8 Tips on Starting or Changing Habits

I have a confession to make.

When I started my blog slightly over 2 months ago, I was all enthused and planned to be a “committed” blogger who update my blog regularly. I thought to start off with I would set myself a goal of writing a new post every week.  How hard can it be right?

Well, I since discovered that it was harder than I thought.  After agonising over my first post on 20 May, I then spent the next week anticipating my next post in my head (rather than actually writing it). It took me 11 days before I wrote my second post on 31 May.

Sure, I moved to a new country and there are lots of things going on so I justified to myself that I should give myself some breathing space and reduced my target to once every fortnight. Well, it took me about 3 weeks before I wrote my next post, this time on 21 June.

It is now over a month since I posted my last update. For those of you who are analytically inclined, you can see that my “number of days between posts” statistic is going in the wrong direction and it is taking me longer and longer to write each subsequent post. Or put simply, I have been procrastinating and not doing what I originally set out to do.

Phew! Now that I’ve confessed, I feel a lot better and am ready to move on again. So this post is my first step towards redemption.

In my defence, I have been spending my time alternating between Yangon and Mandalay every 2 weeks since I arrived in Myanmar. As many of you may know, our normal habits and routines have a tendency to be thrown out of whack when we are travelling. Plus both are new cities for me so it was taking a lot of effort just figuring out day to day stuff – for example, finding a place to stay, starting my new job, how to get to/from work, learning a new language, where to eat, etc.

Thankfully, I’ve now been back at Mandalay (my primary base in Myanmar) for almost 3 weeks now so I finally have some time to put in place some new routines and habits.

I thought I will use this post to share some lessons that I have learnt and am still learning about habits.

  1. Cues, Routines and Rewards. One of the best books that I have read on this topic is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  In the book, Charles Duhigg explained how habits are comprised of cue (or trigger), routine and reward, a cycle he called the habit loop.  If you want to form new habits or transform existing ones, it is important to consider all three components.  If you repeat the behaviour often enough, then your behaviour will become a habit.  For example, say you want to start running daily, your habit loop may comprise of tying your shoelaces (cue), going out for a run (routine) and feeling good afterwards (reward).
  2. Set up a schedule. I use this one a lot and have found this to be most effective for me, especially when our kids were much younger and me/my husband were both working. Scheduling activities acts like a time-based cue for habits. For example, rather than have a vague goal of “spending quality time together”, I find it more effective to schedule “Friday date nights” where my children will spend quality time sleeping-over at their grandparents and me/my husband will go out for a movie or dinner together every Friday. Other examples are our “Sunday electronic free day” and giving out pocket money at the start of every month. I have to say that having to stick to a schedule is actually quite counter-intuitive for me as normally I prefer flexibility and not having a fixed plan. But over the years I found that having routines/schedules for the routine/mundane things in life means less thinking and organising which freed me up to be more flexible with other things.
  3. Have a plan. This is especially true when you are starting a new habit or routine. For example, after 6 weeks of eating out since I got to Myanmar, I desperately craved eating healthy, home-cooked food again. Most of the restaurant foods here are loaded with MSG (flavour enhancers) which makes you feel thirsty all the time (not to mention very bad for your health). But in order for me to make my own fresh and healthy food, I need to make sure that I have fresh food on hand which means that I need to find out where the closest market is and how often I will do my weekly shopping, etc.
  4. Combining activities/habits. My exercise routine now is mainly comprised of my yoga practice at home. But I discovered that it took me 20 minutes to walk to the local market for my weekly shopping and I could quickly build up a sweat in the 30 plus degree celsius heat. This means that I am getting 40 minutes exercise each week when I buy my vegetables – a great way of combining exercising and healthy eating. Another example of combining habits was back home in Australia, I used to read or watch TED Talks when I run on the treadmill.
  5. One habit at a time. Don’t underestimate how much time it takes to set up a new habit, such as initial research, implementing your habit, reflecting on what works/what doesn’t followed by adapting and tweaking your habit loop. This all takes time and it can be overwhelming if you take on too many changes at one time.  For example, in my initial week in Mandalay, I focussed on making sure that I practised yoga (my routine) when I came back from work (my cue) because my body really needed the exercise (my reward). I did not tackle my eating routine yet and continued to buy lunch at work. At night, I would have instant cereal or crackers. Only after I had started exercising regularly did I move on to address my eating habit, and consequently now my blog.
  6. Customise your habits. You know your own individual circumstances and what works best for you. For example, I know that I don’t like going to the gym by myself but I enjoy doing group-training classes. But when I was going through a particularly hectic period in my life a couple of years ago, I knew that I did not want the added stress of fitting in another thing to an already jam-packed schedule but I needed to continue exercising as a way to decompress. I took up running instead as it was an activity that I had more control over and can fit flexibly into my schedule.
  7. Reflect and adjust. A lot of us feel guilty when we fall off the wagon and need to get ourselves back on track. I know. I had been there. But I had found that rather than waste energy berating myself, it was much more productive to figure out what works and what doesn’t and then make appropriate adjustments. For example, I find that my normal 1.5 hour yoga routine was taking too long to finish after work if I also want to make myself a proper dinner. So I have now decided to do a shorter 45 minute session on weeknights followed by a longer session on the weekend when I have more time.
  8. Have fun. Mindset is important. Our habits shape our lives. Rather than see starting or changing habits as a chore, reframe them as learning opportunities. A way to design your life one change at a time, by changing your habit and routines.

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