Why it’s easiest to change your habits when moving house and how to use the same theory whether you’re moving or not
You may have heard at some stage or another that the best time to change habits is when you move house. I had, and with my recent move from Oz back to the UK, I’ve been capitalising on this relatively rare moment, before getting too settled into an unintentional or accidental routine.
Let’s be honest…
…building long lasting, positive habit change is difficult. Many people go through life never kicking negative habits and battling to establish positive ones. We humans love to be comfortable and habit change is not that. But get this: Habits make up 40% of your daily actions. That is 40% of your life! So they’re pretty important.
In a nut shell
A habit is something you do so often that your brain gets bored and sends the behaviour to the subconscious part of your mind. No longer do you need to think about that particular behaviour, and often it’s hard to recall. Can you remember brushing your teeth this morning? Your brain automates these day-to-day behaviours so you no longer need to give them thought or plan them.
Habits are formed by the habit loop: cue, routine, reward.
The cue is anything that triggers a behaviour. Cues are typically an emotion, person, time, place or an existing habit and they act as a catalyst or a reminder. For example, the music you hear from an ice cream truck is the cue that leads you to head out and get a 99 with a flake (now costing you a hefty £2.25 can I just say!). Once a cue has been established it makes it very hard to resist the behaviour that the cue triggers as it’s such an automatic process.
This is the behaviour itself, so in this instance it’s the act of rummaging in your bag for some spare change and heading outside to the ice cream truck.
The reward is the positive reinforcement that gives your brain a boost of all the happy chemicals and a reason to repeat the behaviour in future. You guessed it, it’s the ice cream, its the flake, its the sweet fix and the satisfaction that came from devouring your favourite childhood treat.
So why is it easier to change your habits when you move?!
Well I’m glad you asked. Imagine a typical routine in your day-to-day life, free from disruption or moving house for a moment. The cues we mentioned earlier are dictating a signifiant part of your day - 40% remember - and it’s all automated.
Things in your home, people in your life and emotions you experience are all informing your behaviours because they are reminding us to behave in pre-established ways - that require little to no thought.
The coffee machine in your kitchen that leads to a morning brew, the girls from HR that lead to too many drinks at the Christmas party, the Netflix tab on your laptop that leads to 10 episodes of Queer Eye, an empty tub of Ben and Jerry’s and falling asleep on the sofa (just me?).
Over time these habit loops become set in stone and before long its an automatic, subconscious process that’s tough to change.
The reason moving house, job or country is such a great time to implement change is because it disrupts your typical daily routine, and removes a significant number of cues. This shaking-up of your environment presents a perfect opportunity to make behaviour changes while the habit loop is yet to be reestablished. It also provides awareness and inspiration.
Moving to a new place or job brings new ideas and new thoughts, prompts new habit ideas to implement and sheds light on habits to kick. It takes you out of routine and has you experimenting with life - opening your mind to the possibility of new hobbies, new routines, new foods, new people and new places. It makes you less lazy as you’re forced to think about what you’ll do, where you’ll go and what you’ll eat.
And all this openminded-ness boosts confidence, builds resilience and gives life zest!
God I love a move! Have I convinced you of how extra special times of change are yet?
So how can you work this system - whether you’re moving house or not - to build habits worthy of Beyonce pre-Coachella?
It’s all in the cues. Change the cue, you change the habit.
Step 1 - Make 3 lists
Think through your day in detail and make 3 lists.
The continue list - habits you already have and they work well for you
The start list - habits you want to start, like journaling, recycling or channeling a more positive mindset.
The stop list - habits you already have and need to kick, like biting your nails, staying up too late or getting self-critical every time you see that one friend.
Here are a few prompts to help you notice the more subtle habits.
What do you do without even thinking about it, at work, in the evenings and on weekends?
What do you do that you give lots of thought and energy to?
How do you react to different friends, people at work, family, and what do you like/not like about that?
What do you love that you do, are, and have?
What do you hate?
What do you wish was different about your current habits?
What are your habits like when you’re sad?
What are your habits like when you’re happy?
Step 2 - Be selective
Now that you have your lists take a look at where the work needs to be done - but be selective. This isn’t about significantly changing your life and who you are as a person. Select just 1 or 2 habits to focus on for the next few months of your life - this is about tiny baby steps.
Think daily micro moments you want change in some way.
Step 3 - Create a habit loop
For each habit you are stopping/starting/continuing create or remove the cue and plan out the reward. I recommend putting something physical in your line of site to cue the habit or teaming it to another habit you already have.
If it’s a difficult habit to establish, like waking earlier or working out more, create a specific reward that goes beyond the endorphin boost. This doesn’t motivate us all straight away so create another reward.
Is it the coffee you’ll have afterwards? Is it the satisfaction you get from watching the sunrise? Is it the new workout gear you’ll buy after your first 5 workouts?
Step 4 - Start with a teeny tiny first step
Your brain is absolutely going to resist the habit, so make that first step so small and easy that there is no need to rely on motivation. Make it so clear and simple that it can easily fall to the subconscious mind's responsibilities. Once your brain gets used to the idea of it, then you can crank up the effort.
Floss one tooth for 5 days, and then move to two teeth. Workout for 7 minutes. Set your alarm clock 4 minutes earlier than usual. Make it ridiculously, comically small - just while you get going.
Step 5 - Expect the unexpected
Pre-empt failure and blocks. Ask yourself ahead of time how you’ll handle your new habit when there are disruptions. What if you have to work late, and miss the gym class? What if your friend want’s to meet at the best coffee place in town when you’re trying to cut back on caffeine? Stuff will get in the way. Make a list of things that could go wrong and come up with ways you will still integrate your habit in.
Step 6 - Have belief in yourself
If you kick off a plan to change a habit with zero belief that you’ll actually manage to achieve the change, then you won’t achieve it - simple as that. Make the decision right now to believe you can do it. Because you can do it.
YOU CAN DO IT, AND YOU WILL DO IT.
Decide to believe it, take in every baby step along the way and notice yourself doing it. And if you need more convincing, make a list of all the things you’ve achieved in the past, and look at it every time your belief wavers. Recognise that you are capable of change, no matter how big or small.
You’ve got this!
A few habit myths that need busting
It does not take 21, 30, 66, 90 days to establish a new habit. Studies show that the length of time it takes to establish a new habit totally depends on the person, their beliefs, environment, circumstances and the habit itself. It takes time, be patient.
If you miss a day it’s not all over. Sometimes a day off is exactly what you need to keep a habit sustainable or to notice the positive difference it’s making to you like. Consistency is obviously the goal, but don’t let missing a day throw you off course. It’s ok - just try again tomorrow.
You don't need willpower to build a habit - yes really! Relying on willpower will not get you very far, because willpower runs out the more it’s used. The steps taken above will help you make a start without the presence of willpower.
So tell me, what habits will you be implementing? What do already do that you love? How will you switch up your environment to implement something new? Let me know in the comments!
If you liked this, you might also like my blog on ‘How to fall in love with the process on the way to achieving your goals’.