Seven years ago, I found a cockroach floating in my coffee cup.
At the time, I was working as an ESL teacher in a crumbling building in a not-particularly-great neighborhood.
Our receptionist’s computer was stolen off her desk in the middle of a work day. Once, our grammar lesson was interrupted by a man urinating against the glass door of our street-level classroom.
I earned $34,000 a year at that job. With a master’s degree and all the debt that goes with it.
It seems strange to credit the creation of one daily habit with getting out of that job, but it’s the truth.
My daily writing habit got me out of that (Fulfilling but exhausting! Extremely underpaid! Sort of dangerous!) job.
And if I look at how much I earned as an ESL teacher and how much I earn now, over the course of seven years …
My daily writing habit is worth $280,000. At least.
That doesn’t include the value I place on the freedom and flexibility that comes with working for myself. That doesn’t include the friendships I’ve made, the trips I’ve taken, the opportunities I’ve had.
That’s just a cold, hard, math-based fact about how much more money I’ve earned because I developed a daily writing habit.
And I bet you have your own version of this.
How much money would you save if you finally kicked your mindless online shopping habits? If you stopped smoking? If you stopped going out for cocktails four nights a week with the coworkers you don’t really like?
How much more money would you bring in if you developed a daily habit of emailing a professional peer? Or spent an hour every morning working on your book proposal? I realize it’s a little unusual to attach a price tag to a habit, but I’ve found it to be a really effective way to sort of shock me (and maybe you?) into making change. We all know we should drink more water, take our vitamins, network, charge our phones outside of our bedrooms, but it’s easy to put off change for “some other time” or to underestimate how these good habits could change our lives. But attaching a monetary value to a habit can shock us into taking action. Eating more fruits and vegetables could save me thousands of dollars in medication because I’m predisposed to Type 2 diabetes. Charging my phone outside my bedroom means I’ll sleep better. Sleeping better means I’ll get sick less (and work more + earn more). I’ll snap at my friends, stepsons, and husband less (and spend less on therapy and apology gifts).
If you ran the numbers, how much is your good habit worth? And how much is your bad habit costing you?
“Ughhhhhhh. Why can’t I break my mindless Instagram habit?!! I trained for a marathon, I paid off all my school debt, I graduated with a 3.9 but I can’t stop scrolling through strangers’ photos? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME I HATE EVERYTHING.” Raise your hand if you’ve uttered something like this within the confines of your mind!
(Everyone, ever raises their hand.)
Maybe Instagram isn’t your vice of choice. Maybe the bad habit you can’t kick is online shopping, smoking, mean-spirited gossip, leaving a mess everywhere you go, or eating an entire bag of pizza rolls as ‘second dinner’ every night. Not that I’ve ever done that. Whatever the bad habit, it’s very possible that you’ve had some version of this conversation with yourself. The conversation where you hold up your accomplishments and wonder why you can do something so seemingly hard – get the dream job, graduate with honors – but you can’t stop stalking your ex on Facebook. If you’ve ever done that:Good news/bad news: Habit change has nothing to do with intelligence or work ethic. We can’t outsmart or outwork our bad habits. Click To TweetLarry King had terrible spending habits anddeclared bankruptcy twice. President Obamastruggled with a smoking habit for years. Oprah Winfrey has been very open about her challenges with fitness and eating habits for her entire career. I think we can all agree that the above mentioned humans are smart and hard working. So how do we break bad habits if we can’t out-smart or out-work them? I’m afraid the answer is too long for one blog post. It involves motivation, neurology, self-awareness, and developing a process that works for you. (Shameless plug, we cover all these tools in Habit School!)
What I can tell you is three more things very few people are saying about breaking bad habits and building good ones.
3 surprising things I want you to know about habit change
What now? Yes. If you’ve ever believed that you’re “too lazy” to break a bad habit or build a good one I’m here to share to tell you that laziness isn’t, uh, really a thing. What often looks and feels like laziness is actually procrastination, anxiety about the outcome, or confusion about where to start. Sure there are times that we simply don’t want to do something – who truly wants to empty the dishwasher? – but most of our ‘laziness’ is actually something else entirely.
2. Much of the narrative around habit change is one-size-fits-all
If you’ve ever read a listicle about breaking a bad habit or building a good one, said listicle has probably assumed: * You’re trying to go to the gym more * Obsessively measuring + tracking your progress works well with your particular brain * Using your phone or computer to obsessively track said progress poses zero issues * You’re already getting eight hours of sleep * The people in your life are wildly supportive of the habit you’re changing * You’re not tempted by anything, ever * What’s a trigger? Don’t know her, never met her Oh, what’s that? You mean that you’re trying to change a habit that’s NOT weight-loss related? You feel discouraged when you don’t see progress after, like, three days? Using a habit-tracking app on your phone leads you down an Instagram wormhole that just makes you feel bad? If that sounds familiar, 90% of the stuff that’s written about habit change won’t work for you. (Controversial opinion alert: 90% of the stuff that’s written about habit change won’t work for for most people.)
3. Much of the narrative around habit change, uh, ISN’T TRUE
Fun fact: that ’21-days to a new habit’ stat we see floating around is totally, completely false. On average, it takes people 66 days to truly cement a new habit. And that can vary from 12-265 days! And it’s different from person to person and habit to habit!
So, if you tried to build a new habit for 21 days and it didn’t stick – it’s not that you did it wrong. It’s just that you’re probably only 30% of the way there.
The truth is, habit change is both harder and easier than we’ve been lead to believe. It’s not just a habit tracker app and doing something every day for three weeks. Like a lot of things in life, habit change is simple; it’s not necessarily easy. Knowing that you’re not ‘doing it wrong’ is a huge step in the right direction.
Have you struggled to make habit change stick? Or fallen for the 21-days myth? If you’ve successfully changed a habit, tell us how you did it in the comments! P.S. The wait-list for Habit School is here!
“I’m sort of shooting myself in the foot here, but no. I don’t think you should buy it. I can’t, in good faith, take your money.” I laugh awkwardly as my friend squints at me over her laptop. We’re co-working in a pretty, light-filled coffee shop downtown. I’ve been telling her about my course Make It Stick Habit School and (shameless brag!) how it’s helped people build writing habits, gym habits, better sleep routines – all kinds of stuff. And her very sweet response was “That sounds like something my husband needs. I’m going to buy it and make him take it.” I was incredibly flattered that she had so much faith in my methods that she wanted her husband to benefit from them. I loved that she wanted to support the work I do! What a great friend! But here’s the truth: Change is hard enough when we’re trying to do it for our OWN reasons. It’s DAMN NEAR IMPOSSIBLE when we’re trying to change for other people. Click To Tweet Think about it. Which is more motivating: Changing your spending habits because you’re ready to live that roommate-free life? Or because your mom keeps shaming you about your credit card debt? Is it easier to build a running habit because you know it’ll help you sleep better or because your partner nags you about your blood pressure? Are you more likely to break your nightly happy hour habit because you’d rather put that money towards a vacation? Or because your best friend makes “jokes” about how you’re a lush? Sure, we’ve all made choices to avoid shame, embarrassment, or nagging. This is why I dig all my chip crumbs out of the dip before Kenny gets home from work! And why he speed cleans for an hour before I get home from any trip! But. Making big changes to our daily lives from a place of obligation or negativity is unsustainable. We can’t shame ourselves into lasting change. Click To Tweet
This is why I wouldn’t let me friend buy my class for her husband; I knew it wouldn’t work for him. In fact, in the ‘before we get started’ module of Make It Stick Habit School, we talk about choosing one habit to work on for the next six weeks. Then we double – and triple! – check that we’re all changing these habits for the right reasons. Because our friends are doing it? Nope. Because our partner gets annoyed about it? Nah-uh. Because our parents wish we would? Keep going. But a change we really, truly want to make? That we’re excited about? Ding ding ding! There we go! That’s a habit worth changing! Change that sticks is change that’s motivated by self-love and commitment and an understanding of how we’ll benefit. We need this understanding to fall back on when we’re tempted to skip our daily meditation or swing through Target for some mindless shopping. Shame and obligation make for poor support systems. And if you can’t find way to get excited about changing something you ‘should’ change? Take a step back and give yourself some space. Life is long and no one has to be great at everything. You’re allowed to change the things you want to change and leave some parts of your life gloriously un-perfected. I want to hear from you! Have you ever tried to change something or make/break a habit out of shame or obligation? How’d that go?
I see the question pop into the chat box, followed immediately by three thumbs up emojis. And then a “Yeah, I was wondering that, too!” And a “YESSSSS.” Which is how I realized I should probably write a blog post answering one of the most common questions I get when I talk + teach about habits. One of the most common questions I get from Make It Stick Habit Schoolstudents (enrollment for the live version opens March 19th!) is “How will I know that I’ve built my habit? How will I know that it’s ‘done’ and I can move on the next one?”
Which is a great question, right? Because we all want to believe that if we do our morning pages or work out or drink green tea for, like, five days we have a new habit! But that’s not how it works. If you’re wondering when to start a new habit – or if should keep strengthening an older one – this post is for you.
When To Start A New Habit (+ when to keep plugging away at the old ones)
1. When in doubt, work on your new habit for longer than you think you need to
Have you ever done that thing where you do something good or productive for, like, seven days in a row and then you high five yourself over your new habit? And then you take on another new habit on day eight? Yeah! Me, too! That’s called “The first two weeks of January, 2002 – 2015”.
It feels good to tell ourselves that a habit is ‘done’ or that it’s solidified! But the truth is that ‘21-days-to-a-new-habit’ thing is total B.S. Psychologists says it’s actually closer to 66 days. And it can vary from 12 days to 265 days (!!!) depending on the person and the habit.
When we tell ourselves that our tender, fragile new habit is firm and ready to face the challenges and temptations of the real world, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. So here’s my rule of thumb: work on one new habit at a time, for at least 65 days. If you’re not sure if your new habit ‘took’? Work on it even longer.
2. You’ll know your new habit is ‘set’ when your life feels weird without it
I have a nearly-set-in-stone set of morning habits. I’ve been doing them for so long that if I miss one of the habits I feel off balance and incomplete. If I don’t read fiction on the couch? If I don’t make my bed? WHO AM I EVEN I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF.
That awkward incomplete feeling? That’s how you know that a habit is ‘set’ and that it’s truly taken root in your life. If you feel strange when if you don’t meditate, don’t text your mom, don’t drink a big glass of water with every meal – congrats! You’ve developed a habit that’s part of your life. Go forth and prosper! Enjoy the benefits of a nearly-on-autopilot habit what will make your life awesome without you having to think about it!
But if you feel sneaky or relieved when you skip a habit – like you’re getting away with something – that means you’ve got a ways to go before it’s really part of you life.
But I want to hear from you! Do you try to convince yourself that a habit is solidified way too early? What habit are you working on right now? I’m ‘saving’ my habit for the next round of Habit School so I can work on it alongside everybody!
Can you make it a habit to be a good partner? Are there such things as “good relationship habits”? (I can hear you being skeptical from all the way over here.) You might be sick of hearing me talk about habits by now (not stopping anytime soon!), but I truly believe that they’re one of the secrets to a life well-lived. Studies vary, but psychologists and neurologists estimate that between 40 and 95% of what we do every day is habitualized – including how we interact with our partners. So it stands to reason that building even one good relationship habit (or breaking a bad one), could have a big impact on your relationship. If you’re not sure where to start, read on!
“Zero waste travel? That sounds … joyless,” my friend teases as we pick at a pile of nachos.
“It really does, doesn’t it?” I laugh. When I first started thinking about my carbon footprint and how much waste I produce while traveling I pictured myself eating lentils out of a mason jar, while waiting for the subway.
Not relaxing, not lovely, not very, uh, vacation-y.
But as I started to tweak and test and I discovered that – counter-intuitive and unlikely as it sounds – I actually enjoyed my trips more when I did these things.
I got through security at the airport faster, I had more conversations with locals + more picnics in the park, and I was less likely to spill coffee or leftovers all over my bag. (A surprisingly and frustratingly common occurrence.)
9 Zero Waste Travel Tips That Won’t Suck The Joy Out Of Your Trip
A giant asterisk: None of us are perfect and most things we do have SOME impact on the environment. I don’t want your trip to be a hard, boring slog of eating sandwiches while walking in the rain and denying yourself any joy or convenience.
Try one or two of these things! Do what’s easiest for you. And if you try something and it sucks the joy right out of your trip, don’t do it again. Try something else. Eat the fish and spit out the bones. (Ya know, like metaphorically.)
I’m not suggesting we give up flying completely – that’s simply not an option for a lot of people. But when we’re thinking about travel in general (rather than a trip to a specific place, for a specific reason), what if we at least considered a road trip? What if we at least opened the Amtrak tab and scrolled around for five minutes?
As a side note, I like road trips a million times better than air travel. I like being able to pull over whenever I want, explore anything I see, and take the scenic route.
Also: road trips down require me to take off my shoes, belt, scarf, and jewelry while a stranger pats me down.
Some of my favorite travel memories involve public transport in other countries – watching people climb on top of the buses in southern Nepal, sharing snacks with my train-car mates in India, making conversation in my terrible Spanish on the bus in Costa Rica.
Public transport gives you insights into ‘real life’ at your travel destination. It also happens to be cheaper and better for the environment than taking taxis everywhere.
Most major western cities have bike sharing programs and it wouldn’t be a visit to the Netherlands if you didn’t take part in their bike culture.
And, of course, walking creates zero emissions, is good exercise, and allows you to explore a city slowly enough that you discover hidden gems. When I was in Costa Rica a few weeks ago, my friend and I stumbled across this cemetery as we were poking around San Jose. It’s one of my favorite memories of the whole trip!
Download the City Bike app to see where you can pick up and drop off bikes or check out these apps that help you find walking tours of cities all over the world.
Airbnb and vacation rentals aren’t perfect – nothing is. But from an environmental impact standpoint, they’re a jillion times better than hotels. Think of all those empty hotel rooms being heated and cooled, those hallways with the lights on all night, and the constant washing of sheets and towels, often after one use.
Besides, you get more for your tourism dollar in a vacation rental, it’s easier to stay in a ‘real’ neighborhood, and you often have a kitchen so you can make a few meals in-house and save $$$. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s $40 towards your first booking!
And if you’re thinking, “That sure seems like an annoying hassle, Sarah,” I get it!
You know what I hate more than the hassle of packing this extra stuff? I hate carrying my delicious restaurant leftovers in my hands for an hour because the Styrofoam clamshell they gave me isn’t watertight, so if I put it in my bag it’ll leak pasta all over.
I don’t like drinking coffee out of little paper cups that burn my hand and don’t keep my coffee warm. I hate eating takeout with a tiny plastic fork that breaks when I use it on a piece of apple.
So, yes, bringing these things is better for the environment but, selfishly, they’re better for me. They keep my coffee warm longer. They let me put my leftovers in my bag and forget about them. They make my picnic nicer and my trip to the picturesque street market more enjoyable.
9. Forget about that dang 3 ounce rule!
Three ounces of shampoo and conditioner is not going to get you through your two week trip. Shampoo and conditioner bars create less waste, last much longer than their liquid counterparts, and don’t count towards that three-once rule. More space in your one-gallon ziplock for other awesome, liquid things!