Forming habits

In my work, I constantly deal with habits. As a designer, my job is to understand users’ existing habits and create products and services that change those or build new ones.
Preferably, the products or services I design help people to replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones, or add new habits that enhance their lives in some way.

I recently took this approach to private life and learned a few things about building habits into it, which I’d like to share here.

Identifying habits

Habits are supposed to be invisible. That’s their beauty. They exist to make our lives easier by allowing us to follow a certain practice without questioning it. This saves us energy for the important decisions in life.

However, if a habit makes you feel uncomfortable, you should probably question it and therefore have to notice it.

I learned that most habits only become visible if you want to change them.

For example, when I recently started cooking more often, I realised how monotone and unconscious my daily nutrition had been. I didn’t eat unhealthy food or had weight problems, but it overwhelmed me that I hadn’t yet experienced the great diversity of food the world has to offer.

This realisation gave me such positive energy that I had no trouble forming a habit of cooking 2-3 times per week, instead of 1-2 times per month. While it used to be a burden to plan and prepare meals, I suddenly enjoyed selecting recipes for the week and strolling over the farmers market in my neighborhood to buy local and fresh groceries.

But what changed the most, is the way I perceive the act of actual cooking. In the past, cooking had to go fast – like 15 minutes fast. Preparing food was a means to an end (= eating), not an activity.
Starting to see cooking as an activity didn’t only take the time pressure away, but also gave it new qualities:
Spending time away from my phone and computer and doing something with my hands.

Forming and changing habits

I found that there are 3 ingredients for successfully forming new habits:

  1. A strong motivator or goal
  2. Time scheduled for practice
  3. Progress and inspiration

For my cooking example, these can be answered by the following:

  1. Better skin
  2. Two evenings per week
  3. Learning about nutritional facts and different cultures

Motivator

On the one hand, you need a motivator to get started.
It’s equally important though to accept if a motivator is not strong enough to change your behaviour. It’s nothing bad, but just a sign that there are other things you’re more devoted to at the given time.

On the other hand, the motivator is the single truth you look back at when facing moments of frustration and tiredness while forming the new habit. When you practiced your habit for a while and it became unconscious, it’s easy to forget why you started in the first place. Maybe you realise that the habit doesn’t help to achieve your goal or your goal has changed over time. Therefore, it’s important to always remember that your didn’t form the habit for its own sake, but to achieve something bigger.

Scheduled practice

Having a strong motivator is great, but usually, it’s just an idea or a vision of the person you’d like to become. In order to get there, you have to make it actionable.

The key challenge here is to give the new habit a place in your exiting routine.
For me personally, it’s not enough to just come up with some to dos or steps. I need to find a time in the day or week to actually do it, otherwise daily life and procrastination will beat motivation.

This schedule shouldn’t be super strict, because life is usually not foreseeable, e.g. you get sick, a family member faces some issues, or you need to stay longer at work.
So you need to retain a certain degree of flexibility, otherwise changing habits becomes very exhausting and you might give up eventually.
However, it helped me to define how often I want to do something.

Some of the new habits I recently incorporated in my daily life:

  • Meditate every day
  • Stretch my back 5 times a week
  • Work out 2 times a week

It also helps to define a time of the day when it’s best to practice your new habit, then see how it works with your daily routine and adjust if necessary. For instance, I couldn’t motivate myself to work out in the evening, so I moved it to the morning before work. On the other hand, I don’t feel calm enough to meditate in the morning, so I mostly do it in the evenings.

Progress and inspiration

After a while, a habit can not only become unconscious, but also tiring and boring. To avoid giving up, you can make small changes that give you new inspiration and a sense of progress.

Taking my cooking habit as an example, I achieved this by cooking new recipes and trying different diets. Buying a new cookbook or discovering a new food blog gave me new inspiration, while cooking different meals helped me gain knowledge about different ingredients and preparation methods.

Use your mind

The key to successfully forming habits is without doubt to maintain practice. But the mind has a high impact, too. It already starts by setting a goal that becomes the main anchor throughout your habit-forming practice.

I found two further mind-related activities to be helpful when changing habits:

Meditation to identify habits

We get aware of most of our unhealthy habits through information we receive from the outside, e.g. a study concluding that sitting for 8 hours causes back problems, or a friend telling you that eating meat increases your CO2 footprint. But there might be inner unhealthy habits only you have access to.

With meditation we train our mind to pause and be more present in each moment, until we become aware of habits we haven’t noticed before, because we were too busy performing them. This also includes habits that are non-behavioral, like a series of thoughts we go through again and again.

Reflection to form habits

When you’re in the process of forming a habit, adjusting it to your needs will help maintain it and achieve your goal. In order to do it, you need to reflect upon your practice from time to time, so that it doesn’t get automatic, tiring and meaningless.

If you don’t manage to practice regularly, don’t blame but ask yourself, why this is the case. See it as a series of experiments where you change one variable at a time – e.g. frequency, duration, time of the day, people involved – until you formed a habit that works for you.


Never forget: Habits exist to serve you, not the other way around.

As soon as they make you feel uncomfortable, let go of them, just do what makes you happy, and remind yourself that not everything you do needs a purpose.