Starting a Helpful New Habit by Liisa Kyle
Note from Meggin: I know this week’s set of tips include 14, but they were too good not to include! As writers, we need the habit of writing. Liisa Kyle, author of this article about turning practices into habits, has given all of us specific ways of forming or re-forming our habit of writing. Read it carefully, putting the tips into place. It will make a difference in your writing productivity.
Habits often have a bad reputation…but some habits can be helpful and healthy (like writing!) Stop and think about your talents for a moment. What are you not doing that would help you enjoy your talents more, get more done or be more effective? It might be a practice that worked well for you in the past but that you stopped doing for some reason…or it could be a new activity that you’d like to try. (“Gosh, I just read an article about that guy who writes a song a day. I’d love to do something like that!”). It’s possible to turn helpful or healthy practices into new habits. Here’s a step by step guide:
- Identify a practice that you’d like to become an automatic part of your life. Perhaps you want to spend regular time honing your craft. Maybe you want to complete a particular amount of creative work each week. Perhaps you’d like to automate your work submissions. Or meditate regularly. What practices would you like to turn into habits? Select one of these habits as your target habit. (You can apply this process to establishing many new habits, but it’s helpful to focus on one at a time).
- Be specific and concrete. Instead of saying ‘write more’, for example, identify exactly how much you want to write, ideally. “I want to write at least five pages a day, at least five days a week, every week.” OR “I want to spend at least an hour a day writing, at least four days a week, every week.” The more specific the practice, the likelier it will become a habit.
- Ask yourself: why? Identify the benefits of starting this habit. For example, if I practice my sousaphone at least an hour a day, I’ll become a better musician; I’ll increase my repertoire; I’ll do better in auditions; I’ll feel so much better; I’ll entertain my cats and so forth. Write down as many reasons as possible to start your new habits and practices and keep them handy. Review your list at least daily.
- Whittle your intended habit into reasonable, doable baby steps. If your target habit is to compose a new song every day, for example, then you might begin the process by committing to write a song a week (assuming that sounds realistic for you). After that becomes second nature, aim for two songs a week. When, eventually, that practice seems like old hat, go for three a week…until eventually you are writing a song every day.
Start small.Your beginning practice should be so easy it’s laughable. Guarantee your success. Returning to the last example, if writing a song a week is easy as pie, that’s a great place to start. If, however, the notion of writing a song a week puts you in a sweat, then choose something smaller and easier. Aim for a viable chorus or verse instead. Still shaking? Aim for a musical idea or a cool phrase that might become a lyric someday.
Rest assured, wherever you start is fine. AVOID JUDGING yourself or being perfectionistic or too hard on yourself. Pick a practice that’s really, truly easy.For example, let’s say your target habit is to paint for at least an hour a day. You might start with the practice of painting for at least five minutes a day, at least four days a week. “Five minutes? I can’t get anything done in five minutes,” you are apt to wail. Yes you can. You can gesso a canvas. You can sketch out a figure. You can apply paint.
“But five minutes a day isn’t going to accomplish anything!” You’d be surprised what you can get done in five focused, undistracted minutes, dedicated to a specific task.
The truth is, if you aim for give minutes, you may well do more – and that doesn’t matter a whit. What matters is that you do AT LEAST five minutes, at least four times a week. What matters is that you are ESTABLISHING THE HABIT of going to the canvas regularly.
Let me repeat that: The important thing here is to ESTABLISH THE HABIT. The amount of time doesn’t matter. What you’re actually doing doesn’t matter. What you get done doesn’t matter. As long as you are taking steps towards your intended target habit, you are on track. That’s why it’s helpful to start with easy practices. The easier the initial practice, the more likely you’ll cultivate the new habit you desire.
Set yourself up for success. Start your new, easy practice when you’re really ready. Put in place the support or resources you need – be it information, a teacher/mentor/coach or a trusted “progress buddy” (like a diet buddy to keep you on track).
If you’re the kind of person that needs to make a public commitment to get yourself to do something, then email your friends and tell them your intentions. Ask them to hold you accountable to your new practice. In contrast, if you suspect your ‘friends’ might be jealous or competitive or might unknowingly undermine your efforts, then it doesn’t serve you to tell them what you’re up to: Do yourself a favor and keep your new practices and target habit a secret.
- Monitor your progress. Every day, make note of what you did, related to your target habit.
- Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Until your target habit becomes like breathing for you, make it a daily practice to review your ‘benefits’ list (from step 3). This only takes a few seconds and can really help.
- Praise yourself. This is non-negotiable. It’ll feel pretty darned good to do what you set out to do…and yet, beyond that warm, fuzzy feeling, it’s important to acknowledge you successes in some tangible way. Give yourself bonus points for every day that you carry out your intended new practice. You can mark ‘X’s on a calendar, like Jerry Seinfeld. You can give yourself gold stars, if that makes you smile. You can email your creativity buddy at the end of the week to say ‘I did it!’
- Be kind and gentle with yourself. If you happen to not do what you intend, avoid beating yourself up. Simply record what did (or didn’t) happen. That happened. I’m human and therefore fallible. It’s no big deal. Let’s move on. Tomorrow is another day. Look at the bigger picture: okay, I missed yesterday, but I did my new practice eight times in the past two weeks. That’s eight days I did great. Overall, I can see I’m establishing this new target habit — I’m making this practice an automatic part of my life, most days.
- If you find yourself consistently missing your intentions, then it’s time to dig deeper. What’s going on? Do you really want to establish this new target habit? If no, then review your list of habits from step #1, pick a habit you DO want to establish and start over with that. If yes, then perhaps you’re trying to do too much too fast. Try breaking your daily/weekly practices into smaller, easier increments. Or are you trying to start too many new habits at once? If so, pick one to focus on and leave the other target habits for now.
- When you find yourself meeting your initial baby step practices regularly and consistently, up the ante a bit. Aim to do a little bit more. Repeat the process (steps 6 – 11) as you gradually work up to performing your target habit regularly and consistently. Build momentum, slowly but surely.
- Be patient. Slow and steady progress is better than short-term maniacal enthusiasm followed by sudden burnout or abandonment of your intentions. Avoid thinking about what’s to come – just focus on what you need to do today. Depending on what it is you’re trying to do, it can take 21 – 30 days — or more — to establish a new habit.
- When you’ve successfully established your new habit, be sure to reward yourself for that milestone. Give yourself a healthy, happy treat – you deserve it.
After your first target habit is well established and ingrained, you can return to your list of habits from step #1, select a new habit and go through the process again. You’ll find that each time you go through the process, you’ll get faster and faster at establishing your new target habits.
Activity: Select a healthy, helpful habit you’d like to start. Follow steps 1 -14.
We’d love to hear about your experiences. What helpful habits have you established? How did you do so? What worked well? What was difficult?
© Liisa Kyle, Ph.D
Are you struggling with too many talents, skills, ideas? You may have The Da Vinci Dilemma™! Find tools, fun quizzes, coaching, inspiration and solutions for multi-talented people at Da Vinci Dilemma.
And if you liked these tips, feel free to check out Putting Pockets in Your Personal Life: 52 Tips to Implement Immediately. If you know you are operating without any “pockets,” and you realize that you have lost sight of the difference between calm and crazed, then this booklet will help you regain that realization and subsequently DO something about it.
Inside, you’ll find practical ideas to implement, letting you actually choose to put in pockets in your personal life (i.e., some protected space, both the physical and metaphorical). With these 52 tips in-hand, and you’ll be well on your way to greater peace of mind and productivity.