The Basic Habit
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
A habit is a regular practice. The inspiration to perform a habit happens largely below the level of conscious awareness or is partially automated. For instance, people habitually brush their teeth in the morning or habitually look at their phones before bed. Neither of these things is necessary, in their own right. Breathing is necessary and not a habit. Neither of these things is necessarily moral, good or valuable, either.
Our brains are wired to create habits, and I get many questions from people about how to create healthy habits. Wouldn’t it be great if I habitually ate properly, went to bed at 10 pm, and went for a run every other morning? Most people think habits are a “set it and forget it” experience. If we force ourselves to eat a carrot several times, then we’ll mindlessly eat carrots daily as part of a well-balanced meal. This has not been my experience with most habits. It is true that after 20 years of waking up every morning at 6, it is hard for me to sleep late. Other habits take a lot more work.
Years ago, I had back pain. After several weekly adjustments, my chiropractor told me how to stretch to avoid future back pain. Even today, I have three stretches that, if done daily, keep me mostly pain-free. Here is a partial list of the steps I use to maintaining this stretching habit.
Alarm. Every morning at 5:55, a “stretch” reminder on my phone goes off. I don’t turn it off until I have stretched or, lacking motivation, actively decide I will not stretch.
Pain. After about three days of not stretching, I get increasing pain. This is a reminder that stretching daily is good. I think about the pain when I’m trying to decide if I want to stretch or not.
Routine. I connect stretching to my morning routine between praying and brushing my teeth. If I do either one of those, it reminds me to stretch if I haven’t.
Exercise. I have a larger calisthenic routine in the morning that includes kettlebells that sit near the door of my office that are a visual reminder to do my calisthenics and, thus, stretches (since I’m there).
Mood. Stretching helps with my mood as well. When I’m feeling irritated or low, it’s a reminder that I should stretch.
Sleep. Stretching also helps me sleep. Again, bad sleep might mean get stretching.
Ease. I have worked over the years to find the shortest and easiest stretching routine that helps me manage the pain. My routine is 3 minutes long, once a day. If I’m thinking about not stretching, I ask myself if the pain is worth saving 9 minutes. It also requires no special clothing. It helps if the floor is clean.
Feeling good. Stretching makes me feel good. Every morning it’s the same good feeling. I think about that when I’m thinking about not stretching.
Satisfaction. I love marking things off my list. I get a burst of satisfaction when I complete the stretching item.
There are more cues, prompts, and reminders to remember and get motivated to stretch. Even so, I skip or forget to stretch once or twice a week. The point is that building and maintaining a habit still takes work. Once you are prompted to do the habit, you still have to decide to do it. Understanding the nature of habit is important for adding good ones to your life and overwriting bad ones.