Three Specific Ways to Maintain a Habit for a Long Time
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The key to maintaining your habits for a long time is an intention to do so. If you aren’t mindful about your habits, sooner or later, you will slip. Then, you will either go back on track, or you will just let it slip further. If you don’t care about your habits, not continuing them doesn’t seem to be a big deal, right?
So, how to care about your habits?
You need to realize their utmost importance. You cannot be indifferent about your habits.
Maybe the message from James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, will do that for you:
How long does it take to build a habit?
21 days? 30 days? 66 days?
The honest answer is: forever. Because once you stop doing it, it is no longer a habit.
A habit is a lifestyle to be lived, not a finish line to be crossed. Make small, sustainable changes you can stick with.
The key is to care. Once you care, you can do something about the longevity of your habits.
The Three Methods to Maintain a Habit for a Long Time
As to the practical tips for habit maintenance, I see three methods. One of them – tracking – supports you both at the beginning (habit development) and at the end (maintenance).
It helps at the stage of building a habit, which is the most difficult part of keeping a habit. You cannot maintain a habit you don’t have, can you?
Let’s dive into each of those methods, one by one.
1. Develop a Solid Habit.
Very often, a failure of maintaining a habit lies in the poor job at developing a habit in the first place. It’s easy to get back to a solid habit. It’s almost impossible to continue an activity that is not yet habitual.
One of the best things you can do to maintain your habits for a long time is to develop your habits in a very methodical and intentional way.
It comes back to my point that you can only maintain the existing habit. You need to create and solidify it first. You see, when you form a solid habit, it’s easy to get back to it because it’s literally hardcoded in your brain.
The most important part of habit formation is your cue for starting it. If your habit’s trigger is reliable, you will “stumble” on it all the time, and it will be a signal for your mind to restart the habit.
A few years ago, I went through a period of spiritual darkness you could’ve called a depression. In that period, I abandoned my habit of a morning cardio workout coupled with listening to podcasts. I had a hard enough time just coping with day-to-day responsibilities. I felt like I just couldn’t bear this one habit (and a few others).
But the cardio workout and listening to audio materials had been a part of my morning ritual. I didn’t quit on the whole routine. After about a year, I got back to my workout because I still had the same trigger present in my life. After such a long break, one day I simply lay on the floor and started exercising. This habit’s loop was still alive in my brain.
When your habit is rock-solid, and the trigger is always present, maintenance of the habit becomes automatic. You don’t even need to care about it.
At the end of 2012, I developed a habit of gulping a glass of water first thing in the morning. I don’t really care about this habit. I don’t identify with it. I don’t track it. Yet, it’s one of my most solidified habits because I made it a part of my morning ritual. My morning ritual is also based on an extremely reliable trigger — waking up in the morning.
2. Identify with Your Habits.
Going back to James’ quote – your habits are your lifestyle. If you can attach some activity to who you feel you are, giving up on such a habit is close to impossible.
I’m a writer. I write every day because that’s what writers do. If I skip a day, I feel bad about myself. I feel confused and unsure. My identity is at stake.
Writing is, by far, my biggest daily habit. It consumes nowadays about 30 minutes of my time, every single day. At its peak, it took me one hour a day to write.
I missed only two days since 23rd of September 2013. That’s the power of identity.
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Developing a new habit without tracking it is a fool’s proposition. However, tracking is also great for habit maintenance.
I keep a writing log, where I note down what I wrote, where, how much, in which language, and at what time. Putting entries in my writing log created an additional mini-habit to my writing ritual. I always register a few parameters in the sheet before I start writing.
However, writing is my identity habit. For the last seven years, I have cultivated some habits that I don’t identify with so strongly. But I tracked them.
One of them is speed reading. I love to read. Speed reading practice is, however, an annoyance. It is not how I usually read. Yet, I kept this habit, and one of the factors contributing to its longevity is the fact I’ve tracked this habit in an online app.
By the way, building streaks gamify your habits. When you observe you’ve done something for a year, you feel motivated to keep going.
If you want to maintain your habits for a long time, the best solution is to combine all three ways – developing a habit, identifying with it, and tracking it.
Developing a solid habit is a prerequisite. Without this, the other two methods are not as effective.
Identifying with a habit is like a glue that holds your personality and activity together forever.
Tracking a habit is extremely useful at the development phase and very handy to keep your motivation alive.