If you've successfully established new habits, what helped you to do so?
December 29, 2018 12:22 PM   Subscribe

It's almost new year and I'm trying to figure out the best way to help myself to eat better, exercise more, be a better parent, keep the house clean, write the Great American Novel yadda yadda. If you've successfully established new (good!) habits, please tell me what worked for you.

To be clear: I'm trying to figure out some ways to follow through with the things I want to do. I've meditated daily for the past three months but I've simply used willpower for that. I don't think I have enough willpower/self-discipline to keep all aspects of my life under control, so I'm looking for some hacks.
posted by rubbish bin night to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
I use Daylio, a mood tracking app with optional activities to keep on top of things. I find something quite satisfying about ticking off things at 8pm every day - pills, vitamins, exercise, life admin.
posted by teststrip at 12:33 PM on December 29 [4 favorites]

I've been using a simple habit-tracking Android app. It just asks me every night (or whenever you tell it to ask you) whether you did X thing today, then keeps track and shows your history in a few different formats. For me, it's just the right type of reminder/accountability. I like that it shows streaks, and if I'm feeling like I'm not getting enough prodding, there are widgets I can put on my home screen to show me how I'm doing every time I look at my phone.
posted by nosila at 12:36 PM on December 29

Here's the habit-tracking app I use: Loop Habit Tracker
posted by nosila at 12:53 PM on December 29 [1 favorite]

I can't exercise for the sake of exercise, at all. I can go to cool places and do fun things (e.g., hiking, skiing), but that requires planning and/or travel and so I typically do so only sporadically. This year I picked up a 2.5x/week exercise habit on accident, because I signed up for a one hour Intro to Bouldering class at a place close to my house on a whim over the summer. I would never go to the gym for willpower reasons, or even for social ones, but figuring out a bouldering problem apparently scratches some motivational itch I've been missing all these years.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:54 PM on December 29

(So I guess my recommendation is try out new activities until you find something you might actually get obsessive over.)
posted by deludingmyself at 12:55 PM on December 29 [1 favorite]

I have just accepted that I suck at adulting and found ways to work with that. For instance, I keep a running list of mildly-unpleasant tasks I tend to avoid (e.g., changing the air filters; getting insurance quotes periodically to see if I can get a lower rate). These tasks are so appealing when there's something I want to do even less (often a writing deadline). I'm going to procrastinate anyway so at least I get some other stuff done this way.

I only let myself watch television while I'm exercising, which limits my trash TV time and motivates me to get on the elliptical when I want to stream my latest Netflix obsession.

Parenting is the hardest and I struggle with establishing new habits there. The only thing that has helped is focusing on changing one thing at a time, about one a month, and telling my kid I'm working on it. This means it needs to be simple and achievable enough to explain it to a preschooler. Kids LOVE to police their parents so if they know you're working on, for instance, rushing less and keeping your cool during the morning rush, they will be delighted to remind you when you forget.
posted by xylothek at 1:05 PM on December 29 [6 favorites]

I have been trying to get in shape and not following through for a while. I tried a free class at Orange Theory and I love it, have been going 2-3x per week for the last month, and have found it really works for me. You can try a free class and see if you like it. Also: I am not a paid plugger or Onion-style viral influencer, I just honestly have to recommend it to everyone. I hate most things, but I really like OT.

I found Mel Robbins’ audiobook The Five Second Rule to be a gamechanger for me as well. I follow her on social
media too and her whole approach to self improvement is VERY practical and actionable. She speaks a lot about how to move forward when not motivated and it was really powerful for me. She’s also how I found out about Orange Theory, too, actually. She also has a coaching show on Audible called Kick Ass that is also excellent. Highly recommend listening to her works as she reads them and is a great speaker.

Everybody’s different, but thought I’d share the people and things that are having a big impact on me lately.
posted by Kemma80 at 1:08 PM on December 29 [3 favorites]

I use Habitica, which gamifies to-do lists with an 8-bit RPG. I'm in a party of creatives who run quests almost constantly. And if I don't do one of my daily to-do list tasks, it deals damage to my party. And enough damage kills the entire party. So I make sure I write 500 words a day, because killing my party if I don't would really suck. There's a ton more to it than that, but that's the gist.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 2:10 PM on December 29 [1 favorite]

You should read Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. It's all about how to hack your life for lasting habit change.
posted by Fuego at 2:17 PM on December 29 [5 favorites]

I read at one point that when you get a rush of inspiration it’s impirtant to use that to set yourself up for success later. So you may not consistently go to the gym all year, but if in June you’re feeling lazy and want to get back in shape, you already have the gym membership, equipment, memory of your old routine, etc. And don’t beat yourself up over having to start over, same as accepting that it takes most people multiple attempts to quit smoking.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:57 PM on December 29 [2 favorites]

Tools: I had trouble keeping the apartment clean until I organized it in a way that works for me. I spend time and resources in good storage solutions and it really pays off in terms of peace of mind and general structure. Also, since I bought a vacuum cleaner I actually like (not bulky and easy to move around the apartment... ideally it'd be cordless but I'm not quite there yet financially), my apartment is cleaner because it no longer feels super onerous.

Structure: If the new habit has a functional place in your life, it'll be easier to maintain. You'll ride your bike more often if, for instance, it gets you to the bakery every morning or for any beer run or shopping trip that is less than, say, 2 miles. Try to figure out how your new habit can contribute to something else (tangible, that feels rewarding) that motivates you to keep doing it, so you can use it as a means to an end, in a way.
posted by ipsative at 3:16 PM on December 29 [2 favorites]

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great book
posted by saturdaymornings at 3:45 PM on December 29 [4 favorites]

Sorry if this is unhelpful but I have found the fear of negative consequences to be a really good motivator. I exercise because for me the ill effects of not doing so are pretty dramatic. I don't bite my nails anymore cause I chipped a tooth and that was a contributing factor. On a less dire note, I just feel better about myself when I do the things I know I should do/want to do, and I try to be mindful of that. Good luck!
posted by ferret branca at 3:54 PM on December 29

I use a "don't break the chain" type habit app called Habit Bull. It's not particularly great, but it's free (for OS not sure for Android), it lets you set a frequency for habits (so like I want to floss every day but the week has been a success if I exercise three times per week) and it lets you know when you've met a set-by-you goal. The app never changes or updates in any significant way which is important for hidebound old me. This has helped me keep track of whether I meditated (my meditation app also does this but because it times out at midnight sometimes I'd meditate at 12:30 am and it would be like "Awwww you broke your streak" fuck off early-to-bed meditation app), flossed, brushed teeth or did my PT exercises. I didn't basically floss at all before, and now I floss daily. It's surprisingly effective for me.

Th thing that worked along with this was that most of the habits I was working on were teeny. So if I was going to bed and remembered "Shit I forgot to floss" i was also realistic enough to be like "OK that's literally two minutes. GO DO IT" I used to lump the time spent not doing stuff with the time it took to do it, so after I'd put off flossing for literally days, it was like I spent hours doing it. Just doing it is easier and I like easy. So as soon as I started thinking "I should do that" I would, if possible, do it. Like while I was typing this I remembered "Oh right, forgot PT exercises today" so I will do them when I hit Post Answer and not dick around not doing them all evening. Gets it off my To Do list and gets them done. Anything under about ten minutes gets that treatment. Doing dishes, filling bird feeders, whatever. I love being able to have a thought and then complete the action before I do the next thing. I wonder if productive people feel this way all the time? (And I am plenty productive but not about certain habits). Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 4:16 PM on December 29 [4 favorites]

I think we fetishize willpower sometimes. Results are important. Willpower isn’t, except to the extent it gets you results.

To that end: I bribe myself. Had struggled for YEARS to develop “willpower” and stick with something. Now I have a deal with myself: I can only have shitty office coffee if I skip the gym. If I go to the gym (second shout-out to OTF!), I can get fancy coffee. I now go 6x a week and am motivated by the gym part more than the coffee part. For the first ~20 pounds of my weight loss, I got to spend $100 every two pounds on something stupid. (I really wanted to motivate myself so made the reward large and attainable). Lost the 20 pounds in about 15 weeks. Also now own a lot of very silly things that bring me joy. No regrets.

I have tried about 30 tracking apps and they absolutely do not work for me. I actually think they are harmful to me forming habits—if I miss a day, it feels like a big failure. But seems like they work for some people. I think the point is that you should try a lot of things and go with what gets you results.
posted by suncages at 4:26 PM on December 29 [12 favorites]

Couple of things. I like to keep my resolutions to a minimum (and none of them start on January 1st). I also have a strong WHY attached to each resolution, so this keeps me accountable. The more if...then statements I can attach to the new habit, the better its chances of sticking.

To keep myself accountable, I use an app - it's called Don't Break The Chain. Every day that I continue with the habit/resolution, I add one more dot to the chain.

The more days I do the activity, the more entrenched it becomes into my day's activities. As days change to weeks, and weeks change to months, the colour of the chain will change.

It's a simple process, and it works for me. May it work for you as well.
posted by seawallrunner at 5:37 PM on December 29

Willpower fades and can't be relied upon to sustain longterm change. The same goes with external motivation-- it's never enough. It's fickle and doesn't feed the soul.

I would imagine you are more calm and mindful since you have a regular meditation practice. The more calm, the less you will seek or react or expect. That's great for parenting. When mindful, if something needs doing, you are more apt to get up and do it without putting labels on it (this sucks, this is boring, this is hard, this is not what I want to be doing). That's great for cleaning the house. The more mindful, the more you will appreciate the little sensory pleasures and perceptions that happen on a daily basis. That's great for life.

Tips and hacks are fine and fun but if you're like me ten years ago, you will research and read the hell out of something and become a quasi-expert but rarely practice the tips. Tips and researching doesn't facilitate behavior change. How you want to feel in your body, mind, and physical space may motivate you to act on a regular basis.

I'm trying to figure out some ways to follow through with the things I want to do

How do you feel when you do the things you want to do? Why do you want to do them? How do you want your life to look and feel? What can you do to bring those good feelings and things (physical and non-physical) close to you?

I personally want what most humans want: love, connection, sex, sensory pleasures, creativity, beauty, peace, and fun. I began to think differently about how I could bring these things into my life. I realized I could bring most of them into my life, and my physical space, instead of admiring them from afar. Or, expecting them to happen out of thin air. Or expecting others to give me these without effort from myself.

In the cleaning and exercise department here are some ways I began to act and think differently:

1. Reframe how you see house cleaning: I began to look at housework as a way to enhance my life instead of drudgery. It's not easy being sloppy. It's a burden. I think of housekeeping as a way to make things more pleasant and beautiful. Resenting and ignoring housework is not love -- it's neglect. I want love. I want beauty. I want tranquility. I want sex (clean sheets and beautiful bedroom increase chances). Look at housekeeping as a creative artform. See your house as your canvas and your nest. It's a place you get to beautify in ways that are special to you and your family. Housework is no longer a burden. It's a joy. Think of chores as daily rituals. It doesn't have to be perfect and you don't have to do it alone. My aim is to make my home a pleasant space, full of sensory pleasures.

2. More on housekeeping and nesting: When I make it my own, I am more apt to take care and appreciate. Reading too many tips, blogs, instagram and such can paralyze and overwhelm and bring out a perfectionist side. Forget other people's ideas. Do what you like without thinking if others will appreciate it. What are your ideas? Let your creativity flourish -- what are your favorite colors and aromas and textures? Your favorite flowers? Your favorite fruits? What kinds of things make you feel cozy and sensual and invigorate your senses? What do you like to cook and bake? Bring more of that in. Cleaning and cooking and nesting becomes more fun and it's ultimately a way to show love to yourself and your family.

3. I now look at exercise as a way to get in touch with my body and my surroundings. I like to move in ways that make me feel good, more sensual, and feed my mind, body, and spirit. Walking outside, yoga, and dance are my favorites. I don't see it as a chore. I see it as a mind and body enhancer. It's the same with sleep and other health habits. I like how I look and feel when I have eight hours of sleep. I like how I feel when I practice intermittent fasting. etc.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:36 PM on December 29 [17 favorites]

It's a lot easier to establish a habit when it's a small concrete thing that you can do daily. Years ago, I hated flossing and didn't do it daily. I decided to make my New Years Resolution to floss daily. I used the "don't break the chain" idea, although I don't think I actually checked off the days. After doing it for a month, it became habit and it felt weird to not floss.
posted by radioamy at 9:02 PM on December 29

I started exercising with CrossFit (I call it, gym cult) this year and it's the first time I've done any exercise consistently, and I'm 34. In the beginning I made myself go even when I'm in a bad mood or just don't want to. The trainers and other gym goers never minded if I made grumpy sounds. Also, I end up having fun.

I think that is the biggest secret; do it regularly as the more responsible part of you wants to, even when the rest of you is Not in the mood.

I literally thought about the pint of ice cream I would eat after the workout. I still eat junk food after a session. (The best thing about regular exercise is you can sorta eat whatever you want, I've lost ten or fifteen pounds.) Later on my motivation became, choosing three times a week because it was more cost effective than twice a week, attainable with my schedule and enthusiasm level, and what I could afford. These days the healthy feeling, strength gains, and vanity are my motivations. During the workout I actually motivate myself sometimes by thinking about how expensive it is per session- roughly as expensive as going to a film theater. I'd better make it a good film night, I tell myself.

I wholly agree with others that motivation and your feelings and desires don't matter, only doing the thing matters. Do it even when you're not motivated. Don't play games with your brain if it just makes things more complicated emotionally. Just show up, whatever that means for you. After you do that a few times, you won't be bothered by whether or not you want to do it.
posted by panhopticon at 12:31 PM on December 30

Remove as many decisions as you can from your life. That way, when it comes time to choose between the things you want to do and the path of least resistance (gym vs couch) the choosing is easier for your brain.

Snacks? Carry something healthy (I have nuts and dried fruit in my bag now because it’s easier to portion than bars. Sometimes I carry cheese and fresh fruit.)

Exercise? Start by signing up for gym classes so you don’t have to make in the moment decisions about when to go to what happens when you’re there. If that’s not enough, sign up for gym classes that have a fee for canceling at the last minute. Also, going to the gym At All can count as a win. Some days I get there, change I to my clothes and go nooooope.

Cleaning: supplies in every room. A hamper or size appropriate container where clothes accumulate. Dust rags and furniture polish or diluted multi purpose cleaner or vinegar, whatever you ENJOY cleaning with. Before I brush I dump a little cleaner in the toilet. Set a timer for the brushing. Then, I wipe the sink and mirror in bathroom after I floss. Ta da, I have cleaned the bathroom! Sometimes I’ll wipe down the windowsill. In between serious scrubbings is the tub, I wipe it out with a clean rag as the water is heating up. Have extras of things like bath mats. That way when you notice one isn’t looking it’s best you can just replace it immediately without the whole production of getting it clean. Roll of trash bags at the bottom of every can. This sounds crazy at first, but then you’re never having to think about replacing the bag. Also, smaller trash cans. Also sounds crazy, but you will be more likely to take it out before stinky. To reduce cleaning floors, keep shoes off at home. Comfy seasonally appropriate slippers for everyone!

Parenting: my only advice is two things. Therapy that focuses on skills, and all of Ellyn Satters research about feeding kids.

I use a paper chart for my goal activities. I feel in little squares with a colored pencil on the days I achieve the task. Mine has a top section of daily things like flossing and a smaller bottom section of less frequent things like gym and library visits.
posted by bilabial at 2:05 PM on December 30

I bought a step tracker that I wear on my wrist 24/7, and I am hitting my step goals most days. I've never particularly enjoyed walking for fitness, but since getting this device I've been making myself get up from my desk hourly (or so) and walk a couple of laps around the inside of my building, and it is nice to stretch my legs for a few minutes and get the blood pumping. My activity level on days I do this (which is most days) is triple that of a my baseline days of "normal" activity. I've been doing this for several months now and it has become my routine.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:47 PM on December 30 [1 favorite]

aiming for less than 100% has worked well for me. if I need to do the habit every day, I at some point lose my streak for a week and then, frustrated, never pick it up again. this is why every attempt at using duolingo has fallen apart for me.

on the other hand, if I get a "win" every time I do it, I end up doing it more often. i'll keep a streak going, and shrug off when it breaks. excellent for this is any habit-tracker which lets you "make up" days (obviously not really relevant to all habits), so for example my drawing streak is beautiful because I can make up missed days going back thirty days (which is enough time for me to have at least one highly motivated day). or any ongoing cumulative score with no penalty for missed days, just high fives for the ones where you make it.

two pieces of self-knowledge I consider relevant to why this works for me:

1. I reliably go through high-energy/low-energy phases, and I need to keep the bare minimum functioning chugging during low-energy, while not letting any low-energy carry over and sabotage my high-energy days. I maintain totally different sets of expectations for the two types of days.
2. I'm juggling a lot of apples. So I basically consider it acceptable performance to have X number of apples in the air, and Y number of apples on the ground, at any given time. As long as I cycle some of the ground balls back into the air before they rot I consider myself "ahead".

for anything where I really, really want something as close to daily consistency as possible, I set the minimum acceptable daily standard very low (say, a single pushup. with running, this was "putting on running shoes, going outside"). On a low energy day, I'm then done-- but I've kept my promise to myself and preserved a streak. On a high-energy day, once I've started I find it easy to keep going (more pushups! long run!)

but putting on sunscreen 80% of days is better than aiming for 100%, getting mad at myself, and ending up at 0. so, again. I get a win every time I succeed, and when I fail, I just shrug it off and keep going.

I have become way more productive-- and simultaneously greatly reduced needlessly energy-sucking self-hate-- with this approach.
posted by Cozybee at 2:15 AM on December 31 [3 favorites]

Write 44 pages. If you write and edit 44 pages, add illustrations if you want, it's a book. Keep writing, I bet you could write a book every three months.
posted by parmanparman at 7:50 PM on December 31 [1 favorite]

I went to a gym that did weightlifting... in a class-based format. Went in three times a week for an hour or so, and every week was pretty much the same as the previous week, just with heavier weights each time. Coach watched for people's form, so we had continuous corrections if we were doing something horribly wrong.


1. You get into remarkably good shape when you practice a small number of compound exercises. Overhead press, bench press, squat, deadlift, and that's it. I'm over 40, and Crossfit failed me on this front; it got me into cardio shape, but it never really clicked for me.

2. Doing more wasn't helping me; trying to work out more than this didn't match my diet (or the rest of my life!) So three hours was less than I used to try to spend... but successful and sustainable, so it's less time for better results, sustainably so.

3. When you're in the same time slots as other people, doing the same limited number of exercises, eventually some of those folks are great to bullshit with, and it became as much social as it was health-based. Asking someone "you coming in Wednesday", them saying yes, and me saying "cool, will see ya then"... actually made me more likely to make it in on Wednesday.
posted by talldean at 10:20 PM on December 31

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