Otherwise, anything could happen.
from: The Creature of Habit
written by Jennifer E. Smith
illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Random House Studio, 2021
I used to bite my nails. Years and years later, when my girls were past their babyhoods, I noticed I had quit. What a surprise! I never thought about biting my nails, although, truth be told, if I did become aware I was doing it, I didn’t always stop. One day, though, I noticed my nails were not ragged. And they were growing. I got some polish and started experimenting with colors. It took a long time to find one I liked.
I didn’t intend to bite my nails. I didn’t intend to stop biting them. It was a habit, then it wasn’t.
That got me thinking. What is a habit? Where does it come from? How can we get rid of the ones we don’t like?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “[a] habit is any regularly repeated behavior that requires little or no thought and is learned rather than innate. The behavior becomes more automatic with each repetition” until all that brain activity used to do the action switches to automatic. Like washing up after dinner, making my bed, brushing and flossing, those things I do with no fuss or feathers.
I’ve lost count of how many times I resolved to exercise, though. I was successful (for a little while) dancing along to the oldies on my old VCR. I walked (for two years, then quit cold turkey) with two friends of mine at 6 a.m. so I could get to work on time. I went to a gym (until COVID-19 closed it down). In this new year, I need a habit, not a resolution.
Resolutions can be wishy-washy. Building a habit starts with a goal. My older daughter told me about SMART goals years ago when she was studying to be a teacher. Each letter stands for a quality of the goal.
So for example, I could say “I will log 5,000 steps every day for one week. Next Wednesday I’ll check in with myself to see if I was successful. (My week starts on Wednesday—I know it’s odd, but it works for me.) Then a re-do for the next week, and the next, and the next, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
My goal meets all the SMART criteria. I’ll keep track with my (old, unused) smiley stickers that have been waiting in my drawer for such a good purpose.
According to a Healthline article, a new habit is easiest to form when it’s connected to a cue. Get in the car, put on your seatbelt. Walk into the kitchen first thing in the morning, click on the Mr. Coffee. Rinse my coffee cup, read in my green chair. Oh, wait, that’s what I want to change! Two more components will help my success: a plan and consistency.
Re-frame. Rinse out my coffee cup, get dressed.
There’s my cue: rinse my cup.
And my plan: get dressed.
And my consistent time-frame: When I finish my coffee.
How long does it take to form a habit? I found out the answer is, “It depends.” Forming a new habit also requires determination and trust. Some psychologists say 21 days, some say 264 days! The answer depends on each individual’s dedication to the cause and the degree of trust in her/himself that s/he will be successful.
This whole thing sounds so do-able until I ask myself, “But when will I find time to read?” So for one week, starting tomorrow, I’ll give my plan a try. Reading will be my after-lunch reward for moving more in the morning.
What about the habits I don’t like and the strategies to overcome them? Psychologists have lots to say about that, too, but I’ll save it for another time.
This new year, I hope I did not just resolve to make a habit. I think keeping track will be the key. My calendar sits at the corner of my desk. It will look great with those colorful stickers smiling at me every day! (Starting tomorrow!)
-—stay curious! (and try something new)