“How do you push yourself to start every day on time? I never seem to be able to start at my planned time, even if I plan to start only at 10 or 11.”
Getting into a routine can seem like an elusive goal, that is until you manage to do so, and once it’s a routine, it’s a routine!
The key to routines is that they take the decisionmaking out of it. You are not busy deciding whether you are going to start at 9, or, 10 or 11. Or whether to start at all. It is decision fatigue that will stop you in your tracks, and if you can eliminate that step you are probably good to go.
Prof. Ann Graybiel is one of the pioneers in researching the neural architecture of habits, and studies how the brain converts a new behaviour into a routine. She and her team discovered why habits are such strong determinants of behaviour. She calls it ‘chunking’: neuronal activity drops while performing the habit, with increased brain activity only at the beginning and end of the habit. It is as if the entire habit has become one single low-effort activity. This pattern of brain activity is completely different from non-habitual behaviour in which neuronal activity is high through-out. It takes effort and will, whereas habits do not. Habits are semi-automatic. Once you have habits in place they will want to assert themselves. Your brain craves to perform them. Which is why it is so difficult to break a habit, once established, no matter your good intentions.
So how do we get from the annoying situation where you can’t seem to get going despite your best efforts and intentions (pretty demotivating in itself) to a place where you have a routine in place?
Graybiel advises there are four parts to building deliberate habits: context, reinforcement, consistency and hard work (in the beginning).
Context provides the cue. An example: she advises people who, say, want to take up jogging as part of their morning routine to put out the shoes and the gear the night before so they see them first thing in the morning. It’s a cue for the brain to perform the new habit, especially important when you are learning the new behaviour. (For me personally, the cue for writing was the 10:00 start time, which was non-negotiable. Clock strikes 10:00 means Freedom app switches internet off, writing brain switches on.)
Reinforcement provides the reward. This may be an immediate reward (such as a small break after writing, or how much better you feel after a short jog, something that says well done) or a delayed reward (such reminding yourself of the body of work you will create if you stick with your habit). Positive reinforcement can also involve acknowledging progress made (even if it’s tiny. Every tiny step counts).
Consistency is a sine qua non. If you want the routine to stick, to become a low-effort habit, the brain needs to experience it over and over again, until chunking occurs. Seen that old habits never quite disappear— they remain lurking under the surface— it is imperative to practice, practice, practice, with no exceptions, until the behaviour has become effortless. If you allow for exceptions in the early stages, the process will be that much more frustrating, and you’ll perhaps not reach the habit stage.
Hard work in the beginning
Which brings us to hard work in the beginning. Building habits is effortful. It is the difficult part. Stick with it. Keep going. You can do it. It will pay off. It gets easier. Much easier.
Read more about prof. Graybiel’s work on habit formation here (paywall, sorry!).
This was one of the questions asked at one of the live check-in sessions of the Stress-Free PhD Programme. The next live session is planned for October, but you can start right now, and you’ll be invited to the next live sessions. Do you have work routines in place? The Stress-Free PhD Programme will help you to create effective work routines step by step, day by day, over the period of six weeks’ time (you can’t do this overnight).