Cultivate habits | Marshall Shen

Cultivate habits

Cultivate habits

As we go through a global pandemic, we need new life habits in facing a changing environment. It’s helpful to take a step back to think about how we form habits and reflect on how to build positive habits in this unprecedented time.

Habits are the foundation of our life: brush teeth every day before bed, walk dogs after work, go to the gym twice a week. So much of our life is on routines. We like some habits while wanting to change others: have a better diet, spend less time in front of screens, and spend more time with family and friends. Those habits seem simple because everyone instantly recognizes what it is.

Actions are what we do at a given time: add extra vegetables to today’s dinner, read a book for 15 minutes after dinner, and have a date night tomorrow. Actions are what we do at the present moment, and those actions are easy because they can be done if we decide to do it.

The difference between a habit and an action is consistency. An ad-hoc action is not a habit, a habit is what we perform regularly and consistently. An ad-hoc action requires mental energy and willpower, a habit is us performing an action on autopilot.

Habits are formed through repeated actions. With deliberate intentions, we repeat the right type of easy actions, which gradually become a habit. The deliberate intention is the bridge between habits and actions.

As kids, we spend a lot of time building habits under supervision - brush teeth daily, get dressed every day. Most of us don’t think twice when performing those tasks. Still, it’s a result of supervised repetition that leads to those recurring routines. However, when we try to form new habits as adults, it’s tougher because many things compete for our attention. It seems as if we have unlimited things to do with limited time. To figure out how to build simple habits under this constraint, we need to be intentional about which habit we want to cultivate, and why that is important.

The deliberate intention of cultivating a habit starts with a desire to change, it’s a fuel that jumpstarts the process, usually by us taking the first-time action towards forming that habit. Deliberate intention also requires reflection on the action taken - what went well and what can be better. Reflective practices like keeping a journal help us be aware of how we spend our time, and whether we are making progress in forming a new habit.

Habits are manifestations of our life. So much of what we do every day is being done without much conscious thinking. When we face a new situation that requires us to change how we operate, we need to look beyond our daily actions and thoughts and evaluate the habits and mindsets behind them.