According to a study by Duke University, habits account for about 40% of human behavior every day. That means roughly half of people’s daily activities are performed almost the same ways each and every day.
Our lives consist of habits we’ve formed over our lifetimes. Brushing your teeth upon waking, running in the afternoon, snacking late at night – whether they’re good or bad, our habits become so ritualistic that we don’t always recognize we’re doing them.
Psychologist Wendy Wood was among the first to call attention to the “neurology” of habits. As you repeat certain behaviors, the actions form like muscle memory in your brain. With enough repetition, habits become ingrained in us as rigid behaviors that our brains absentmindedly carry out.
COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of individuals worldwide. When our daily routines are derailed, it’s easy to feel aimless, confused and unsure of what actions to take to get through the day.
Rather than feel uncomfortable by today’s unsettling, forced reality, perhaps we should adapt to the new societal limitations by developing habits and routines that can help us find some comfort in uncomfortable times.
That said, habit-forming is a more difficult process than one might think. According to the 21/90 rule, it takes 21 days to make a habit and 90 days to make a lifestyle.
In 2018, author James Clear published “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.” In his self-help debut, Clear breaks down the process of habit-building into five steps.
Step 1: Start small
Clear recommends making a new habit so easy that you can’t say no. Start so small that you can’t say you need more “motivation” to pick it up, or that if you only had the “willpower” you could make this work. Research suggests that willpower is like a muscle. It gets fatigued as you use it throughout the day. Therefore pick up a new habit that is so easy you don’t need motivation to do it.
“Rather than starting with 50 pushups per day, start with five pushups per day,” Clear wrote. “Make it easy enough that you can get it done without motivation.”
Step 2: Increase your habit in very small ways
The “zero to one hundred” mindset is counterproductive in habit-building. Rather than striving for perfectionism right off the bat, slowly build on your new habit every day. If you want to play the guitar, start by strumming the same for chords every day for 15 minutes. The next week, bump it up to 20. Throw in a new chord here and there. Even Jimi Hendrix had to start somewhere.
Step 3: Break habits into chunks
If you continue to build on a habit just a bit every day, you’ll find it becomes easier to accomplish as the months go on. “It is important to keep each habit reasonable, so that you can maintain momentum and make the behavior as easy as possible to accomplish,” Clear said.
If you’re attaching a quantitative goal to your habits, try breaking that number up throughout the day. Do you want to meditate every day for 20 minutes? Break it up into two 10-minute chunks. Do you want to do 50 push-ups daily? Start with five sets of 10. Breaking down behaviors into bite-sized pieces makes habit-building less intimidating and more attractive to take on.
Step 4: If you slip, quickly get back on track
Research has shown that missing your habit once has no measurable impact on your long-term progress. So abandon your all-or-nothing mentality; as human beings, we’re inevitably going to slip up. And being hard on yourself for “failing” to perform your new habit one day won’t get you very far.
Clear suggests that you shouldn’t expect to fail; rather, plan for the possibility that you might slip up. Consider the obstacles that could prevent your habit from forming. By doing so, you can more easily identify factors that will inhibit habit building and how to get back on track.
Step 5: Be patient.
This may be the toughest step to follow, but according to Clear, it’s the most crucial to carry out. “You can make incredible progress if you are consistent and patient,” he wrote.
Habit building is an endurance game. You’re not going to complete a marathon the first day you start running. Patience and sustainability are key when forming new habits and behaviors.
The most important thing to remember is that new habits should feel easy, especially when just starting out. Identify a habit you’d like to develop, and make it so attainable to achieve that you can’t help but complete it every day until one day, you don’t even notice yourself doing it.