Making Habits Automatic

Good morning Summer by Nikki__ is licensed under CC by 2.0 

Making Habits Automatic: 5 Steps To Sustainable Habits

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle

Whether you realize it or not, you are in the middle of performing a habit. Somehow, you made your way onto a computer or smartphone and are now browsing the internet. This is to say, we are all performing some activity we do regularly, and these repetitive behaviors are habits. So when we say we are going to make a new habit, what we are really saying is that we are going to replace one habit with a more desirable one. The point of this blog post is to help you become more aware of your habits and offer some pointers as you set your sights on a new goal. Whether you are looking to make a life change or tweak an existing routine, these five steps will help you achieve your workflow goals.

1. Finding Motivation

Often, we set goals without thoroughly understanding why. Without properly defining your goal, you may lose motivation for achieving the goal. This step is to help you, when in two weeks, your motivation is waning and you ask yourself: why am I even doing this?

While thinking about a new habit, ask yourself: what is my desired outcome? If your goal is to wake up an hour earlier, provide reasons why you want to do this. Writing your reasoning down and making a physical document sends a message to your brain and body that this is important and helps you commit to the process.  

Goal Setting  by  Angie Torres  is licensed under  CC by 2.0

Goal Setting by Angie Torres is licensed under CC by 2.0

Example: I want to give my body time to wake up before starting a busy day; I want to wake up early so I can exercise; I want to get into work an hour earlier so I can leave an hour early.

After you write down your desired outcome, write the feelings and motivations behind achieving the outcome. For example, if I want to wake up an hour earlier so I can exercise, I am going to write down why I want to exercise; Exercising is a great start to my day. I am always more productive when I exercise before work. Exercising provides an outlet for me to get mentally prepared for the day. Exercising makes me look good and feel good.

The goal is for your desired outcome to motivate you through any setbacks when starting your new habit. One way of dealing with feelings resistant to change is to stop what you are doing when the feeling hits you, acknowledge the feeling as an observer as it passes through you, and once it has passed, move forward. For example, it’s 5 a.m. and my alarm is going off. I roll over in bed and pick up my phone. My brain says: hit the snooze button, it’s not that big of a deal, I don’t want to wake up, I don’t want to wake up, I, I---(it’s okay, this is frustrating, I know I told myself I would get up, my body is getting used this new behavior, let it pass, let it pass, I know this is good for me and five more minutes isn’t going to make me feel more rested. This is only a feeling and it will pass)--this sucks… eyes are opening and I don’t feel too bad...I guess I’ll wake up.

2. Environment

Current "home" workspace

Current "home" workspace

Most of the time, our environment is overlooked as playing a role in developing a behavior change, however, it is one of your most important tools and regulating your environment is key to the success of your new habit. An environment modification could be anything from organizing your desk, or not buying potato/corn chips because you know when they are in the house you will snack mindlessly, or setting out your workout clothes the night before so you are prepared to exercise in the morning.

In addition, your workspace, office, and bedroom should be setup to support “automatic” habits. An automatic habit is a behavior that you do on autopilot (tasks that you do without thinking). Some examples are when you are talking on the phone and you reach for a pen to make a note; when you use a key to lock your door; when you put your toothbrush back in the same place after each use.

Setting up your environment to support automatic habits is important because searching for something small could throw off your concentration. If you are looking for a pen to make a note to yourself and you switch your focus to looking for a writing utensil, you will lose your train of thought and the complexity of the idea you want to make note of. This doesn’t mean that your desk needs to look like an IKEA catalog either. My desk (to others) looks like a mess! When someone surprises me by “cleaning” my desk, I have to relearn where all my tools are. It’s okay if your desk looks messy to others, all that matter is if it works for you and fosters an environment of maximum productivity.

Suggestions: Know the location of tools you use often, such as: keys, pens, folders, USB memory sticks, post-it notes, and trash/recycling bins. This will streamline small tasks with placement of objects you use regularly so you don’t have to think about it.


3. Repetition

It may not look or feel like change in the beginning, but it is happening. New neural pathways are being created every time you perform your new behavior. Your brain is literally physically changing. And this is why we shouldn’t think about it as “breaking a habit”, and instead think of it as creating a better habit that will replace the old one.

One of my mentors told me a story about a gym he worked out at in New York City. Since the facility was on a higher floor in an older building, it took a few minutes for the water in the shower to heat up. Even though it didn’t look like anything was happening, the warm water was slowly making it’s way up from the basement tens of feet to his floor. This is how habits work. You may not see immediate results, but a lot of things are working hard and defying gravity.

4. Ease In

Don’t try to do too much at once because this will lead to burnout (we only have so much will power throughout the day). Focus on changing one or a few habits at time. Once those have become automatic, it is okay to move on to other habits.

Here are two examples of habits I have incorporated into my life:

Waking up earlier

Slowly ease yourself into the transition. Wake up five minutes earlier each day. If I currently wake up at 6am and want to wake up at 5am, it will take 12 days. Think of it as the opposite of the “snooze” button.

Day 1: 5:55

Day 2: 5:50

Day 3: 5:45

Day 4: 5:30

Day 5: 5:35

Day 6: 5:30

Day 7: 5:25

Day 8: 5:20

Day 9: 5:15

Day 10: 5:10

Day 11: 5:05

Day 12: 5:00 GOAL


Making exercising more enjoyable

When I exercise I take something I like to do: reading and listening to books, and pair it with the new habit: running. Running alone is boring and I catch myself thinking about how tired I am and asking when it will be over? Pairing a fun activity with a new “less fun” task makes the experience more desirable--and when it is more enjoyable, you are more likely to follow through with and achieve your goal.
Hint: I have an audiobook I only listen to while exercising. If I want to find out what happens next, I put on my jogging shorts and shoes and hit the streets.

5. Keep it balanced

It’s easy to get caught up in a new goal or career, and lose track of balancing the rest of your life. Everything we do is interconnected: if I run in the morning my legs will hurt at work, and if I have a stressful day at work, I will have a short fuse at home later that night. You want to set yourself up for success, and the best way to start achieving your goal is to make sure you are getting enough sleep and eating foods that will give you the most nutrition. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a behavior change is related to the highest need on the pyramid (self-actualization), so in order to be successful at this, you need to have all your basics met before you can form habits to better oneself. You can find more information on living well in a blog I wrote dedicated to health and living smart: SEI Dock Model Pillar I: Health.

You are well on your way to a happier, healthier, and more productive lifestyle. I wish you way more than luck!

Andrew J. Wilt

SEI Analyst

Apprenticeship Program

If you are curious about topic and would like to read more, here are a few other post I have written about habits:

Part III SEI Dock Model, Pillar II: Practice

Routines, Rituals, and Lifestyles

Changing How You Change

Follow Your Star: how to work towards abstract long-term goals