How to actually create a few good habits

As you can probably tell, this post is going to be about building a habit. I have slightly weak muscles, couple that with my 24/7 on the laptop in a bad posture and very little physical activity in general, and you get a pretty solid case of chronic muscle pain throughout the year. I’ve been advised by every single doctor to workout on a regular basis since I was 15, and yet — despite all the pain and the clear incentive to hit the gym — I didn’t stick with my physiotherapy and gymming for more than 5 days, max. This had been going on for yeeears, literally. I’m 24 now and only finally beginning to understand how this habit-building thing works for me.

As you can probably tell, I’ve tried doing this for a long time, used various mechanisms to motivate myself, including my friends, a gym membership at a fancy spa and a new pair of Nikes, but in the end, I would just say — mmm tomorrow. And now, I’ve been working out consistently for a month — which is, trust me, a long time for someone like me — and I realised that somewhere down the road, other factors and acts I never paid attention to have helped me set up this routine.

So here is how I ended up making that happen for myself.

START SO SMALL THAT IT TAKES CLOSE TO ZERO EFFORT

What does that mean? In particular, this one thing I’ve been doing for the past few months has helped me. Brushing my teeth at night. No, I’m not kidding. For years, I was very irregular with my night-time brushing. I’ve had braces, and yet, I would brush the second time in the afternoon maybe, but I’d totally forget to do it on many night. Yes, dental hygiene was not my thing. For the past few months, however, I’ve just made it a point to do so every single night. Just regular, every day brushing. Simple. When I started doing this, I’d want to skip it, but I’d tell myself that it would only take 3–4 more minutes. That’s just a few more seconds. Not too bad. I can do that.

Renaming a certain small, even insignificant activity (okay, brushing is very important, but you know, meh) with the amount of time it took really helped me. After the first few nights, it became easier to convince myself that dental hygiene was not such a momentous milestone, and I’d find it easier to just shrug, say “okay, it’s just going to take few more minutes”, and get it over with.

And yes, eventually, it became a habit. The best, and the worst part, about a habit is that you feel uncomfortable if you don’t do it. And now, it doesn’t matter if I am in a totalled, inebriated state, I’ll go and find my toothbrush before I crash.

SPILLOVER EFFECT IS REAL

This simple act of brushing at night daily has led to a very unexpected development in my head. Because I was able to consciously create a (small) habit, and now I know it works because I’ve experienced it firsthand, it has become easier for me to do tiny things everyday that I would like to do on a daily basis. For example, now when I wake up, I reach out for a glass of water. And of course, because the concept of proper hydration is too much for me, I get lazy to drink water sometimes even when it is right in front of me — but when that happens, something in me reminds me that it will only take a few seconds. This state of consciousness was never there before the daily brushing happened.

SPILL, BUT REMEMBER TO STILL KEEP IT CHILL

After that success, I decided to implement this technique in the one area of my life over which I really needed some control — my health. I wanted to make sure I followed the brushing precedent because I did not want to fail yet again. So I kept it small. So small, that it felt like I was not doing anything. I’d start off with a 20 jumps — literally just that — then add a few squats here and there. I am not a huge fan of running, something I’ve learnt over the past 20 visits to the gym in a few years, and I know that if you make me run, I’ll end up walking after 5 minutes. So I decided to be a little realistic and walk instead. Every evening around 6 pm, short distances at first, then a bit longer. Same with swimming. 6 laps first, but with embarrassingly long breaks between every one. Always 6, always with breaks. Then the breaks started getting shorter. I was aware that on most days I wouldn’t want to, so I would lay out the clothes and shoes after finishing my walk the previous day, or I would get my towel and swimsuit ready the night before, and I would compare that chunk of 40 odd minutes to the amount of time I had left that day. Now of course, 40 minutes is not “just a few minutes” of doing something you’re forcing yourself to do, but if you’ve reached the level where you have upped your daily time spent on a potential habit to 40 minutes, I think you’re making good progress. The knowledge from my brushing habit would creep in and give me a little push and tell me that it was important for me to walk that day itself to be able to walk the next day. And so, I did.

SETBACKS ARE SO NORMAL, BUT DON’T MAKE FAILURE A HABIT

Full disclosure: I did not actually do any of this every single day for “21 days to create a habit” and magically became the world’s best habit setter. But I tried to get as close to perfect consistency as I could. Maybe it cannot be an hour of workout this Wednesday because I need time to Facetime with my best friend, but maybe I can still manage 30? Maybe even 15? There will always be something more important that you could be doing at the time, like watching House of Cards. We’re not perfect, but here’s the thing — we really don’t have to be. Accepting your weakness is totally okay as long as you see it as one you need to work on. If you fall off the wagon one day, get right back up the next day. Don’t make that one break/bad day turn into one bad week into yet another story of failure. You might fail today, yes. But you can get back on it tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. You have a choice every day. Don’t make failure a habit.

GOOD HABITS ARE BORING, ANNOYING AND VERY HARD

Whatever habit you’re trying to create for yourself is probably good for you and has a million side-benefits, but it probably also sucks while you do it. I mean, even brushing at night sucks when you’re comfortable under the sheets. But newsflash: that’s the way it is. If you want that toned abdomen, you will have to let go of those buttery curries and do those burpees right. If you want to be a morning person, you will have to wake up in the morning! It’s as simple as that. Don’t let that change your mind. Make a decision, then stick to it. You want to run 10k by the end of this year. The decision-making has ended there. It is not up for debate. Now, stick to it! When we stop sticking to our decisions, what we’re actually doing is strengthening our habit of flaking on ourselves. Why flake on yourself?

Anyway, that is how creating a smaller, easier habit helped me create bigger, more difficult habits. For me, I’ve realised that it is always better if I let myself ease into the process of doing whatever it is that needs to be, just simple baby steps. And once I successfully created an easier habit, it got easier to create more difficult, trying ones. Go pick up your version of the toothbrush!


This “technique”, of course, is neither new nor foolproof. It is also not the only one. I’m thinking of creating more habit-building/breaking articles, so I would love to know if you’ve tried it out and if it has worked for you!