The Working With… Podcast | Episode 58 | How To Develop Positive Habits

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In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about how to Change old habits and develop new ones.

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Hello and welcome to episode 58 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

This week, I have a great question about habit development and how to use your productivity tools to create new, positive habits and stop old, negative habits. 

But, before we get into this week’s question, please allow me a few seconds to say a big thank you to all of you who participated in my Black Friday / Cyber Monday sale last week. The response was fantastic and I feel so blessed to have such wonderful people supporting me so I can help more people to become better organised and more productive. We know stress is one of the world’s biggest killers these days and by becoming more productive you can reduce the amount of stress you are exposed to and that is why I want to help more people discover the benefits of a more organised and productive life. So thank you. I am looking forward to the new year and helping more and more people. Without out your support, I would not be able to do half of what I do today. 

Okay, on to this week’s question and that means it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Pippa. Pippa asks, do you have any tips on developing more positive habits? I have always struggled to change my habits and I was wondering if there was a way to help keep myself focused on my habits.

Thank you, Pippa, for your excellent question. 

Recently I have been asked a lot about this. How to develop and stay focused on new habits and I know from my own personal experience this can be a tough thing to do. But, over the years I have discovered a few ways that can help to keep myself focused on new habits until they become automatic and I will share those ways with you here. 

Firstly, let’s look at the problem. Changing habits is difficult because to change a habit we have to move outside of our natural comfort zones. An example of this would be if you decided to start waking up an hour earlier than usual and doing some form of exercise. Now depending on how fit you are when you start this new habit, starting an exercise programme at the best of times can be very challenging. Exercise, particularly in the beginning, can be very painful and there are no immediate noticeable benefits. It’s just a lot of pain, sweat and, the next day, very sore muscles. 

Over time, as you get fitter, it gets easier and the natural benefits of excising regularly begin to show. You feel stronger, have more energy and of course, you begin to look a lot better. But that is not what you get at the beginning. The beginning is usually characterised by pain and muscle soreness, a flushed face and difficulty getting up out of your seat after you have been sat down for a while. That’s not a very good way to keep you inspired to exercise every morning. You have to have almost super-human discipline to keep going in that situation. 

So how do you overcome this?

The biggest mistake I see is people trying to do too much at once. Take the exercise habit, for example. I often see people make the decision to start an exercise programme and on day one they rush out the house at 6AM, and run for three or four miles. Now, if you have not got out running for a long time, the next day when you wake up to repeat the process, your leg muscles are going to be screaming at you to stop. If you tie that in with cold, wet weather outside, it is understandable that your dry, warm bed is going to win that particular battle. 

Instead, it is far better to start slowly and break down the habit you are trying to develop. In the exercise example, there are actually two habits there. Waking up early and exercising. If you try to do both at the same time you are going to make things very difficult for yourself. It is far better to develop one at a time over a period of time. 

As the new year is around the corner, let’s say that from January you decide that you want to wake up early and spend the first hour of the day doing exercise. Now the better way to do this is to decide that January will be when you develop the habit of waking up early. Let’s say you wake up at 7:30am now, struggle to get out of bed and then find yourself rushing to get yourself out the door and to the bus-stop by 8:00am. So, from the 2nd of January—not the first, that’s usually a holiday for most people—you wake up at 6:30am and get yourself out of bed. Go make yourself a cup of your favourite morning drink, or drink some water, and after a few minutes do some light stretching exercises. Nothing too difficult. Spend 20 to 30 minutes doing that and then go take a shower. Do the same the next day and the next. Just focus on getting into the habit of waking up an hour earlier. 

By the end of January, you will find waking up early has become natural. You will feel disappointed if you don’t wake up early. That’s what you want. You want that emotional response when you don’t do it. 

Now, in February you introduce some more strenuous exercise. Again, the advice here is don’t go crazy. If you have been doing some gentle stretching exercises in January, then add some push-ups and non-weights squats. Do two or three sets of these. Try to find 3 exercises you can do as a set and do three sets of three. You could do planks, push-ups and squats as a set and repeat that three times. Those three exercises will exercise almost all the muscle groups in your body. 

Now if you do that Monday, Wednesday and Friday and on Tuesday and Thursday you go our for a power walk, that means you will be exercising five times a week. Do that for a month and by the end of February, you will be feeling fantastic. There will be no more muscle soreness and waking up that hour earlier will just feel right. 

If you tried to do that all in the first week, the chances of you being able to maintain it would be almost zero. Staging your changed habits over a couple of months and you increase the chances of success a hundred times.

Okay, so exercise and waking up earlier is an easy example to give. What about some more subtle changes to your habits. Imagine you find yourself being negative about things and you want to become a more positive person. How would you go about changing that? 

Now, this one is a more behavioural habit and so needs a slightly different approach. Humans are not naturally negative. Being negative is a taught skill ( I say that because there are so many amazingly positive things in this world yet some people seem to have PhDs in finding the negatives in life). Changing the way you look at the world is a lot easier than you may think. 

The way to do this is to make full use of your calendar or to-do list manager. At the top of your to-do list or calendar write down two or three things you will be positive about today. I would write “Be positive” at the top of my to-do list and highlight it or bold it so it stands out. Every time I look at my to-do list I would see those two words. Likewise, if you do this on your calendar, create a new event and in bold capitalised letters write “BE POSITIVE!” What this does is remind you every time you look at your to-do list or calendar (or both) to be positive. 

This is about changing the way you see the world. If it’s raining - look at the rain and say to yourself that the air is being cleaned and nature is getting its drinking water. If it’s snowing, instead of thinking about how difficult it will be to get to work, think about all the children who are going to be so excited about the snow. Imagine how you felt about the snow when you were a child. That will soon put a positive smile on your face. 

Another quick tip about becoming more positive is don’t read the news first thing in the morning. The news is full of negativity because for some reason bad news sells. Stay well away from the news. I use a news reader app called Reeder that only shows me articles from blogs and magazines I choose. So my morning news is full of productivity tips, self-help advice and technology news. I have no idea about Brexit or the latest antics of President Trump. 

What you need to do is to remove the triggers that led to your old habit and replace them with triggers that encourage the new habit. Replace negative news with blog posts about your favourite hobby. Replace negative thoughts by challenging yourself to find the positives—there are always positives. 

Far and away the best way to develop positive habits is to start small. Don’t try and change everything at once. Create a 12-month timeline and map out the habits you want to develop over that twelve month period. Start with the easy ones as this will allow your confidence to grow. As your confidence grows, so too will your self-discipline so when you get to the harder habits, you will have a lot more confidence and a lot more self-discipline. 

One tip that always works for me is to schedule a specific time to do whatever it is you want to do. For me, I exercise between 2 and 2:45pm every day. Most days I will exercise quite hard. But some days I can feel a little soreness and so I will just do gentle stretching and non-weight bearing exercises. That time is scheduled on my calendar five times a week and as the rule goes - “What’s on my calendar gets done” I make sure it happens, no matter what mood I am in. My calendar is sacred territory. If you work a regular 9 til’ 5 office job, then schedule 6pm to 7pm to do whatever new habit you want to develop. It could be spend more time with your kids, write a journal or clean your house. Whatever it is, schedule it and make sure you do it. 

Changing old habits and developing new ones is really all about creating routines. When you turn the new habit into a routine you just do it without thinking. For me, when 2pm arrives, I stop whatever it is I am doing and begin my usual warmup routines. I also change into my exercise gear and just begin. Although I have previously planned what exercise I will do, when 2pm arrives, I just start. There’s no thinking, no opportunity to talk myself out of doing it, it’s 2pm and I start… It’s on my calendar. 

So there you go, Pippa. I hope that has given you a few ideas about starting new habits and I wish you all the best of luck with your new habits. I know it is not easy, but with time and by starting small, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish. 

Thank you all for listening to this episode of the Working With Podcast. If you have a question you would like answering, please send me an email - or you can DM me on Facebook or Twitter. All the links are in the show notes. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.