Have you ever felt so inspired by someone that after hearing them speak you want to change something about yourself? You go “yeah, I could do that, or I think I want to that starting tomorrow.”
You feel good. You’re motivated. You start on that path. But maybe just like me, you forget, and it falls apart a few weeks later just like a forgotten new year’s resolution, or a diet that you can’t seem to keep to.
I used to tell myself that I was not a morning person. And because I lived an hour away from work, I would hit the snooze button at least 3-4 times before I forced myself out of bed. I would drive to work without an ounce of coffee just so I could get there on time.
These days, I wake up with enough time to sit down and do my devotional, make myself a quick breakfast, send my kids off, get on the treadmill for at least 20-30 minutes, go take a shower, fix the bed and get to work on time. This is by no means an amazing feat. These are just simple steps I’ve taken to help me achieve some of my personal goals. The purpose of sharing this with you is for you to set your own goals and possibly learn from my own experiences.
Except for my exercise routine, I’ve managed to influence my kids to do the same. To make their bed, to do their devo and to make their own breakfast on weekends. And it all started by introducing two very important words that has got to do with creating good habits.
According to Will Durant in the Story of Philosophy, We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit. The result of what we do is shaped by our behavior. Our behaviors are formed by habits, and habits are things we do regularly that we don’t even have to think about. What we become as adults are the combination of good and bad habits we’ve collected since birth.
Our kids grew up with set routines. Naps, snacks, brushing after meals, taking showers, study and of course play. This makes up most of their day. Routine makes it easier, just ask any pre-school teacher and they would probably tell you that kids do better when they know what to expect.
These days we try to make everything a part of a system so that the good habits become “automatic”. For us, it means trying to instill good habits now, so that less decisions need to be made about everyday things. And as they grow up they can spend more time doing what they love, or doing what’s important.
So how can we start building good habits? The two most powerful words when we started this exercise was “After I”. I watched a TED talk by BJ Fogg, a Stanford professor who studies behavior. The idea was to anchor a new habit you wanted to develop onto an existing habit that is already firmly in place.
It starts with a decision of what changes you want to see, so I put together a mental list of things I wanted to change. I let the kids write theirs down so they could see the progress. Some of the examples go like this : After I wake up, I will fold my blanket. After I make my bed, I will do my devo. After I play, I will put away my toys. After I have dinner, I will put my plate on the sink. After I get dressed, I will put my clothes in the hamper and so on and so forth. It took a lot of reminders in the beginning, but when they got used to the routine, sometimes all I had to say was “After I” and they would get it. I started seeing the good habits we wanted to develop go on autopilot.
For me, the first “After I” decision was to not go back to sleep when I woke up. This was followed by a conscious decision of making the bed, sitting on the armchair, picking up the bible, reading a verse, that turned into reading a chapter and starting a prayer journal. Now I enjoy doing my devo time every morning, I just needed to begin the habit of doing it.
When I decided to start the habit of exercising, I said I would change into my running clothes and stand on the treadmill. Then I said I would walk for 5 minutes. 5 minutes turned into 10, 10 into 15, until I got into the habit of doing 30 minutes everyday. I’ve learned to enjoy and appreciate my mornings instead of scrambling to get to work. In fact, when something disrupts my morning habits now, I miss it and try to get quickly get back on track.
We also try to watch out for bad habits. For a time, my kids were always on their Ipads watching movies on youtube. We did the reverse of an “After I”. The rule was now “Before I”. So before they were allowed to use the Ipad, they had to complete 15 minutes of another task.
For Catie, it was 15 minutes of French. ( At the start of summer, she put learning French as part of her goals. You can read more about Summer goals in the previous blog entry) There were days she didn’t feel like doing French, and if she didn’t want to do her 15 minutes of work, she would have to skip the Ipad videos and figure out something else to do. She now knows more than 50 french words. But more than that, the activity has helped her and Jianna discover other activities they enjoyed more than watching videos.
Here are some more tips on how to develop new habits.
Make the target visible. There is always some sort of motivation that makes you want to start your new habit. Make sure this reminder is visible so that you can refer back to it when you need to tell yourself why you want to instill a new habit.
Link new habits to old habits. You don’t have to remind yourself of something you are already doing regularly, so link your new habit to an existing habit. Sometimes the hardest part is getting started, so start with something small and achievable. Even if it sounds ridiculous, just start somewhere. If it feels like it’s too difficult. Break it down into smaller steps. That small habit will eventually lead into a behavior.
Reward yourself. You remember how you “feel” better than what you’re “told”. Find a way to reward yourself after you’ve practiced your new habit so you keep yourself motivated. When you feel victorious in the small things, it will eventually give you the confidence to do more.
Be accountable to someone who will support you. Some people are self-motivated, and that’s great. But if you want to keep yourself on track, being accountable to a partner can help you get better results.
Practice. Excellence is achieved through habit. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to make that habit stick. Allow yourself to make mistakes, but commit to doing it regularly. Understanding this from the start helps manage your expectations and commit to the improvement you want to see.