To start a new habit, make it easy
By Gretchen Reynolds
Whether your goal for the new year is to lose weight, start exercising or focus on self-care, ask yourself: How can I make this easier?
In the study of habit formation, the thing that makes it harder for you to achieve your goal is called friction. Reducing friction means removing an obstacle or coming up with a strategy that makes a task easier to do. And if you figure out how to make a goal easier, you’re more likely to succeed.
Friction typically comes in three forms — distance, time and effort. For instance, living far from the gym or a favorite walking trail makes it less likely that you’ll go. (One study found that people who lived 5.1 miles from the gym went only once a month, but those who lived within 3.7 miles went five times a month or more.) Time constraints can also get in the way of new healthy habits. If you don’t have much free time, it’s harder to start meditating or working out. And if something requires a lot of effort — like healthful cooking in a disorganized kitchen — you’re less likely to do it.
Sometimes adding friction to your life helps you achieve a goal. In one study, slowing down elevator doors by 26 seconds prompted more people to take the stairs. Removing vending machines from schools makes it harder for teenagers to snack on junk food or drink sugary soda.
“The friction you set up or remove in the environment is going to have an effect long after you’ve gotten discouraged and are less excited about the new behavior,” said Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”
Pandemic life has altered many of our routines. For instance, some people no longer commute to work, giving them more time to do other things. While online schooling has made life tough on many parents, families also may have fewer extracurricular obligations, making it easier to have dinner at home. To identify the friction that may be stopping you from achieving your goals, take a moment to think about the time, distance and effort the goal requires.
“Ask yourself, ‘What would make it easier for me to do this?’ ” Wood said. “You want to reduce the effort. The thing about friction is we often don’t focus on it when we’re changing our behavior. We focus on ourselves and keeping ourselves motivated and exerting willpower. But you have to recognize that you’re also going to be influenced by the things going on around you.”
Try to make a new habit a little easier with these friction-busting ideas.
Sleep in your workout clothes
If you’re trying to start a morning exercise routine, make it easy to get dressed for a morning run or workout. Sleep in some or all of your workout clothes. Put your shoes and socks by the bed.
Put hand weights by your desk
Keep light hand weights nearby and do some reps while you’re on a conference call.
Hang hooks by your door
Whether you’re always losing your keys or forgetting your mask, creating a station of hooks or shelves by the door for masks, keys or any other essentials you need when you leave the house will help you make mask-wearing a habit.
Put extra masks in your coat pockets
I always have a half-dozen masks stuffed in the pockets of my coats. You never know when you might drop a mask on the ground, decide you want to double mask or offer a mask to someone in need.
Stand on one leg while brushing
Standing on one leg while brushing your teeth is a way to practice balance. (Change legs after a minute of brushing.)
Buy kitchen tongs
You’ll be amazed how much easier it is to cook, toss a salad or serve noodles with the right set of tongs. In general, having the right gadgets for your kitchen is a way to make cooking easier.
Organize your refrigerator
Often the tipping point in a kitchen is the refrigerator. When your fridge is a mess, it’s hard to know what you have available to cook, what food might spoil soon and what you need from the store.
Watch the jellyfish
One of the best mindfulness tips I came across this year was from Cord Jefferson, the television writer who thanked his therapist on national television when he won an Emmy. Jefferson told me he struggled with traditional meditation, but he enjoys watching the feed from a web camera showing the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bookmark the jelly-cam on your phone or laptop browser and get lost in the jellyfish for a short mindfulness break during your workday: https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals/live-cams/jelly-cam.
Do the Standing 7-Minute Workout
All you need is a wall and a chair nearby for balance. You don’t even have to change your clothes. Our new workout video, which is at nytimes.com/section/well/move, is a friction-busting workout for anyone who avoids exercise because it’s hard to get up from the floor after a push-up, plank or situps.
Complete a 1-minute task
One of my favorite health tips for dealing with stress is the one-minute rule. It comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before,” a book about forming new habits. This simple advice helps you decide what to tackle on a long to-do list. Just do the one-minute tasks on the list first. Hang up a coat. Read some emails. Clear and wipe the kitchen counter. Tidy a bookshelf. Whenever you take on a one-minute task, you’ll get a sense of accomplishment.
Do a five-finger meditation
This is an easy way to calm yourself, no matter where you are. Start by holding your hand in front of you, fingers spread. Using your index finger on the other hand, start tracing the outline of your hand. Trace up your pinkie, and down. Trace up your ring finger and down. As you do this, breathe in as you trace up, and out as you trace down. Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand. Now reverse the process and trace from your thumb back to your pinkie, making sure to inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down.
Create a Sunday basket
I learned this tip from Lisa Woodruff, author of “The Paper Solution.” She suggests dumping your bills, receipts and various papers into a basket. (She sells a product for this, but I just use a regular basket.) Once a week, sort your actionable papers (those that need attention) from your archive papers (those that can be filed.) The Sunday basket approach (she claims it will add five extra hours to your week) is part of a larger system proposed by Woodruff that uses three-ring binders rather than a filing cabinet. (She suggests five binders for financial information, medical needs, household reference, school items and daily operations.) For me, the Sunday basket is enough, but if you feel chronically overwhelmed by paper, you can learn more at Organize365.com.
Buy partly prepared food
Buying chopped up food and meal kits costs more, but it does save time. “I always used to avoid buying cut fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, but I found I actually use them sooner, so in the end it kind of pays off,” Wood said.
Keep a tip jar
Tipping in person (rather than by credit card) is an easy way to add a gratitude practice to a delivery day. Pandemic life has meant a lot more deliveries to my door, but I never had cash, so I usually just added the tip to the card. I decided to create the tip jar and make an effort to tip in cash. What I didn’t anticipate is that I would get so much more enjoyment out of tipping in person. (I always wash my hands first, wear a mask at the door and keep it brief.)
Put a notebook and pen by your bed
Keeping pen and paper by your bedside allows you to do a nightly stress-dump of all the things on your mind that might otherwise keep you up at night. You get a head start on tomorrow by creating a to-do list. And you can end your day with a simple gratitude practice — writing down three things for which you are grateful.
Create a device charging station outside your bedroom
The blue light in your screen has the same effect on your brain as sunlight, which means it wakes you up just when you want to be drifting off. If you’re trying to cut back on screens at bedtime, set up a charging station in your work area, the kitchen — anywhere but your bedroom. “If it’s in the bedroom, it’s easier to use,” Wood said. “That’s part of the temptation of always staying online. Keep devices out of the bedroom.”