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The Formation and Maintenance of Good Habits: Controlling Your Free Time, Without it Controlling You

Throughout my life I have always used the excuse that I haven’t formed good habits due to a lack of free time. However, one of the few positives of a global pandemic is an abundance of free time.


The COVID-19 situation has gripped the world for about 3 months, and despite my best efforts I don’t find myself a master poet nor painter, and for the first time in my life I am more than okay with that.


My journey to create good habits changed after reading the book ‘’Atomic Habits’’ by James Clear, and ‘’The power of Habit’’ by Charles Dugg. The lessons in these books spoke to me, and the concise yet poignant teachings are powerful enough to alter my daily actions and simple enough I never find myself lost for guidance.


For a long time, I thought it would take a big life-altering event to inspire me to adopt positive habits (and in the case of COVID-19 I suppose this proved true), however, after reading these books I learned that small incremental changes to my daily habits can turn into a massive overall change.


One example given by Clear is the experience of the British cycling team, since 1908 British riders had won just one gold medal at the Olympics, however in the span of 10 years (2007-2017) the team had won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic/Paralympic gold medals alongside 5 Tour de France victories.


This monumental change was actually the result of many small tweaks, changes were made to colour of team’s truck*, the way they washed their hands**, and the weight of their racing suits***. These along with countless other incremental changes the team was reborn.


Dave Brailsford, the man responsible for such changes, referred to the strategy as ‘’the aggregation of marginal gains’’, and that he ‘’deconstructed everything that went into riding a bike and aimed to improve it by 1%’’.


This is a technique which could be adopted by everyone in their own lives, many of us will never be able to compete at an Olympic level, but if we all made 1% improvements in all aspects of the goal we want to achieve we shall be astounded by the results of our actions and habits.


The internet is a place full of inspirational quotes, yet it is generally your environment which impacts your decisions, and formation of habits. For example, your commitment to your new diet may be helped by a quote from your favourite social media influencer, but if you're constantly surrounded by cake it will be difficult to stick to it.


As it is difficult to stick to a habit when surrounded by disruptions, be that cake or social media, it is easy to maintain a habit if you make it apparent. During the pandemic, whenever I knew I wanted to run that day I would lay out my clothes and shoes the night before. The times I chose not to go running wasn’t due to a lack of motivation sometimes I would earnestly forget, by eliminating that option I maintained a positive habit.


Sometimes, despite me being motivated and making it apparent that I wanted to run that day, I struggled to do so because I was busy. This would break my habit, and once a habit is broken it’s difficult to make that first step to establish it again.


One way to combat this is to allow your habits to fit in your schedule however limited that may be. Dugg states that it is vitally important to maintain your habit at all costs. This is summed by the phrase ‘’walk slowly, never backward’’. It is better to run for a short time, than to not do it at all. Even though you may not become fitter from your 5-minute run, but it shall reinforce your habit and motivate you to run again.


When I had tried to cultivate my habits of writing or painting every day I failed. One reason for this was that I never rewarded myself for small successes. I constantly found myself comparing my work to others who have been writing for much longer, and since my work never matched theirs, I wouldn’t reward myself as my work wasn’t ‘good enough’.


Since my reading I have made sure to reward myself for small improvements, every day that I painted even if I wasn’t happy with that work, I would reward myself as I knew if I continued on this path I would eventually improve and be where I needed to be.


Ever since implementing this simple rule into my habits I have not only felt more fulfilled but also more motivated.


I wouldn’t only compare my work to others, but also my natural abilities. There is no dispute that some people are more inclined to certain tasks, but once you understand that some people may have advantages or head-starts in certain areas you no longer need to compare yourself.


Focus should be put on your systems of improvement not your comparisons to others. If you wanted to improve as a painter, ask yourself: ‘’what would a good painter do’’? If you can honestly say you are doing the same things as ‘’good painters’’ then you will reach your goal in a matter of time.


Once you make the decisions to do what a good painter does, you become a good painter. The only difference between your work and theirs is time.


Of course, one way to form good habits is to disincentivize bad habits. Every tip listed to improve good habits, has an equally true inverse. Small incremental positive habits shall be beneficial overall, small bad habits shall be detrimental to your goals in the long-run. Changing your environment to foster good habits, such as making things obvious, shall have positive impacts. Yet making your bad habits more easily accessible shall allow you to faulter from your path.


Bad habits can be avoided if you tailor your thoughts and environments so that it is impossible to perform them. If you want to diet, by removing all nearby cake you can no longer easily access it, and by maintaining the mindset that you are making improvements and rewarding yourself as such your desire to cheat on your diet will dissipate.


Hopefully, this article has taught you some new ways to create and maintain good habits, or at least reminded you of useful ways you already knew.


There really can be no better way to internalise these tips than to read the books yourself. The small improvements I have made have benefitted me greatly.


The situation we all find ourselves in is frightening. Yet, if you implement these rules you may not only create and maintain habits that will improve your life as a whole while also making the best of a bad situation.

*Brailsford painted the team’s truck white, as to spot any dust which may interfere with the bikes.

**Brailsford hired surgeons to teach the team the correct way to wash their hands to decrease the chance of the cyclists becoming ill.

***Brailsford changed the riding suits from outdoor to indoor suits which proved lighter and more aerodynamic.

Recommended reading:

‘’Atomic habits’’ by James Clear. I cannot recommend this book enough, most of the tips in this article come from this book and the manageable changes Clear suggests have greatly improved my talents and mental health while isolated.

https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits

‘’The power of Habit’’ by Charles Dugg. While a little harder to read than Clear’s work, it still gives valuable information on the power of habit. While this book’s teachings are a little more difficult to adopt, I found it more motivational.

https://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

Matt Slater, ‘’How GB cycling went from tragic to magic’’ BBC Sport, April 2014, 2008. Here you can find the full account of the GB cycling team’s success which may motivate you.

Sam Altman ‘’Productivity’’ http://blog.samaltman.com/productivity Hopefully this article shall reaffirm that small changes over time can have drastic results, this may be easier to apply to your own life than the success of the GB cycling team.

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