Your new habit initiative is missing something

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Humans are bad at starting new habits and jettisoning old ones. It doesn’t seem to help if we know better (like, smoking will eventually cause you to suffocate to death). Our level of desire or commitment isn’t a useful indicator. We typically come up with a great idea, what could probably be classified as a goal, some change we’d like to initiate in our lives, and then we hope for some motivation to strike so we can implement the new behavior. Unfortunately, motivation is undependable and scarce, and your new habit, as well-intentioned as it may have been, never comes alive.

But there’s a solution to this. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, explains that while our usual understanding of how to cause behavioral change (knowledge, motivation, earnest desire, strict discipline) is mostly worthless, an implementation intention plan can make all the difference.

So what’s an implementation intention plan? Well, stated as simply as possible, it’s your plan for the time and place you’re going to execute your new behavior. Clear says, “Most people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity (P71).” When we fail to make the changes we intend we start to think we lack discipline or maybe we don’t want it enough. That’s purely false. What’s lacking is most likely not discipline, but a plan of action. When we leave our behavior change initiative to the erratic realm of inspiration and motivation we’re begging to fail. But if we’re clear about a time and a place, about when and where we’re going to execute our new habit, the likelihood that we’ll execute skyrockets. This can be as simple as choosing which chair you’ll sit in at what time in the morning to start your reading habit. I have two seats in my living room (there are more seats, just two that I claim), one couch corner for TV and video games, and one couch corner for reading and writing. It makes a weird, incredible difference which one I’m sitting in. When I’m in my reading spot, I read, when I’m in my TV spot, I watch TV. That’s about as complicated as it has to be. I execute my reading habit because I chose my seat and I decided on a regular time (quick aside, reading in the morning is the best).

I think this implementation intention plan, while super simple, is one of the most important concepts in the study of habit formation. We select times and places for all sorts of important things in life, meetings, family time, workouts, church, etc. Why do we try to sidestep this necessary piece when we’re dealing with ourselves?

An implementation intention plan is not the be-all-end-all magic dust that will guarantee the success of your new habit, but it is a critical piece and one that few of us consider. So stop worrying about whether or not you’re disciplined or motivated, pick your time and your place, and execute.

The key to a good routine

Change is hard. As posted recently (here), it takes some attention to adjust our default behaviors. We don’t just change because we intend to. One helpful way to attack personal change is to address our routines.

Routine is defined as ‘a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program,’ per Google. A routine is kind of like a large scale habit, like several habits stacked on top of each other. We’ve all got them, some are helpful, some not so much so, and most of them we probably fell into with little or no intention. But the great thing about routines is that you can mold them.

This month, my family and I embarked on a brand new routine. Routines can be very sticky, but including the whole family has made it significantly more so. Kids, especially young kids, will notoriously derail attempts at a new routine, so I’ve given up resisting and made them part of it. The routine revolves around their school schedule, which is great because school happens regardless of how my wife and I are feeling or how well or not well we slept (one of the primary derailing factors of children). The start of the school day is a cornerstone that we’ve built our new routine around. We’ve got a series of actions we take leading up to getting the kids ready and out the door, and a set of actions we take after the kids are dropped off. It happens every weekday, and we’ve settled into the regularity of it as a family. James Clear talks about habit stacking, using one of your existing habits as a cue for a new habit. The school bell is not a habit, but it functions in a similar way, it’s a regular thing that we can build additional habits around, an anchor.

You should give board games another chance

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We’re all humans, right? We have these incredible senses of touch and sight and hearing and tasting (is there one more?). We also thrive in community, when we talk to other people and interact with each other. What better way to combine all of these human things than to sit down with some friends or family in front of a board and some little pieces of plastic?
One of our greatest temptations today is to turn to our technology instead of engaging with other people. Our phones are some of the most helpful and useful pieces of technology ever invented, but unfortunately, they can also inhibit the things that make us human.
A helpful category for thinking about this is to distinguish between rest and leisure (which I have shamelessly hacked from The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch, a really helpful read). Leisure is mindlessly scrolling through social media or news on your phone, playing some kind of video game by yourself, or maybe worst of all, watching reality TV. Leisure is fine, but ultimately not all that helpful. It puts you into a sort of trance, you lose track of time, you’re probably more stressed when you quit, and you haven’t achieved anything except to waste some time and feel more harried. Rest, on the other hand, is restorative. Restful activities typically engage your mind instead of putting you into a coma. They include things like reading a book, conversing with close friends and family, playing an instrument, fishing (obviously), working out (it might take a few weeks, but once it becomes a habit it’s the best), building Legos, or playing a board game. An interesting note here, leisure activities often involve screens, restful activities often don’t.
As I write this we’re in the thick of the holiday season, Christmas hits this week, we’ll celebrate the New Year next week. Most of us will be spending at least some amount of time away from work and with family. Take the opportunity to enjoy a board game together. Engage your mind, indulge in some conversation, enjoy the people in your life. If my reasoning holds up, you’ll feel much better having done that than to have entered your trace space. We’re humans after all.