At the most basic level, we need habits in order to cope. “The skeleton of habit alone,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her novel about 1920s English high society, Mrs Dalloway, “upholds the human frame.” But more than that, habit and routine increases people’s self-control and feelings of self-discipline. It’ll make you feel like you’ve accomplished goals and keep you moving forward. Make no mistake, it’s not about being stuck in a rut; it’s about getting into a groove.
Whether it’s work or exercise, the hardest part is getting started, which is why a pre-routine is essential. According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, this should consist of a series of steps with the first step being so easy that you can’t say no – like putting on your trainers before going for a run, or pouring yourself a coffee before sitting down to work. It should include some physical movement, even if it’s just going to sit at a desk. Move and it is likely that motivation will follow. The goal is establishing and repeating a pattern: this is what you do before you do that.
Now that you’ve started, the key to making it a habit is, of course, to keep going. It takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. What’s important in the early days is making it as easy as possible. So, with something like exercise, schedule it for the same time every day, make sure your kit is ready, and minimise any friction. The more you have to think about your new ‘habit’, the less likely you are to do it.
MAKE IT A RITUAL
The difference between a routine and a ritual is all in the attitude. While routines are actions that need to be done, like taking a shower, rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose – something you actually enjoy doing. Anything can be a ritual provided it’s repeated over and over again in the same way and it’s done with intention and care. For example, Ariana Huffington’s morning ritual includes 30 minutes of meditation followed by a shower and Bulletproof coffee. Developing a morning ritual improves focus, enhances your awareness and clears your mind, ready for a new day.
A routine can also get you out of a groove, especially important when working from home. A shutdown ritual each evening, in which you review every outstanding task and make a list for the following day, is worth the extra time so you can properly switch off. At the end of each day, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, transcribes loose notes into a master task list, shuts down his computer, and then says the phrase, “Schedule shutdown, complete”. As he explains, “After I’ve uttered the magic phrase, if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process: I said the termination phrase.” Cheesy, he admits, but a set phrase cues your conscious mind to switch out of work mode.
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