Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Where were our habits and where are they now? 

Two months ago, we were abruptly sent home without much lead time or a chance to prep for the days ahead. Many of us have been figuring this out as we go, with our old routines long behind us. We know that good habits like exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep are important for our health, but for some of us these may seem more challenging while working from home. 

Researchers estimate that 40% of what we do every day is automatic. Over time, our brains automate certain behaviors to be efficient and conserve energy for other tasks that require conscious thought (think about all your projects at work). When we experience a dramatic change, it takes a little time for our brains to catch up and start doing things on auto pilot again. 

Just as our old habits did not form overnight, we should expect that our new routines will also take time (and many repetitions) to feel automatic. Some of us may have found our groove while working from home, and others are still working out the kinks. Regardless of where we are at, working towards healthy habits in the face of adversity boosts our resilience and ability to overcome challenges in the future. With the return to campus seeming more real every day, we are heading for more change and likely going to need to pivot once again with our daily habits. The good news is there are things we can do to speed up the process. 

How do I form new healthy habits? 

According to Dr. BJ Fogg, Behavior Scientist at Stanford University, there are 3 things that intersect for a behavior to happen: motivation, ability, and a prompt. When our ability is low, we need high motivation to perform a behavior. When our ability is high, we don’t need a as much motivation. The prompt ties it all together. It’s what triggers you to perform the behavior.

Finding the sweet spot between your ability and motivation and combining it with the right prompt makes it easier to sustain habits even in the face of change. Here are evidence-based ways to start building lifelong healthy habits. 

  1. Prime your environment: Set up your environment, so it is easy to perform the habit you want. If you want to start walking every morning, lay out your gym shoes, exercise clothes and water bottle the night before. This makes the habit easier to perform and enhances your ability.
  2. Make your habits tiny: When you start small, your ability to do the habit is very high regardless of your motivation. The easier it is for you in the beginning, the more likely it is that you will continue. Start walking 1-2 minutes each morning. It may seem silly, but you are working on building up your repetitions. Check out Dr. BJ Fogg’s quick TEDx Talk on tiny habits.  

Make it so easy you can't say no. 
—Leo Babauta

  1. Repeat your habits: Repetition is essential for training your brain to do something automatically. When you start tiny, it’s easy to repeat. You don’t need as much motivation to do it. See how many mornings you can walk for 1-2 minutes. When you’re ready, gradually add more time to your walk. Consider tracking your habits, so you can see your progress.
  2. Break things up: As you start to build up your habit, break it up into smaller pieces. Take 30 minutes of walking and break it down to 3 sessions of 10 minutes each. If you’re low on time, do as much as you can. Each rep counts!
  3. Keep a short memory: If you miss a day, move on, and try again the next day. Perfection is not the goal, and your habits do not have to be all or nothing. The sum of your reps is what drives long-term change. Think of this as an experiment. Researchers rarely get the perfect answer on the first try.
  4. Pair a new habit with another habit you do every day: This is the “prompt” that reminds you to do the habit. For example, after I brush my teeth, I will put on my clothes and shoes and go outside to walk. Put your clothes and shoes in the bathroom to make this step even easier.
  5. Celebrate your habits: Identifying your wins (no matter how big or small) is important for long-term change. When you feel good about what you’ve done, you increase your motivation to continue. Every time you perform your habit, tell yourself “I’m awesome!” 
  6. Make your habits enjoyable: We are more motivated to participate in healthy activities that we enjoy. Start where you are and take small steps to improve.

Need some additional support and accountability for developing healthy habits? A liveWELL Health Coach can help. Request an appointment or contact us at livewell@uiowa.edu

Melanie Cuchna, Well-Being Specialist UI Wellness/University Human Resources 
UHR coaching tips to share

Plans to try and return workers to campus on a more regular basis are being reviewed. The return to campus will likely be staggered and it is very likely that many offices will, at least in the short-term, become a blend of employees in the office and others working from home. What habits have you started in the COVID-19 world that you want to continue? What habits will you find most challenging to keep up when your workspace may yet again change? Let us know at hr-oe-blog@uiowa.edu.   

Book Resources on Habit Science 

Fogg, B. J. (2020). Tiny habits: + the small changes that change everything. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits tiny changes, remarkable results: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York, NY: Avery.
Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Toronto: Anchor Canada.

Web Resources