Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Four R's of Habits

(A modified and sanitized version of this was recently published in my workplace's bimonthly newsletter. This version is no holds barred.)

It happens at beginning of every year. I make a jaunt to the gym and discover that many fitness machines which usually see low usage are regularly occupied. The mainstream America society places so much emphasis on encouraging (and sometimes pressuring) folks to make "New Year's Resolutions"--and the pursuit of getting in better shape is one of the popular resolutions. I concur with Johnny B. Truant's poignant post ("How not to be a New Year's resolution dumbass") about this annual phenomenon which brings out these "resolutionists" out of the woodwork during the first week of January every year. Thankfully the gym is less crowded in March.

I abhor making New Year’s Resolutions since I establish habits without regard to the calendar month, the phase of the moon, the stock market index, or the color of socks I'm wearing that day. When I feel that a change needs to be made in my life, I don't wait for the calendar year to change before I give myself permission to make things happen.

I am interested, though, in learning about how to create and sustain habits over time. Creating new habits mean that some existing habits which take up my time (or have become my pigeons of discontent) will fall by the wayside--time is a finite resource. Replacing familiar and comfortable existing habits with something new can be a challenge though. Reflecting upon some of the habits that I have successfully implemented over years, I have realized that they involve the Four R’s: Routines, Rituals, Repetition, and Rewards.

Routines: When I want to make lasting changes, I find it essential to establish routines based around new habits. One of my recently-established habits is studying new technology skills. To make this happen, I commit dedicated time during weekends and evenings, and treat those blocks of time as sacred --I silence my phone, stay away from social media, and minimize other distractions. My fitness routine involves using different gym machines in a familiar, sequential order. My weekly 4-mile runs follow the same loop. My adventures in cooking always begin with reading the recipe and visualizing the finished dish.

Rituals: I make the routines noteworthy by creating and associating enjoyable rituals. My study sessions at home start by lighting candles, burning incense, turning on music, and preparing a pot of delicious tea. I enhance my study sessions by using nice pencils and quality journals for note-taking. My fitness workouts conclude with quality time in the whirlpool and my favorite hair product waiting in the gym locker after the post-workout shower.

Repetition: I best absorb information when I learn incrementally over time. Establishing short learning sessions few times a week gives my mind time to contemplate new knowledge. Setting aside time for few workouts during the week allows my body time to recover and get acclimated to new routines. Sustaining a running routine helps silence the "But I don't want to run today" gremlin voices inside my head--it builds mental fortitude.

Rewards: Short- and long term rewards make new habits meaningful. When my band has an upcoming show, I establish a practice habit. Signing up for a future cycling event strengthens my resolve to work out regularly. Routine and repetition can also become building blocks for future rewards. Doing exceptional work every day creates opportunities to attract attention from important organizational and industry peers. Establishing a fitness routine introduces possibilities for getting involved in recreational sports--I recently participated in my first 5k run after months of regular cardiovascular workouts.

Adopting and maintaining new habits are ongoing experiments. Other people may find different motivational tactics to get their new habits to stick--to each their own. The Four R’s (which, thankfully, does not include “Resolution”) have created a nice framework for which I can experiment with creating successful habits.

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