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by Susan McCarthy
I love reading about habits, probably because I find it so challenging to keep habits. This has always been a point of frustration for me. How can I want to accomplish a goal yet struggle to do the consistent work that will get me there?
I got some insight into my struggle against myself from author Gretchen Rubin who looked at how people meet expectations – both those they set for themselves as well as what others expect of them – and called it The Four Tendencies.
It turned out that I was a Rebel, the tendency that came with the tagline, “You can’t make me, and neither can I.” Basically, my personality fought against adhering to any and all expectations.
This didn’t mean I accomplished nothing; but, like a gray squirrel burying nuts for the winter, I had a lot of goals, but they didn’t really help me unless I dug them up and used them (like that squirrel digging up those nuts and eating them so they could survive, the reason they gathered all those acorns.)
Start with Your Goal
Goals are all about the result. I want to weigh XXX and have more energy. I want to be organized. I want to work with intention instead of distraction. I want to read more young adult novels and crochet a sampler afghan.
Go ahead, list the results you want (for the upcoming quarter, year, five years).
Of course, the goals I listed are a bit vague and I need to clarify what I want. When I say I want to read more novels, I really want to read one a week. When I say I want to be organized, I realize that for me that means planning a regular time each day to sweep through the house and put things away (I’m a bit of a piler).
So, check out that list of the results you want and add some specifics. What do you really want?
Next, to make sure that I’m working with intention (a personal goal as well as an action step in this process), I want to ask why I want the what I’m interested in.
I want to lose weight, so I feel more energetic. I’m tired of feeling tired after eating a heavy meal. I dislike waking to puffy eyes because I ate too much salt. I want to read a young adult novel a week because these books boost my mood in a way adult fiction does not.
Why do you want what you want? Does your why align with the type of person you want to become?
Move onto the Habits
When you know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you are working with intention, purpose. The next thing to consider is how you’ll do what you want.
How = habits, at least some of the time (if your goal is to repaint your bedroom, you’re working on a task, not a habit). If I want to be more energetic, I need to figure out what I’m going to eat. That comes with a bunch of habits, like meal planning and preparation.
If I stay focused on what I’m going to eat, I’m going to get stuck. Once I figure out the what and my why I need to move ahead to the how. Too often, I plan family dinners for the week without planning what I’m going to eat for breakfast or lunch. I then end up eating things like peanut butter and crackers or leftover because they’re there. Not very intentional.
How will you do what you want to do? Are you looking at a task? (Do it and you’re done.) Or, do you need to develop a habit, a behavior that will become a part of your life?
Add Flexibility for a Better Chance at Success
As I mentioned, I love reading about habits because I struggle with doing beneficial behaviors on a consistent basis. I’m always hoping for a tip or insight that will make it easier for me to stick to what I want to do.
That’s what brought me to Stephen Guise’s newest book, Elastic Habits: How to Create Smarter Habits that Adapt to Your Day. I bought his book because I liked his previous book, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, that focused on how small, seeming insignificant actions can lead you to accomplishing your goals.
He works with the idea that it’s the habit of the habit that’s more important than the habit itself. (You can reread that sentence. Really, it does make sense.)
In Elastic Habits, Guise suggests adding flexibility to your habits – if one action doesn’t work for you on a particular day, you have some additional options.
Add Intensity - Let’s say that one of your goals for this year is to declutter your home (probably why a website called A Less Cluttered Life caught your attention). If you figure you’ll just fit in some decluttering here and there when you get a chance, it will be easy for the tasks to fall to the wayside.
A mini habit would be to declutter a single item a day. Guise suggests adding some intensity to that simple habit by creating a separate challenging version as well as a habit that falls between simple and challenging.
If the simple, mini habit is to declutter one item a day; the medium intensity habit could be to declutter five items a day; up the intensity to challenging and you’ll aim at decluttering a dozen items a day.
With three vertical levels of intensity, if you’re busy and tired, you can still stick to the habit that will lead to your goal by accomplishing the simplest level. On the other hand, if you find yourself with the time and energy, you can aim for the challenging level of this habit.
Add Lateral Variety – Along with increasing the difficultly of the task, Guise also recommends adding some variety along each level of intensity.
Guise suggests changing the form of the habit to a different action that requires roughly the same degree of effort. So, instead of tossing (or adding to your donation bin) one item for the simple win, you could instead toss three pieces of paper, or you could spend 60 seconds tidying one room in your home.
Variety at the challenging level could be decluttering a dozen items, tossing twenty pieces of paper, or spending five minutes tidying throughout your home.
The Elastic Habits System
By adding three vertical levels of intensity as well as three lateral options, you are giving yourself nine chances for accomplishing your habit each day.
Yes, that may sound a bit intimidating, but remember, you’re only choosing one of those options each day. It can take a couple of minutes to create your 3x3 grid of options for one habit; but, once it’s done, it’s set up.
Write out your grid and post it someplace handy as opposed to trying to keep these options in your head.
Guise’s book goes into much more detail (he also created a system for tracking these flexible habits). Elastic Habits is a short book. He also goes into some advanced options that I found a bit confusing and I’d recommend skipping those chapters until you work with the basic system.
However, if the description I’ve given here intrigues you and you’re like me and struggle with sticking to habits, I’d recommend reading the book.
No Single Way to Accomplish a Habit
I just finished reading Elastic Habits and so I’m choosing the habits that I want to add some flexibility to. The idea of not being stuck with trying to do the same action in the exact same way – but reaching the same goal – has really caught my attention.
Ready to take one of the habits you want to develop and give yourself more lateral and intense options?
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12/30/2019 02:50:25 pm
This is a life-changing article!
SUSAN CAPLAN MCCARTHY
12/31/2019 06:02:01 pm
I'm glad you found the information useful. I was rather excited by the premise of the book that you aren't limited to one way of developing a habit. That you can add variety and change the intensity of a habit to reach your goal - fantastic!