Note that this blog post is part of a series. You can access all the posts at 52 Weeks to Better Life Balance Series.
The main reason habits can improve our life balance is because they make life easier.
While reading and studying factors that contribute to life balance, I was surprised to learn that habits can be a way to improve overall energy and functioning in life. However, the more I read, the more it made sense.
The main reason habits can improve our life balance is because they make life easier. We may not even realize it, but 40% of our actions each day are actually habits that we’ve adopted, says author Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Once we form a habit, either consciously or unconsciously, we don’t have to spend much energy on it. We literally operate on automatic pilot as our brain takes over and starts the chain of events that are part of the habit. As author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin points out in her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, “Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin.” Instead, this energy is saved for other important aspects in our life.
In fact, experts say we have a limited amount of willpower each day. In morning when we awake, we have a great supply of mental stamina and self-control, but as the day wears on, we slowly draw down this reserve. Decisions we make, actions we take, behaviors we engage in all tap into our willpower and energy. This principle is why many experts suggest we tackle our most important tasks in the morning when our energy and self-control is greatest. On the other hand, habits do not need much willpower or energy to operate (once they become habits, that is).
Positive Habits Generate Energy
Some habits not only save energy but also generate energy on their own. For example, if we incorporate consistent exercise into our lives, this leads to increased energy and motivation. If we focus on eating more healthfully or getting more sleep, these actions will also boost our energy (note that a lack of sleep typically leads to a dramatic decrease of willpower).
Habits Focus on Top Priorities
Habits also help us incorporate the important aspects in our life. During Week 6, we discussed identifying our top priorities for the year as well as creating specific goals to work toward our priorities. In Week 14, we also pointed that goals often involve creating new, positive habits, or reshaping habits that do not work for us. For example, one of my top priorities for this year is working on this blog series and writing more in general. In order to do so, my goal has been to write every morning on the days I work from home, which has involved creating a new habit.
How Habits Work
As we contemplate the current habits in our life and ones we’d like to add or change, it is helpful to understand the basics of how habits work. In the beginning of creating a new action or potential habit, our brain really has to think about the process and its steps (and hence we use up much energy and willpower). However, the more we repeat these efforts and the less new it becomes to us, a different part of the brain takes over, a more primitive structure called the basal ganglia. This area allows us to shift into automatic pilot mode, thereby releasing our mental focus to concentrate on other actions or thoughts. For example, while brushing our teeth in the morning, which most likely has become a habit, we can contemplate the upcoming events of the day. We don’t have to think about each step.
The brain is actually always looking for ways to conserve energy, and thus it will try to turn anything into a habit. It wants to automate routines as much as possible so that we can focus on other important efforts (such as inventing spears, irrigations systems, and eventually airplanes and video games, says Charles Duhigg). Habits are a way to be more efficient.
Habits actually involve a “three-step loop.” Charles Duhigg explains, “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”
Sociologist and happiness expert Christine Carter, who wrote The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, and Charles Duhigg highlight that cues and rewards can greatly range. Triggers might include a sight, smell, sound, time of the day, thought, or person (e.g., the smell of baking treats, the sound of your alarm clock, the sight of kids getting on the school bus). Rewards can be external (e.g., buying a new shirt), a physical sensation (relaxation from alcohol), or emotional (feelings of accomplishment). Research shows that the best types of rewards are those that are more intrinsic, or rather are an inherent part of the routine. For example, studies have found that some habitual exercisers crave the boost of endorphins they feel after exercising, while others enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
As time goes on and we repeat a routine, the three-step loop becomes stronger. Eventually the brain begins to associate the cue with the reward. Charles Duhigg points out that a “cue and reward on their own aren’t enough for a new habit to last.” The brain has to expect and anticipate the reward. It has to crave the reward. Thus if you want to create a new habit that lasts, determine a trigger and a reward that you look forward to. The reward is what motivates us to repeat the activity.
It is helpful to keep in mind that some habits require more energy and willpower to create than others, and may take longer to establish. Christine Carter shares, “It is nothing but a myth that habit formation takes 21 days. Actual science shows, not surprisingly, that there is a wide time range for simple habit formation. The easier the behavior, the less time it takes to form a habit. On average, it takes 66 days to form a habit. Hard things, like routinely exercising in the morning, typically take much longer than this.” Furthermore, some habits seem much more fragile than others and need to be protected from becoming extinguished. Exercise and diets definitely seem to fall into this category, given how easily it is for people (myself included) to “fall off the wagon!”
What other habits might improve our life balance? I turned to my Facebook network as well as the internet to find out what habits people are working on or would like to focus on:
- Read more
- Disconnect and spend less time on social media
- Give up negative self-talk
- Eliminate comparing self to others
- Wake up earlier
- Single task
- Incorporate mindfulness
- Work on a hobby
- Connect more with others
- Incorporate self-care
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Read more to kids
- Drink less alcohol
- Learn a language
- Maintain a blog
- Make the bed
- File regularly
- Put things away in their proper places
- Pick up daily
- Call family and friends regularly
- Spend more time with family
- Eliminate clutter
- Cut out soda from diet
- Exercise regularly
- Go to bed earlier (this was the most frequently mentioned habit among my Facebook network)
- Prepare lunches, backpacks, work stuff the night before
- Stop hitting snooze button
- Plan meals for week on Sunday
Figuring out a trigger and intrinsic reward for a new habit can be difficult. I noticed that when I want to create a habit, I often need an extrinsic reward in the beginning phases. For example, establishing a consistent running routine is a habit I wanted to bring back into my life, and this type of habit requires a tremendous amount of willpower (at least for me). It also is a habit that seems to require a longer time period to become established.
The first challenge was finding the right time to run. First thing in the morning, which tends to work well for many people, doesn’t suit me because I struggle with low blood sugar issues upon waking. Nighttime was doable for me a couple of years ago, but I’m usually exhausted by the end of the day and really lack the willpower needed to do this again. I need to space out my running due to a hip injury, so I couldn’t pack it all into the weekend. And it isn’t possible to run on the days I travel into the city for work. Thus what seemed to fit best was running on the days that I work from home (as well as Sundays). On those days I dressed in my running gear first thing in the morning, ate breakfast, helped get the kids ready, and then took them to school.
My trigger was walking in the door after dropping the kids off. My reward in the beginning was having tea in my backyard after a run, which is a true treat for me (relaxation, peacefulness, nature). This is an extrinsic reward, but interestingly, after I was able to run about two miles comfortably (approximately 5-6 weeks), I began to feel that “runner’s high” and sense of accomplishment after each run. And this became my intrinsic reward. Several months later, running three days per week is a more established habit. I now have my tea first thing in the morning, write afterwards, and run later in the day (now that I don’t need as much willpower to get myself to do it). But it still is a habit that needs much protection and cultivation.
Action Step for Week 23:
Take some time to think about your own habits, the good and the not-so-helpful habits. Keep in mind that, as Gretchen Rubin reminds us, “…people value different habits. For one person, organized files are a crucial tool for creativity; another finds inspiration in unexpected juxtapositions.” Which ones have you been working on? Have you incorporated any new habits over the course of the year thus far? What habits are you still working on? Next week we will dive into more of how to troubleshoot our most challenging habits.
Readers, what habits are you working on or would you like to work on? Share in the comments below!
Be sure to join Women, Work, and Life’s Facebook page where we will further discuss each week’s post, action steps, and insights. I will also be sharing articles there for further reading. If you are not on Facebook, you can follow me on Twitter @EmilySeamone. Also, sign-up for my newsletter to keep on top of the blog series as well as other posts and information. I look forward to seeing you in all these places!
In addition, I am conducting a study on career change for better work-life balance. If you have made a career or job change to improve your work-life balance, I’d love to hear about your experiences! Please complete the following survey and be entered for a chance to win a $75 Amazon gift card: http://goo.gl/forms/x9NtU2JT64