Habit: The Art of Taking Action Without Having to Overthink It

17 April 2012, by A. Cedilla

What’s a good habit to have?

It’s easy to come up a few examples. Just look at the cover of any popular magazine at the newsstand, or listen to the news…or even a few infomercials. Pay attention to what people talk about at lunch. Look at the articles you read on your favorite websites. Think of all the things you put off to start doing, you know, for later…any day now…someday real soon.

  • Weaving exercise into your day — to keep yourself as healthy as you can be for as long as you can.
  • Keeping to a budget — to make sure you don’t get into financial trouble and so you know what you have and haven’t got.
  • Recognizing and protecting your own boundaries — so you can defend yourself won’t be as stressed-out as when you let others run all over you.
  • Not keeping a record of grievances — which can keep you tied to the past and unable to move on with your life (which is stress-inducing as well.)

A habit is a pattern of behavior. Patterns are established by repetition, and they can be rerouted by repetition as well.

How do you develop a new habit?

First you think about it very much. You mull over the idea.

  • You come close and poke it with a stick and flip it over to see what nasty things may be hiding underneath.
  • You don’t want to do it. You think you have to do it.
  • You know you have to do something. You accept that you know you have to do it.
  • You try to do it. You keep trying.
  • You slip. You beat yourself up a bit, then you try again.
  • You keep doing it. You do it over and over until it sticks.

When what you want –and the feelings behind the object of your desire– rules you, you have to set your system up to remove any obstacle that you can seize as an excuse when you don’t feel like doing it, but you have to do it anyway. Don’t believe me?

  • I can do it tomorrow, I already accomplished so much (worked so hard) today.
  • I may be coming down with something. Better take it easy.
  • It’s too early.
  • It’s too late.
  • I just don’t feel like it.
  • Who cares? We’re all going to die anyway. What’s the point?

You have to put a system in place that cues you into doing what you have to do, the action that you decided beforehand that will help you. The cues in place means there’s nothing stopping you from doing what you need to do.

As an example, for exercise, no pseudo- barriers like, “Do I have my keys with me? Did I check the lock on the back door?” You set it up so those piddling excuses get knocked down flat. “Yes, you put them in your armband-slash-mp3 player- holster before going to bed, and you checked the locks last night.”


Going back to the exercise example: when you force yourself to get out of your own way, and keep track of how willpower morphs into accomplishment, eventually you get to the point where you don’t have to actively think about it. You’ve already smoothed out the new path of least resistance, aimed towards improving your health. You get up get dressed, check shoes (tied tight and slip-free) go out the door (double-check, keys are with you) and go running, kthanxbai.

A habit is an action taken repeatedly until it becomes habitual. When you develop the habit of reaching for a treat to reward yourself for a long day, the treat is no longer a treat, it’s a habit, and one that can cost you dearly.

For example, you treat yourself to something cold and frothy from Starbucks at the end of a particularly trying work-week, and got into the habit of treating yourself three or four times a week (Hey, everyone lucky enough to have a job’s working hard nowadays). Money-wise, how much do those drinks cost you? Health-wise, how many calories, how much sugar, are you unwittingly introducing to your system?

Think about it. What if you replace the action that’s cued by your stress? When you’re tired and mentally frazzled, instead of heading for ‘your’ Starbucks on the way home, why not settle on another action that’s more beneficial for you? What’s more important to you than iced coffee?

Identify your cues – the events that trigger you into doing the habit you want to replace. Replace the action with a more rewarding (over the long-run) activity. It takes awareness, persistence, and consistency as well as keeping an eye towards the long goal.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity habit, “Don’t Break the Chain” (at Writer’s Store and discussed on Lifehacker) is another way of keeping yourself attuned to the process of establishing the good habits that you want to build into your life

Reward can be as simple as:

  • Seeing the unbroken chain of X’s or checks, or ever gold star stickers, on your calendar.
  • Seeing the money accumulate in your saving jar.
  • Detoxing from the sugar, soda, _____, and feeling your health and sleep, improve.
  • Not getting as easily winded when you exercise.

Setting up the cue get you into the groove of a new habit. You see the cue, you know what you have to do and you’re cued into doing it asap.
You put a healthy reminder to look at frequently. Not for nothing are there Seinfeldian calendars available for download and print-outs. We’re a visual species, and anything that reminds of our invested time, labor, progress and success is a powerful tool to have.

Use your brain and will-power to build habits that will support you for your life. You can do it!

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