The term “creature of habit” is defined as someone who likes to do the same things in the same way with little to no change. There are certainly more adventurous outliers among us, but in general, humans feel secure operating within predictable patterns. It streamlines our lives and takes out a lot of the guesswork. Even something as simple as waking up and knowing you are going to start with coffee creates a framework in which we order our days.
But even in the most measured and planned lives, there is inevitably disturbance and variation. With any major life change there are countless opportunities for stress and strain. Imagine waking up and not knowing what comes after, if you are going to work or taking your kids to school. Imagine always having to weigh options, or not being able to plan or have something to look forward to. The recent limitations due to Coronavirus certainly make some of these things very relatable to many of us. However, great shifts and changes also yield the most growth. Taken out of our usual routines we are given pause to evaluate ways we can integrate good habits into our lives. In taking advantage of a difficult situation, we can reset old patterns and habituate positive behaviors to build better and healthier routines.
How Habits Help Mental Health
Creating good habits from a mental health perspective is incredibly useful. When periods of difficulty occur, we have a foundation of positive behaviors to rely on. When you have optimal mental health, you are happier and can more easily handle stress. Simple things like getting regular sleep, exercise, and healthy eating all are proven to relate to happier and contented disposition. By working on habits that aid our general health, we contribute to our mental wellbeing as well. But even greater, long term goals such as improving or strengthening relationships or rewriting negative storytelling are also aided by regular and consistent good habits such as journaling, or therapy.
According to an American psychologist Abraham Maslow, humans are inherently motivated to better themselves and move toward expressing their full potential. In its most basic iteration, motivation is the desire or the willingness to do something. Motivation is a movement toward something, and happens before the outcome. However, a conventional misconception about motivation is that it occurs before you act, when in fact the more you act toward the progress of your goal, the more motivated you are to achieve it. To observe this connection between motivation and action closer, we are going to look at how habits and motivation are connected.
How is Habit and Motivation Connected?
According to Kevan Lee in his article, Your Brain on Dopamine: The Science of Motivation, Motivation happens when your dopamine spikes because you anticipate something important is about to happen. In a more general sense, having something to look forward to crates excitement and lights up the pleasure centers in the brain. It gives us an experience of happiness and feels like reward. And one of the more effective ways that can happen is by setting incremental goals on the way to a larger achievement. Each time a small milestone is reached our dopamine levels increase. In fact, according to research published in Nature Neuroscience, slow and consistent release of dopamine increases a person’s motivation. A more concrete example would be instead of running long distance, gradually building up mileage will make you more motivated to run and keep running over time.
A healthy outlook on habit building is worth mentioning that the time it takes to achieve a goal is irrelevant. The goal in habit forming is not the result, but the repetition of the act. Shift your attention away from the long-term goal and instead focus on showing up and doing your habit every single day. If you stick to the process, the results you’re after will inevitably come as a side effect of your efforts.
Another effective way to reframe a habit, is to focus on a ritual rather than the act. To continue with the running example, have the pre run playlist you look forward to listening to, a special snack for running days. Even when motivation dips or lags, repeating the small steps that lead up to action makes the process more automatic. And the more automatic your habits the easier it is to follow through on a regular basis. And like starting your morning with a coffee before work, the ritual takes out the guesswork or decision making on what to do next. James Clear, an author on habits reminds us that the structure of the ritual can be applied to any area, even the creative fields. “The work of top creatives isn’t dependent upon motivation or inspiration, but rather it follows a consistent pattern and routine.” In whatever you set out to achieve, making incremental steps while having a ritual creates more motivation and an established habit.
Working Toward a Goal
Have a clear set goal. Being able to properly visualize what you want to achieve puts you on the path toward it. Once you can identify what it is you want to change or work towards you can break it down incrementally. As the research supports, starting small and building over time is important not to intimidate yourself or enforce old stories of failure by setting unattainable goals. By starting small it is a manageable way to establish a routine that begets routine. Focus on the ritual, the prep or lead up to the act will automate the good habits in your behavior.
And finally, create an environment of support. This can include friends and family, but especially professional help. Having a system of support is crucial to managing dips in motivation, directionlessness as well as articulating what goals you want to accomplish and how to go about achieving them. This is especially helpful when your goals are more abstract, harder to map out or name. Therapy can help facilitate psychological and behavioral changes to meet goals, promote positive decision making, and cope with setbacks. In whatever variation one chooses to aim toward higher potential and general well being, having a structure of good habits is the best first step.