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4 Steps to Creating New Habits

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. Aristotle

Habits are extremely powerful and, by nature, something that we do without thinking. Aristotle’s quotation can be illustrated with the simple explanation of saying “excuse me” after you sneeze. As a child, you had many things to learn about sneezing; your parents probably had to teach you to put your hand (or elbow) over your mouth, to use a Kleenex, not to sneeze on other people, and to say “excuse me.” Sneezing is automatic, but everything that follows is learned. Ideally, from the time you were able, every time you would sneeze, your mother would follow up with “say excuse me” to which you would oblige. Also, at some point your mother would explain to you that this is appropriate social behavior, although she probably said you need to ‘be polite’ to have friends. Even if you were only begrudgingly obliging your mother by repeating “excuse me” to her promptings, you were still practicing the behavior. Eventually, it became ingrained enough that you would say it without prompting, at least in front of your mother. When that happened, if she was smart, your mom would reinforce the behavior by appropriately acknowledging it by saying something as simple as “Thank you for using your manners” or as over the top as “I am so proud of how polite you are, remembering to say ‘excuse me’ when you sneeze!”. (Both are appropriate when working with kids).

Thus you’ll start to feel good about this behavior. When you feel good about doing something, you’re more likely to do it more often.  Eventually, you started saying “excuse me” without even thinking about it and without your mother telling you what a good kid you were. It probably even got to the point where you felt uncomfortable if you didn’t say it. That’s when you know that saying “excuse me” when you sneeze has become a habit. You are considered polite when saying “excuse me” is a habit. You learned to do it and integrated it into you. This is different than saying “excuse me” because you are polite.

These are the same steps you have to take if there is a new habit you want to integrate into your life, whether it is an exercise routine, flossing, drinking more water, or writing thank you notes.

(1) Visualize your goal, what you are doing, and why it’s important to you.

(2) Practice, practice, practice. Research shows that it takes between 3-6 weeks of doing a behavior consistently before it becomes a habit. It’s going to be uncomfortable at times; you may only be doing it because you feel obliged. This is where you go back to your visualization to help motivate yourself. Also, it helps to reinforce the behavior in a positive way (this is not punishing yourself when you don’t do it).

(3) As a result of your reinforcements or seeing the results of your new behavior, you will start to feel better about what you are doing.

(4) Once you’re doing it without thinking or experiencing some dissonance when you don’t follow through with your new behavior then you have developed a habit.

What habits do you want to integrate into your life? Who do you want to be? What do you want to repeatedly do?

October 20th, 2008