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Why didn't your morning habits work for me?

Last week I shared three tips for a smoother morning. A few days after the post I had a discussion with my boyfriend. For him, preparing a stress-free morning during the evening prior is not motivating at all. He’s concerned that it would make his life too structured and planned, and that it would encourage him to go to bed later and get less sleep. So, understanding that some of you may also harbour similar concerns, I decided to take a step back and look at my suggestions from a Nanohabits™ theory perspective.

I will focus on three aspects of our theory: a goal, core habits, and nanoactions. All of them play an important role in how we achieve the goal; in my case, arriving to work or school on time and in a good mood.

Goal

When starting any personal, professional and organizational change initiative, it is important to have a clear goal. In my case, I was always frustrated and late in the mornings. My goal was to be positive and on time. Similarly it can be a goal to increase productivity, increase sales or become a great leader.
Tip #1 Set a clear goal before starting to develop through habits. Know exactly what you want to change or achieve.

Core Habits

There are several core habits that can help you to reach any goal. These are then embedded into your routines, and influence your daily activities. To leverage in effective execution, you need to create a clear focus, act on lead measures, keep a visible scoreboard and create a cadence of accountability. In my case, waking up earlier and preparing the night before are two core habits to achieve my goal. I focused on the latter of the two. For you, the core habit of waking up earlier could make more sense. 

Tip #2 After setting the goal, analyze what are the ways how you could reach it. Scope several options that could help you to get where you want to go, and, in the beginning, pick one to focus on.

Nanoactions

If knowing the core habits is important, then just as vital is to identify the small daily actions that will help you create concrete core habits. There are hundreds of nanoactions that could help you. So, it’s important to identify those that can bring the most value. When I analyzed my mornings I realized that getting dressed and making breakfast stressed me the most. Therefore, it was clear to me that working on these two aspects with nanoaction routines would bring a lot of value. I tested a select few of them and picked three nanoaction routines that were the most fitting for my needs. For you, different nanoactions could work better.

Tip #3 Ideate many nanoactions and clusters of nanoactions that can help you exercise your core habit every day. They can be and should be very small, quick to execute and easy to repeat daily. Pick a few, test them and add the actions that work

 

With this perspective in mind, set your goals, identify Core Habits and work out winning nanoactions.

Effortless mornings begin the night before

I used to hate mornings. Getting up and being in the office on time was especially hard in winter, when it’s pitch black and freezing cold outside. With Nanohabits™ theories in mind I began to trace what made mornings particularly stressful and worked on creating new habits to make them bearable. Over time I have developed a simple 10 minute routine which makes my mornings so much easier; pleasant even. Now, not just do I arrive on time, but I’m also fresher and more awake when I get to work.

Today I want to share three key elements from my routine with you.

 Photo by  Emilija Veselova

Sync with your calendar.

First of all, I find it extremely important to be on top of my schedule for the following day, before I get off to sleep. There might be a meeting or a yoga practice, or an important phone call to make. I take a look to my digital calendar and jot down in my planner every appointment I will have. Writing things down forces my mind to be fully present for a moment, but then easier to shut off when I know I have control of my schedule. I outline key goals and tasks for the next day to get a head start in the morning.

Tip #1 Check your calendar half an hour before bed. Write a list of every appointment down and outline 3-5 key goals and tasks for the next day.


Prepare clothes and bag

One of the things that used to take a lot of time in the morning was choosing an outfit. Some days it would take 20 minutes to figure out what I wanted to wear; then I would get dressed only to change into something else. I quickly realised this silly dilemma ate 20mins of my sleep each night, so I made a small decision: prepare my clothes the night before. I choose what to wear based on my plans for the day and put the clothes on a chair in the order that I will put them on: cardigan on the bottom, then the shirt, pants and underwear on the very top. At the same time, I pack my bag and set it next to the chair. This way I don’t have to think about my outfit in the morning, sort through items before putting them on or stress what to put in my bag when in a rush.

Tip #2 Buy yourself half an hour of sleep or reading the morning news by preparing your clothes and packing your bag the night before.


Prepare your breakfast

I prefer eating my breakfast at home; however, I don’t want to wake up 20 minutes earlier to make sure I have the time to prepare a meal. Thus I started to prepare my breakfast in the evening. I clean my coffee maker, so that it only takes a few seconds in the morning to put it on the stove and turn a knob. I look in my fridge and decide what I will have for breakfast. If, for example, I choose to have cereal, I put a bowl on the counter and set the cereal box next to it. The only thing left to do in the morning is to pour out the cereal and get the milk from the fridge. It only takes a few minutes to make the coffee and about 30 seconds to prepare breakfast, if I have properly prepared the night before.

Tip #3 Prepare your breakfast menu, appliances and coffee maker the night before. It saves time and energy in your dreary morning state! If it turns out the milk has ran out perhaps you’ll realise that you need to set the alarm 10mins earlier to get some breakfast on the way to work.


My experiments with the morning routine started about 6 months ago, and the difference is significant. When my day starts with little exertion or stress, things generally continue in the same vein. Whilst this habit began with the aim of getting more rest and feeling more organised, it has not just impacted my morning routines but those throughout my entire day. Try it for yourself!

Foundational habits for 2017 - #1 eating healthy

Certain habits are especially important. They are the ones that create the foundation for other habits. The same principle applies for everyday habits as well as professional habits. There are some foundational habits that underlay success in different contexts.

I'm going to draft some foundational habits that I'm considering for the year 2017 for myself. I start with the foundational habits that deal with health, well-being and work-life balance. I also plan the set of cues that remind me of those habits. In the best scenario, the habits become so automated that the habits kick in subconsciously when I get exposed to these cues. 

I hope that these examples inspire you to draft your own foundational habits for 2017! By the way, if you come up with your own foundational habits, please share them with NANOHABIT -enthusiasts via the Facebook group.   

Foundational habit #1: Eating healthy

I consider healthy eating a foundational habit since being healthy and energetic is a precondition for almost everything else I do on a daily basis. I need to come up with a few good nano-actions that help me stick to the habit each day. Nano-actions are the small yet incredibly impactful behaviors that are carefully designed to be repeated day after day. Each small nano-action may mean relatively little on its own but over time they sum up to have extensive impact on our life.  I want to keep these small actions as simple as possible to be able to anchor them into my everyday life. 

Nano-action #1: Vegetables first

I love food so eating too big portions and too many carbs is a continuous challenge for me. The nano-action I plan to utilize is "the vegetables first". It means that before any other portion of food, I always eat a serving of vegetables. One of the logics behind "the vegetables first" is that the brain doesn't immediately register that the stomach is full. It can take as long as 20 minutes for the body and brain to register feelings of fullness.  During this time, receptors inform the brain that your body is receiving nutrients by sending hormone signals. In addition to providing me with nutrients, "the vegetables first" -tactic gives me time to understand that I'm actually full. 

Nano-action #2: Tracking caloric intake

My second nano-action related to healthy eating is tracking my caloric intake. I use the app called MyFintessPal for tracking. There are a plethora of similar apps but I'm fond of  MyFintenessPal since it allows me to scan the barcodes of different food packages and get the nutrition information easily. The app identifies the Finnish food products as well, which I find quite amazing.  I have learned from experience, that the mere act of tracking changes my behavior towards healthier eating. Since tracking requires some work, I have decided to do it every other day. I mark the tracked days in my Harvest Calendar. 

Cue: Harvest Calendar in the kitchen (visual cue) 

I'm planning to use a visual cue that reminds me to follow my planned nano-actions. I got an inspiring Harvest Calendar as a Christmas gift. I have decided to put it on display in our kitchen where I see it each time I'm preparing food. 

In the next post I will detail my second foundational habit.
Meanwhile, I am wishing everyone a good start for the year 2017!

 This is what my "vegetables first" nano-action looks like. I cut some carrots and cucumbers into pieces and make sure that I eat them before any other dish. Simple as that.

This is what my "vegetables first" nano-action looks like. I cut some carrots and cucumbers into pieces and make sure that I eat them before any other dish. Simple as that.

 The harvest calendar as a simple visual cue. I plan to locate it to the kitchen wall where I can see it each time I'm preparing food. I think that I don't have to track my calorie intake for the whole year since my shopping habits  (what I get from the store) , "vegetables first" etc. will become quite strong after  2-3 months. But let's see what happens.  

The harvest calendar as a simple visual cue. I plan to locate it to the kitchen wall where I can see it each time I'm preparing food. I think that I don't have to track my calorie intake for the whole year since my shopping habits (what I get from the store), "vegetables first" etc. will become quite strong after  2-3 months. But let's see what happens.  

Nanohabit for boosting divergent thinking

Nanohabit: put your shoes on and go to the forest

Effects:

  • boosting divergent thinking
  • feeling healthy and energetic
  • being present and sensing beauty

I introduce you to a nanohabit that both boosts your creativity and promotes your mental and physical wellbeing. During the Christmas season in Finland, we tend to stay inside since it's so dark most of the day. In addition, there's a lot of good food around that is somewhat difficult to resist! Instead of staying inside and eating, I recommend putting shoes on and going to the forest. You'll get some fresh air and a healthy dose of exercise. The forest also has a calming effect which helps you to feel relaxed, present and connected. And there's a good change that something almost magical happens if you need to do some ideation. 

Start with a minimum effort and end up with a flow

Let's elaborate on this a little. The actual nano-action is to put the shoes on and go to the forest. That's all. This activity is so small that it is difficult to come up with reasons not to do it. You may ask if committing to this small thing is enough for achieving any reasonable effect. The answer is likely to be "yes". This is what often happens with nano-actions: you begin with minimal effort but end up with a flow that takes you much further than you expected.  

I'll recall my own experience from this morning. I put on my spiked running shoes since it can be dangerously slippery outside if there's some ice underneath the snow. It took me about 5 minutes to walk to the closest forest. Finding a wooded area in Finland is not too difficult, since about 72 % of the land is covered by forest. The air was a bit chilly and fresh, so I decided to do some running. I love jogging in the forest because I tend to focus on my steps, the path I choose and the jump I have to take to cross the stream. I don't notice any strain on my muscles or occasional heavy breathing. I soon lose track of time and distance covered; running for a quite long time. 

Moving boosts divergent thinking

When the blood started to flow in my veins, my brain started to generate endless streams of ideas related to the work which I had been doing just before my outdoor escapade. I stopped every now and then to record the ideas to the Google Keep on my phone and taking some photos of the beautiful surrounds. 

Most of us know from experience that ideas start to flow when we walk. We may also have heard of famous inventors to have daily strolls and walking meetings. But there is more to it than just stories -  researchers have quite recently been able to prove that walking boosts creative inspiration. According to the study conducted in Stanford by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz , a person's creative output increase by an average of 60 percent when walking. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat. The study demonstrated that the benefits of walking applied to the “divergent” element of creative thinking, but not to the more “convergent” or focused thinking characteristic of insight. So when you need to get new ideas, walking really is a great strategy. If you want to learn more, the study has been published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition and can be found here

Beauty as a bonus

When walking or running outside, I like to switch between internal thought processes and the awareness of my environment. When in the forest, you notice minor details and manifestations of untouched visual beauty. I took some photos which you can see below. I hope that they inspire you to put your shoes on and go to the forest. You not only get some fresh air but fresh ideas as well!


 Running in the forest - feeling the fresh air. Korpilahti, Central Finland.

Running in the forest - feeling the fresh air. Korpilahti, Central Finland.

 A scenery with birches.  Korpilahti,   Central Finland.  

A scenery with birches. Korpilahti, Central Finland. 

I finished my run at the lakefront and was confronted with this nice scenery.  Lake PäijänneCentral Finland. 


Habit strategy - commitment tricks

Creating commitment tricks is a strategy that may help you to stick to your nano-actions or any beneficial behavior until they become ingrained. Commitment tricks are about creating negative consequences that kick in hard if you don't follow your habits.  

Let's start with a few extreme examples.  Greek orator Demosthenes would force himself to stay focused on composing his orations by shaving off half of his hair. He would be too embarrassed to leave his home, so the only choice left was to stay at home and concentrate on his orations. Victor Hugo asked his valet to hide his clothes when he started writing. If he did go out, he would have to pay a high social price related to wandering around naked. So he stuck to his writing and wrote “Les Miserables” among other things. 

We get a more realistic example from the inspiring book called "Better than before" written by Gretchen Rubin. She tells about her friend who has decided to stop drinking for two months. The friend put a check into an envelope, wrote an address on it and glued the stamp. He gave the envelope to his assistant and asked him to send it to the organization whose mission he passionately objected. He told his assistant to send to envelope if he lapsed into drinking. Well, he didn't! The tactic worked. 

So how can we utilize commitment tricks in the professional context? They work especially well in the social settings. You can follow five steps:

  1. Select the nano-action or habit you want to commit to. It has to be clear, such as making one phone call to one of your client each day. No ambiguity allowed! You have to be able to state clearly if you have done the activity or not. 
  2. Make a visible scoreboard, where your accountability partner, such as your colleague, can follow your progress. Unless your habit is otherwise visible. 
  3. Create a cost for missing your habit. It can be a sum of money put aside for some amusement like going for dinner with your team. Important: set the date with your team.
  4. Each time you miss the habit, subtract a certain sum like 20 € from the pool of money. If you use your organization's money is just stays at the bank account and won't be used for extra activities with your team. So the true cost of missing your habit is letting down your work mates. You probably don't want to do that!
  5. If your whole team wants to create the same habits or other habits at the same time, the rules can be extended to all members.

The most likely outcome of this commitment trick is that you stick pretty well to your habit and get to do some cool activities with your team! This trick is also likely to create a topic for fun office conversations. 

We are what we repeatedly do

We are what we repeatedly do. A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated frequently and tends to occur subconsciously. In the American Journal of Psychology (1903) habit is defined as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.”  

Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed while performing it.  Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but the reality is more complex. Many of the daily choices are actually habits. Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. This effort-saving instinct is a considerable advantage. We can stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors like walking, lacing shoes or sipping coffee. We can devote our mental energy to more sophisticated actions. Instead of concentrating on running we can play football. Instead of concentrating on holding a pen we can create art, make inventions or study the universe.  

In a sense, habits are the backbone of our daily lives. Each small habit may mean relatively little on its own but over time they sum up to have tremendous impact on our health, social relations, success and happiness. 

“Even though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.” 
- Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit.  

Many times we do not create our habits but the habits create us. We just don’t happen to think our routines. If going unnoticed, our habits can take us to wrong directions. However, habits can be a very valuable tool if we select and nurture them wisely. They can create the structure for a creative, happy and fulfilling life.