away and make breakfast. Habits are the things you do automatically.

One thing I’ve learned recently, as I’ve gotten busier and busier with the things that are truly important (teaching, writing), is that it helps a great deal if you have good habits. If you are very busy, if you have things that are important to do, it helps if you simplify your life and make certain things habitual. In the morning, I wake up and exercise, first thing. Then comes breakfast, which is also a habit, since I eat the same thing every day: in Boston, oatmeal and here in Budapest, muesli. Making my bed, putting away the dishes, doing any other necessary tidying. And then I can start my day, feeling clear and mentally fresh. I can go on to do the things that take creativity, energy.

There are all sorts of things you can make habitual, so you don’t have to think about them too much. Meditating. Paying your bills. Eating vegetables. You can consciously build habits that make you heathier, happier, more productive.

Why is this so important? Recently, I’ve seen some interesting articles on willpower, on the fact that we have less of it than we think. Willpower is actually not a very good way to get things done, because we have to exert it every time. We have to say, I WILL do that. But willpower involves overcoming inertia, which is a powerful force: your tendency to do the same thing, rather than something new. (You will know what I mean if you’ve ever joined a gym, intending to go every week, and then . . . not gone. And blamed yourself for not going.) What habit does is use the power of inertia. The habit becomes inertial. It’s easier to follow a habit than to break it.

So how do you create a habit? Because to create a habit in the first place, you have to overcome inertia, exert willpower. That’s the hard part. Here are some tricks I’ve developed for creating habits.

1. Make it as easy as possible.

It took me a long time to develop the habit of exercising every day. When I thought of exercise as going to the gym, I almost never went. First, I would have to pack my gym clothes, and then actually go to the gym, and then exercise for at least half an hour to make the trip worthwhile. Then I would have to come home and shower, because I hated showering at the gym. The whole thing took at least an hour out of my day, and I didn’t have that kind of time to spare. Now, what do I do? I get up. I put on music. I do a combination of stretches, pilates, and yoga for ten or twenty minutes. My pajamas are stretchy and work perfectly as exercise clothes. My rug is a perfectly adequate workout mat. I don’t need any equipment. All I need to do is press the play button. If I don’t want to exercise that morning, if I’ve been up too late and am too tired, I tell myself that all I need to do is some stretches, that’s all, no more than that. But when the music comes on, I almost always end up doing more, because . . . it’s a habit.

Whatever habit you want to create, think about what will make it as easy as possible. If you want to eat more vegetables, buy fresh vegetables and a steamer. (Although the way I do it is even easier . . . frozen vegetables. I boil or steam some every night, then have them either with a little butter, or on whole wheat pasta.) If you want to make a habit of paying bills, arrange them so paying bills becomes easy. Your bank probably has an online billing and payment system you can use.

2. Make it as pleasurable as possible.

I hate gyms. It’s infinitely more pleasurable to exercise in my pretty living room, to music I have picked out. I don’t particularly like washing dishes, but I love my dishes, which have roses on them. So there’s an aesthetic pleasure even in dishwashing. Whatever habit you want to create, ask yourself, how do I make this an aesthetic pleasure? Or at least more pleasing . . . Even cleaning is a more pleasurable experience when you use cleaning products that smell of lavender or orange flowers.

3. Find an immediate benefit.

We are not very good at working for benefits that might come to us in a hypothetical future. This is one reason dieting is so difficult, because it takes between a week and a month to see even the smallest benefits. It’s much easier to change what you eat because it makes you feel better, today. There are very few things I don’t eat (I’m an omnivore), but as much as possible I make sure that I’m eating brown bread, rice, pasta, because I found that the white versions had an immediate effect on my mood: within hours I would go through a mood spike and crash. It’s great that exercise makes me healthier in the long run, but the reason I do it every day is that it makes me feel better that day: if I don’t stretch every morning, my back and arms start to hurt from working on the computer.

It’s strange to think as much about habits as I have in this blog post, because the whole point is to not think about them. You want them to take up as little mental space as possible, so you can save your mental space for the important things: writing great novels, creating great works of art. Even teaching great classes. I would rather save my willpower for the things in my life that require creativity and energy, the things you can’t do from habit. Anything else, I try to make as easy and automatic as possible. After all, I have more important things to do with my time . . .

Church 4

Church 2

(These photos are of the garden beside the Inner City Parish Church in Budapest, which dates back to the 13th century. One reason I’ve been thinking about habits recently is that even in Budapest, I’ve been exercising every morning and eating healthily, buying food at the local health food store. I think those habits are so ingrained by now that I follow them even when I’ve been so dislocated, flying across the Atlantic ocean. And thank goodness for them, because they keep me healthy and happy . . .)

Church 5

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11 thoughts on “Creating Habits

  1. I agree with you that habits are really important. Even though it’s good to be spontaneous sometimes, I like having a routine and habits definitely play a part in that. :)

  2. Speaking to your point about immediate benefits, when I finish a story and I know it’s okay, I get the sense of accomplishment. Over the course of time that fades, with rejection and when the novelty wears off. But I’ve always got another one on the go.
    There is an immediate benefit, and yes, that pie in the sky benefit that this one might go, this one might be a good sale….your personal habits, the housekeeping, sound familiar. Cleaning the bathroom on a Saturday night might sound a bit tragic–but hey, I like having a roof over my head and a clean bathroom. I don’t–I can’t, take that for granted. It is an actual accomplishment these days, isn’t it? Some people don’t even have that.

    • A student once asked me how I keep writing, and I told him, quite honestly, that I was at the point where I was selling and getting paid. The getting published and paid gave me incentive . . . The hard part is keeping on writing until you get there! And even when I’m writing something long like a novel, I have to find the immediate pleasure without knowing whether it will sell.

  3. As a Wise Friend once said to me, better is the enemy of good. Many of my dearest ones have habits that distract them from living their dreams. Overediting, working for lots of money, neglecting family, health, overexercising!
    Neatness for me is double sided. A clean sink and bathroom are usually a given but if I’m traveling I dump things in bags, or piles or boxes at home and roll on. Rituals however, like stopping to smell, to breathe, to eat, to laugh…these, for me, are not habits, they are essential.

    • I agree that bad habits (meaning the ones that get in the way of what you really want to do) are a problem. Then it’s a matter of breaking the inertia of the habit . . . Often, you have to first figure out what the habit is giving you, which is usually an immediate pleasure. And then you have to figure out how to create a new habit instead . . .

  4. Totally agree that the reward is important. I’ve always found habits helpful to do the more mindless tasks i don’t like that yet need to be done. Leaving more mental energy for creative pursuits.

  5. I needed this. Just found out I “need” biopsies of both breasts… my habits have flown the coop and they weren’t even especially good ones. Will try to start small and stay steady. thanks.

  6. Thought provoking article – thank you.

    I have found a good way for me to create a habit is to nest it in front of another habit. For example, I floss every day now because:
    – I always brushed every evening before bed,
    – I could link the behaviors together, and
    – My mouth felt cleaner after flossing.

    After reading your post, I’m thinking about daily exercise before I shower every morning…

  7. I started a reply yesterday, but my cat insisted on attention, so that is one of my habits. Pay attention to cat, or other beloved one. . Early on I knew I wanted to be some kind of artist and began habits that have lasted for a lifetime. Balance is precious. I love writing, drawing and performing. It all goes into the strange place where poems and stories are woven and presented to me. Sometimes a bad habit appears and when I realize that, it is like tending a garden. Off with blight. As usual, I thank you for another thoughtful and lovely post.

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