How To Tell If Your Habits Are Working *For*—Not Against—You
Grabbing your favorite coffee mug each morning, brushing your teeth before bed, choosing the long walk to work.
Habits are powerful because they create these defaults—those go-to actions we take without even thinking. And if your defaults aren’t working for you, then it’s time to change your habits.
We often think of habits as one thing—but they're more complicated than that. It’s useful to think about habits as fitting into three categories:
●︎ Constructive habits propel us toward our goals and priorities.
●︎ Neutral habits neither move us forward nor hold us back.
●︎ Destructive habits prevent, slow, or reverse our progress toward our goals and priorities.
Off the bat, you can probably start fitting your habits into these categories. We don’t talk much about neutral habits, but we have more of them than we have of the other kinds of habits.
Some examples of neutral habits: How you fold your towels, put the toilet paper on the holder, hang your shirts, and look for parking spots. These neutral habits make navigating your day easier as a whole but (typically) won’t make a huge difference at the very high level.
That's why, when it comes to changing your habits, it's best to start by focusing on the constructive or destructive habits.
When we minimize or eliminate destructive habits and cultivate and reinforce constructive habits, we create habits that propel us towards our goals and priorities. This helps us achieve our goals—and ultimately means that finding a balance that works for us becomes our default.
It’s easy to get tripped up over this, though, because we often don’t see the connection between habits and their outcomes.
Some habits show their effects only by their absence. For instance, if you’ve developed constructive habits to stay hydrated, you might not notice the effect that those habits are having on your mood and performance—that is until something disrupts your daily flow and breaks that new habit.
Most of our destructive habits are tied to deep physical, emotional, or social desires, so we quickly return to them. For example: When we return from a trip where we’ve been away from technology, we check email or turn on the television. In five minutes, we undo the entire reprogramming of our time away.
The secret to habits rests in the beginnings.
When it comes to building new constructive habits, it's all about making the action easy and sticking with it. Consistency is your friend here.
Here are a few ways to keep consistency a focus at the beginning of any habit you’re working to form—and how to get rid of those destructive habits that might be holding you back.
1. Write It Down
Research shows writing things down helps you remember things easier—but take it to the next level and write down your new habit somewhere you’ll always see it.
Your bathroom mirror, the back of your front door, or even on your laptop. That constant reminder might help reinforce that new habit. When your brain starts to ignore those messages, don’t be afraid to give those reminders a refresh and put them in different places to jog your memory.
2. Embrace Technology
Setting timers—whether it’s an alarm on your phone or a reminder on your calendar—to make time for your new habits is a great option to keep consistency your friend, especially at the beginning of any journey you may be on.
Don’t be afraid to get creative: Sometimes changing your phone background serves as the perfect habit booster.
3. Make Destructive Habits Difficult to Do
On the flip side of constructive habits: It's easier to start destructive habits. We have to make it harder to start them and stick with them—aka consistency is your enemy here.
If you're trying to change a destructive habit—say, spending an hour going down the Instagram rabbit hole—find a way to make it difficult to do. See if your phone has a screen time app—which will lock the app when you've gone over your limit. Or, move the app deep into a folder on your phone, making it take extra effort to open it.
4. Talk About Your Plans More Than Your Goal
It may seem that talking about your end goal might help you achieve it—but research shows that the opposite is actually true. According to studies, when we verbalize our goals, we often are found to not follow through with them.
This happens because when we’re all talk, it’s easy to feel like that’s enough—even if none of the walk has been put into place. That sense of accomplishment that comes with having our identity tied to a positive goal or habit is addictive, but might not actually result in you doing the work it takes to get there.
How do we combat this? It’s not too hard: Instead of talking about the finish line you're trying to reach, try talking about your plans to reach that goal with people you trust to hold you accountable.
For example: Rather than just saying you want to run a 5k, try talking about how you’ll train and your plan to get across that finish line.
Remember, what constitutes your flourishing will be different from what constitutes mine or anyone else’s, so your own set of constructive habits will be unique to you.
More important than what they are is that you know the reason for them. Once these habits sink in, they’ll become your defaults and you can re-asses if they serve you or not—and which you hope to cultivate or reinforce.
A version of this article originally appeared on Productive Flourishing.
Read next: The Science-Backed Reason to Shake Up Your Habits
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