How to Create Mindful Habits
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” —F.M. Alexander
I would modify F.M. Alexander’s quote: we don’t always decide our habits.
But we have the ability to decide, and in my experience, the most effective way to change behavior is through habit-building.
Our actions help shape our thoughts and our habits shape our actions. It’s not a stretch to say that habit-building is a pillar of mindfulness. It’s up to you: do you want to make habit-building a conscious decision?
I’m not overpromising when I say creating habits is much more simple than you might think: It’s how you think about the change that makes a decisive difference.
Identifying the difference between your desired outcomes and the habits that get you there is the key.
I learned this the hard way (um, partial starvation) but it is absolutely not a requirement that you do the same.
I think I was actually starving.
It was day four of five days of silent fasting. We were at the tail end of a 28-day moon-based meditation retreat that took place in the small, uber-spiritual lakeside village of San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala.
Although I saw them out of my peripheral vision, for four days I had had no communication with any of my 23 fellow participants. I wore a baseball cap and kept my head down and eyes averted as I made my way around our tropically lush compound.
The only activities ‘allowed’ were meditation and journaling, with a morning yoga class thrown in for good measure.
The following journal entry was written around 9pm the night we started our silence and fasting, maybe six or eight hours after a subdued (but not yet silent) group lunch which would be our last meal for five days:
Fairly brutal. Not in the big picture but in my world. Hungry. Caffeine withdrawal headache. Not feeling the magic right now. Post meditation class am very sad. Am finding it hard to be in the moment - I want to be done. Now.
I’m hoping this is where the big wins come.
The big wins didn’t come in the tearful worldview-shifting/denial-lifting moments that happened for some of my new friends. Back home in Boulder I had such a breakthrough only six months earlier, so maybe I was being a little greedy.
Also, I’ve had breakthroughs since. Who can say when seeds are planted that lead to these things?
Despite the lack of accompanying major cathartic sobbing, it doesn’t mean the realizations I had during the five silent & hungry days were inconsequential. One of them has utterly changed my life; it was simply more tactical in nature.
(Bonus: I now know what it feels like to not eat for five days. I also know what an entire very ripe papaya tastes like after five days of not eating. There’s no way to describe it, and only one way you can find out.)
1. My caffeine addiction (which I still struggle with on-and-off, including right now) robs my life of vibrance.
A friend says that my relationship with caffeine is similar to some women’s relationship with their hair color. A topic for another time.
Next realization please…
2. When I snooze, I lose.
This one was HUGE, yet still seems so pedestrian that if I didn’t experience the change I wouldn’t believe it.
It was and is that simple.
To clarify, I’m talking about the action of hitting the snooze bar, whether the actual one on my Awake Clock, or (back then) the snooze button on my phone.
I wanted to be someone who meditates every morning. Before the retreat (at home, with a job and other responsibilities) I was practicing probably 50% of the time.
It took a trip to Guatemala to identify the problem: getting out of bed with enough time to meditate.
When I hit the snooze bar (repeatedly) each day and the chance to meditate was gone, that was it. It was one day. I felt guilty for a minute and moved on because I had to — I had finally gotten out of bed for some reason; it’s just that meditation wasn’t the reason.
Maybe it would happen the next day too. But then the day after that maybe I meditated, and maybe I did again the next day. Or maybe not.
The point is, it was insidious. On a day-to-day basis I couldn’t see the root cause.
During those four silent (hungry!) days I was able to zoom out. I saw that using the snooze function was keeping me from being someone who meditates every morning.
It was keeping me from being the man I wanted to be.
Right then and there around four o’clock pm on day four of five days of silence (and hunger), sitting on the tile floor of my sparse wooden cabin in a super-poor third world country...I resolved to stop snoozing.
But a second later I was like, wait wait wait a second, this is vacation (even though my stomach wouldn’t have thought so). In two days I’ll be done with this retreat, I want to sleep as long as I want….
Yeah but…this…behavior…was stopping me from being the man I wanted to be. When should I start? When should I change? What better time than a) now (cliche); and b) when I don’t have any responsibilities.
So I made a rule: If I set my alarm for a certain time, I would get up at that time. Otherwise I could sleep until whenever I wanted.
I ‘illegally’ made a chart in my notebook (I forget why it wasn’t within the recommendations of the silence, but I remember the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be doing it.) You Snooze, You Lose. It was a rough calendar graph.
The next morning, on the fifth and final day of silence, I woke up when my alarm went off and I put an x on my chart. This first one sort of didn’t count because I had been getting up in time to go to the dock for a sunrise meditation.
But the following morning – the morning after our concluding full moon ceremony, the morning after eating a ripe papaya and reveling and comparing notes with my friends into the early morning – I had to get up early and pack up and vacate my home of four weeks.
I set my alarm before going to bed the night before. It went off five hours later. I was tired. I turned it off, got up, meditated, and got started with my day.
After two weeks I no longer felt a need to mark an x on my rudimentary calendar. I had successfully created a habit that I keep to this day.
I don’t keep track, but I haven’t missed meditation on more than a handful of days since then. In four years…a couple dozen maybe?
Yes, I had a desire to change. But I was able to change because I identified the habit that would lead me to the desired outcome.
As F.M. Alexander (who created the Alexander Technique) pointed out, my habits decided my future.
The World of Habit Formation
In the online world of productivity / self-improvement there is so much information about habit-making. There are three giants in the realm: Charles Duhigg, BJ Fogg, and James Clear.
For a killer intro to habit formation take a look at this BJ Fogg TedxTalk in which he outlined ideas from his book Tiny Habits is based on.
Professor Fogg’s framework is, “After I [existing behavior], I will [tiny behavior].” Then, celebrate!
“After I flush the toilet, I will do two pushups.” Then, aloud, he says, “Awesome!”
Of course, before long he would add to the two pushups, and he was doing this all day. He eventually was doing 70 or 80 pushups a day.
The Power of Habit
Charles Duhigg wrote The Power of Habit, (upon which James Clear, below, builds).
What I remember most from the book isn't about habit formation; it's about the spooky way Target could predict which of its customers were pregnant based on their shopping behaviors.
They would then mail those customers a specific "pregnancy" version of a sales flyer.
One woman’s father freaked out that the company was targeting his daughter with maternity goods; she was pregnant and he didn’t know yet.
Duhigg also identifies three stages of habit: Cue, routine, reward.
He cites a personal example that he experienced after his wife chided him for putting on a little weight. Here I’ve paraphrased and shortened from his website.
Cue: It’s around 3:30 and I’m in my office
Routine: Go to the cafeteria, get a cookie
Reward: Eat the cookie while chatting with friends
By noticing different aspects of his environment (i.e. by being present), Duhigg identifies that his real motive is the company of others, not the cookie.
He (mindfully) alters his behavior by finding people to chat with outside from the cafeteria and pow, his cookie habit disappeared.
James Clear went next-level, building on Duhigg’s work.
I love the double meaning of the title of Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.
“Atomic” refers to:
- How small the habits need to be in order to effect change.
- How powerful those changes can be.
For me, this is where the gold is. Clear establishes a framework that makes habit-building accessible. He calls these the Four Laws of Behavior Change.
To build a good habit:
1st law (Cue) Make it obvious
2nd law (Craving) Make it attractive
3rd law (Response) Make it easy
4th law. (Reward) Make it satisfying
To break a bad habit he inverts them:
Inversion of the 1st law (Cue) Make it invisible
Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving) Make it unattractive
Inversion of the 3rd law (Response) Make it difficult
Inversion of the 4th law (Reward) Make it unsatisfying
Clear posits that our entire life is built on habits we don’t recognize as such:
Enter a dark room.
Want to see.
Flip light switch.
Room lights up, sight is possible.
Ever walk into a dark room and mindlessly slap the wall?
Digital Mindfulness as Habit
When I was in the depths of my bedtime phone addiction I used these laws to break a bad habit / create a good one.
Clear talks at length about changing your environment to support your habits and this is what’s worked repeatedly for me throughout my life.
When I want to eat fewer sweet foods I don’t buy bags of them at Costco. Not in my house, not in my stomach. Pretty obvious but can be hard to do, I definitely sympathize with the person who doesn’t want to eat sweets but leaves the house to buy some.
A few weeks ago I was driving home from my mom’s house and told myself I’d go straight home but somehow ended up in Safeway buying ice cream. Sugar cravings are no joke.
The principles are sound even if it’s not 100% effective against stronger cravings and addictions.
To stop using my phone in bed for hours on end I used a combination of creating a good habit and breaking a bad one:
Cue: My bedroom/bed. Leave phone out of bedroom (Combo of obvious and invisible)
Craving: Book I really want to read already on bedstand (Make it attractive)
Response: Read book and use alarm clock/can’t grab phone despite craving (Make non-phone use easy; phone use difficult)
Reward: Read book, get great sleep, wake up on time (So satisfying that despite negative cravings, I continue the habit the next night.)
I still see my bed and want to sink into it with my phone. It’s so…easy, and so numbing.
But I know that an hour or more would go by, so I don’t get my phone from the other room. And my journal and several books are always on my bedstand.
Resource: Habit Tracker
Other than the books cited and linked websites, the most elementary resource is a calendar. In the productivity community there’s a tactic called “Don’t break the chain”. It’s attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, who purportedly used it to keep himself writing jokes every day.
Don't break the chain is the tactic I used when in my little hut in Guatemala.
You can use a bullet journal format to track more than one habit; the danger is biting off more than you can chew. The surest way to success is to practice one habit so it becomes ingrained and unconscious before adding another.
When you get to that point or if you’re feeling ambitious, here’s a link to a printable, basic habit tracker.
Current Habit Formation
I have a couple things I’m working on at the start of 2020.
One is that I won’t take my computer to bed. I was sometimes using the excuse of doing some easy work in bed, but after I was done it would morph into Twitter or streaming video. Those two activities can take me from nodding off to jittery-alert in about ten seconds.
Other than the aforementioned don’t break the chain and bedside book and journals, I don’t have a cue-craving-response-reward set up.
I just know that I want to sleep better and in this case, that’s enough motivation that even though my computer is a few feet from my bed (on my desk, in my bedroom), it hasn’t come to bed with me.
Sometimes it’s enough simply to know what you want your life to look like.
My other main focus of the first part of 2020 is to work out a third time each week.
Still struggling with this one, in part because of work schedule and Offgrid Mindfulness endeavors.
But I identified one huge barrier to the third weekly workout: I don’t have a set workout.
One day each week I work out with a trainer and he tells me what to do. A second day I workout with a friend and we do the same exercises every time. No thinking involved
The third day I have no accountability partner and I have to decide what to work on. This is a bigger hurdle than it might seem; sometimes I’ll be sitting at home on my bed thinking, Okay, what exercises am I gonna do when I get there?
Then I find something else to do.
So I’m working with my trainer to create day three’s exercises. Then I can just show up and get to work.
If a lack of accountability still proves to be a problem, I’ll address it.
What are you working on right now and how's it going?
To change yourself it takes a little thought and planning beyond "This year I'm losing 20 pounds." or "Imma gonna get shredded."
But you don't have to reinvent the wheel. The frameworks and resources are available to you.
To a large extent, it truly depends on how bad you want to change.
I would love to hear what you're up to, what you think of this blog post, or if you'd like some accountability. Feel free to email me:
All the best,
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