A Shortcut to Instant Habits

how to make instant habits

I shared my goals for 2013 with you already; but there are other changes I’m making. At first I called them “resolutions,” but that’s not exactly right. Plus, everyone knows resolutions are those things we all abandon come February, and I want these habits to stick around longer than that!

And that’s what I really want: new habits. It generally takes time to form a habit, but did you know there’s a loophole? The brilliant Heath brothers discussed it in Switch: you can make an “instant habit” by setting up what they call “action triggers,” so that your brain knows when X happens, then you will do Y. For example, “After I wake up, then I will turn on the light.” These if-then plans bring about amazing results with relatively little effort–if you choose them well.

These are the habits I’ve already put into practice for 2013.

Light the candle. When I sit down to write in the morning, I love to light a candle when I get to work. I’m turning this into a ritual instead of a sometimes-practice. I’m choosing this small indulgence in advance to enhance an early morning ritual I love.

Keep a quote journal. I used to keep one and I somehow dropped the habit. I’m picking it back up, because some wonderful insights beg to be written pen-on-paper, not in my phone or my computer. I have a new green moleskine for this purpose (that I just jotted the first quote in, from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly). When I read or hear a quote worth keeping, I’ll reach for my notebook.

Take more baths. Everyone knows great ideas come in the shower, right? Well, I heard an interesting spin on this recently: the shower’s great for fast thoughts, but baths are best for slow thoughts. I’d like to welcome more slow thoughts. (It’s a stretch to call this a habit, especially because I’m struggling to come up with an action trigger. It’s more like a resolution. At least I have lots of room for improvement: I took exactly zero baths in 2012.)

Get off the computer at 9:00. When I don’t, my whole routine unravels. If I don’t get off the computer, I don’t start reading, if I don’t read, I don’t go to bed, if I don’t go to bed, I can’t get up on time. So when the clock strikes 9, I’m closing my laptop.

Read fiction before bed. I’ve heard that it’s hard to unwind if you read nonfiction before bed, so I’m making this my new rule of thumb. Plus, it will help me reach my fiction reading goal for 2013.

What new habit would you like to make?


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  1. sarah says:

    I might have to steal your candle lighting idea. Brilliant.
    But I couldn’t read fiction before bed. Everytime I do I can’t put it down and stay up too late. Althought I get it about the nonfiction gearing your mind up before bed. Lately my strategy is to read the classics before bed. I’m finishing up Plato’s republic with my book club and I’ve been reading it before bed. It doesn’t keep me up.

    • Anne says:

      Sarah, you’re so right about the fiction before bed! Not just any fiction will do–I can’t choose a book for bedtime that will keep me turning the pages until 2am! Actually Kid Lit is one of my favorite pre-bed fiction genres: the pacing and suspense levels still let me sleep 🙂

  2. Switch has been on my “I want to read this” list for a while. I’ve heard good things about it. Alas, our library doesn’t have it, and I keep forgetting to do an inter-library loan to get it. I like the quote journal idea. I’m always writing in notebooks, even though I use my computer for everything. I just need to use a pen and paper still. It’s the “good student” in me, I guess.

  3. Your goal of turning off the computer at 9PM reminded me of my similar goal–which I was doing well with before Christmas break (I’m a teacher). I didn’t get to sleep until after midnight last night, in part because I was wasting time on the computer when I should have been reading! Thanks for the reminder and extra motivation; tonight will be different!

  4. Rebecca says:

    I like the candle idea to signify work. When my kiddos were little I lit a candle during my morning devotions and asked them to remember that candle met I was talking with Jesus and couldn’t talk to them for a few minutes. It worked exceptionally well!

  5. Ooh, think I’ll adopt the candle ritual — TODAY I started a new morning routine, inspired by:
    1. Your post on your ideal morning
    2. My joining our daughter’s gym and resolving to attend three classes a week

    So, my writing time is from 6:15-7:15, before checking email, FB, or reading others’ blogs. At this time of year, a glowing candle beside my glowing laptop screen would be very nice while I work.

    And, I agree about fiction (or memoirs) before bed instead of non-fiction.

  6. Love these Anne. I’ve always loved to take a bath. I once read in Confessions that St. Augustine went to the bathhouse to ponder deep stuff. I could use more candlelight in my life too. Thanks for sharing your new habits. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Here’s my confession: I’ve never read St. Augustine! Well, not more than a few pages, and those were in German. But if HE pondered deep stuff in the bath, then I think I’m onto something!

      • Tim says:

        You read a few pages of Augustine in German? You are so far ahead of me! I’ve never read anyone in any language other than English.*

        Tim the Barely Literate

        *Unless you count song lyrics, but then I rarely know what the words mean anyway).

  7. Jaimie says:

    Your post on an ideal morning inspired me to figure out my OWN ideal morning, about which I wrote my own post, and I started it today–and it’s been amazing! I got up a little after 6, got dressed (and did my hair and makeup) right away, which made a huge difference. Then I did Bible reading, then blogging, and it’s only 8:00! I love the idea of having a candle lit, too. These are the habits I’m hoping to cultivate this year! 🙂

  8. Love these ideas, although I’ve never been that successful at reading fiction before bed – that tends to lead to just-one-more-chapter syndrome, and the next thing I know I’ve finished the book but it’s 2 AM when I’m finally turning off the light. I usually read memoirs or other light nonfiction. Kid lit works too, if the book is short enough so that even if I can’t stop reading I can’t get into too much trouble. 😉

    I think the computer off at 9:00 would be one of the best habits I could establish for myself.

    • Anne says:

      Sheila, I think memoirs-before-bed may be an exception I make to my fiction rule. It’s not the same as reading practical, instructional stuff when I’m trying to quiet my brain down. (Right? I hope so!)

    • Tim says:

      Sheila, my wife calls that the point of no return. It’s when you reach the last few pages (or sometimes chapters!) in a book and can’t stop reading no matter how late it gets. It takes real fortitude to set a book down at that point!


  9. Angela says:

    I’m developing a habit of exercising in the morning. I know if I don’t do it first thing, it won’t get done. So, I have to earn my morning coffee by doing at least 15 minutes of exercising. It’s torture to put off that coffee, but man, it tastes so good after I know I’ve done something good for my health!

  10. Love this. Habits is one of my favorite topics (and that probably makes me nerdy…)

    I do the computer off at 9pm . We started that last year and it has made a huge improvement. I also started a quote journal!

    I love the idea of lighting a candle during my writing. Going to try that! 🙂

  11. Maddie says:

    Oh the candle does sound so nice, alas not an option here unless one of my resolutions is to burn down my house in 2013. Our cats love them to the point of wanting to knock them over.. not good!

    As for the bath.. divine.. in fact for every bath you did not take I took one.. yes just about every night last year I took a bath.. lucky me I have a VERY large garden tub so the darling man and I soak together any night he is in town. It is such an important connection point for our marriage. This does mean 2x a week I also shower the next morning to wash my hair..but no harm.. well maybe our water bill a bit, but that is small change compared to an amazing marriage.

  12. Meg says:

    Isn’t it funny how one thing can ruin a bunch of things? Meaning, staying on the computer too long leads to not reading, which leads to not going to bed, etc. I am the same way and I really trying to not fritter my time away on the computer just because I can! I hate that feeling of when I notice it’s 11:00 and all I did was waste time on line all night. Then I rush to bed but can’t fall asleep…blah blah blah!

    I love to burn candles in the fall & winter and I light ’em up first thing! When my daughter comes down for breakfast, I swear the scents make her happier (or as happy as it is possible for a 14 yr old to be!LOL)

    Anyhoo, I will stop babbling…just wanted to say I love to read your blog every day!!

  13. HopefulLeigh says:

    I rarely read fiction before bed because all too often I get sucked further into the story and then it’s 3 am. I’ll read a chapter of nonfiction but my go-to is usually memoir.

    These are all great ideas. I’ll have to think about which new habit I want to cultivate.

  14. Jacey says:

    Anne, you have inspired me to start reading fiction! I generally binge on fiction when I go on vacation or have time off, but for some reason I feel guilty about reading fiction when there are so many important nonfiction books to read! I’ve also heard that fiction helps you wind down. I’ll be watching for your fiction book reviews!

    • Anne says:

      Jacey, I love reading fiction on vacation…but it’s good for other times, too! Don’t feel guilty…just don’t stay up till 3am reading it 🙂

  15. I tried getting myself to turn off the computer at a certain time, to no avail. I finally had to enforce it by installing StayFocusd and setting up the Nuclear Option, which shuts down my access to the Internet between a specified period of time. So if willpower isn’t working (or you want to save it for other things), that’s an option!

    • Anne says:

      Jessica, I’ve never tried StayFocused or LeechBlock or anything like that, but I love knowing they’re there if I get desperate! (I also love that they call it the “nuclear option.” Makes me laugh every time I see it!)

  16. Love the idea of lighting a candle and I haven’t missed a nightly bath in nearly 5 years. Now, if only I could say the same thing about my exercise commitment!

    Discovered the Heath brothers during my Masters program. Loved Made To Stick and it remains on my Ideal Bookshelf (love that book too!). I had the pleasure of listening to them both speak in a publicity tour for Stick. Powerful, bright men!

    Really enjoyed catching up with you this morning. Blessings!

  17. Becky says:

    I ran across your post a few weeks ago and was intrigued with the way you explained an action trigger as “When X happens, I will do Y”. I have never, ever, been a morning person and for as long as I remember I have hit snooze on my alarm clock or switched it to the radio and snoozed on my own. This is even after I moved my alarm clock to the far end of the room – I was determined to not miss my extra snoozing! So, I thought I’d make my own trigger. “When my alarm goes off, I will make a cup of tea.” I’ve started repeating it to myself as I get in bed at night – and do my best to start repeating it again when my alarm goes off. It may just be a case of the right idea at the right time, but I wanted to thank you because for the last week and a half, I’ve gotten up immediately when my alarm went off, turned it off, and stumbled off to the kitchen to make my cup of tea. Here’s to new habits! 🙂

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