I’ll be blogging my way through the Coronavirus period, with a focus on the psychological impacts and how to keep yourself and the people you care about safe and mentally healthy.
Look after yourself peeps..
Dr Gareth Furber
So today is April Fools’ Day but virtually no-one is trying any pranks.
I don’t think that is because no-one wants to laugh. They just don’t want to be pranked.
So to be clear, I won’t be including any deception in this diary entry. 100% unadulterated truth, or at least truth as I know it.
I said in the previous diary entry that I was going to talk about habits. I am.
I want to start though by whining that I’ve put on weight since starting working from home. I know this, cause I can see a extra chin when I Skype anyone. I quite honestly spent a good amount of time this morning trying to adjust the angle of my webcam so it showed me in the most flattering profile. Then I started making stupid pouting expressions in an attempt to wrangle that extra chin into submission.
All I can say is neither of those really worked and I am also very glad that I can wear tracky pants all day.
So what does me putting on weight have to do with habit formation?
If you are anything like me, your usual routine has gone out the window and you are now trying desperately to create a new routine.
This is because humans are drawn to habits and routines. We like to establish some kind of order and predictability in our days, especially during times when so many other things feel out of our control.
Now if you don’t make a deliberate and intentional effort to establish good habits and routines, then I find the human brain is perfectly happy to establish not so helpful habits and routines.
If you don’t work hard to make 3.00pm the time of the day where you get up from your desk and have a piece of fruit, then your brain is perfectly happy to allocate that 3.00pm slot to YouTube and a chocolate bar. If you don’t make reading quietly your post dinner routine, your brain is perfectly happy to make this time the Netflix and Wine time.
Whilst I have been quite good at taking regular breaks during the day after completing relevant tasks, my brain has happily allocated those break times to me rifling through the cupboard trying to find the fattiest, saltiest or sugariest snack it can find. Hence the weight gain.
Why is our brain so hell bent on establishing bad habits?
Well it isn’t really. The brain is just drawn to behaviours that are:
a) very simple to engage in
b) are prompted readily by things in our environment
c) accompanied with an immediate reward
Rifling through the cupboard to find a tasty snack is the perfect behaviour as far as my brain is concerned: simple, prompted readily and immediately gratifying.
To counteract that habit I need to give it something that is simpler, easily prompted and more rewarding.
Enter Tiny Habits – https://www.tinyhabits.com/
Anyone who has heard me speak recently will likely have heard me talk about Tiny Habits. Tiny Habits is the work of Stanford Behaviour Change researcher BJ Fogg. He isn’t by any means the only person writing about habit formation, but I like his model a lot.
He states that for a behaviour to occur (and to become a habit) it needs 4 things in place:
Motivation – we want to do it
Ability – it is easy to to
Prompt – we are reminded to do it
Celebration – we reward ourselves for doing it
The three that are most readily within our control are ability, prompt and celebration.
If you want to establish a new habit make it really easy to do, prompt yourself to do it, and celebrate your success immediately upon completion.
So instead of finish a task (prompt) –> go to the cupboard (simple behaviour) –> find and eat something tasty (reward) – which is leading to extra chins
I could try something like finish a task (prompt) –> go stand on the lawn and take 3 deep breaths (simple behaviour) –> imagine myself being applauded by a large crowd (celebration)
Thus your job isn’t really to spend time battling your bad habits. Your job is to spend time and effort creating good ones using the things your brain likes most (simplicity, prompts and rewards).
And a simple habit doesn’t have to stay simple. Once you’ve established a very simple habit, you can now use this as the prompt or context in which to enhance, grow or add to it.
For example, my lawn standing and deep breathing could develop into a yoga routine or jumping jacks or simply 10 minutes of meditation.
But the goal is to start by giving your brain simple, easily prompted and rewarding behaviours to start with, because it already has plenty of other not so healthy options it will take if you don’t direct it elsewhere.
The cool thing is that BJ Fogg and his team have responded to the current Coronavirus epidemic by running free online sessions applying the Tiny Habits methodology to common Coronavirus challenges: connecting with nature, screen time, wellbeing, optimism, staying upbeat, stress management, facing uncertainty, sustainability, achieving flow, and more.
Visit https://www.tinyhabits.com/expert-help to get the full list and when the sessions are running. You can attend some of them live, but also access recordings of previous sessions.
I successfully used his method to establish a morning ritual of ‘3 things’ in which I take a moment at the beginning of the day to schedule 3 things I really want to get done that day (more if I can).
I’ll be using his method now to establish a better use of work breaks.