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5 Ways to Preserve Good Habits During a Transition

04/22/2015 06:33 EDT | Updated 06/22/2015 05:59 EDT
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Whenever I talk to someone who is making a big career change such as going back to work after staying home with kids, or leaving the corporate world to become an entrepreneur, one of the key stressors -- equal to mastering a new skill set or learning to embrace a new identity -- is the loss of routine. Perhaps you had a habit of working out every morning after you dropped the kids off at school, but now you are rushing off to the office instead. Perhaps you had a habit of doing your errands during your lunch break at work, but now that you are an entrepreneur you have no time for lunch. Habit disruption adds to the stress of an already stressful time.

I was keen to see what Gretchen Rubin had to say about this in her new book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. I've been a fan of Gretchen Rubin's books since I read The Happiness Project and had the chance to interview her about injecting more happiness into everyday life. When I heard she was speaking at my alma mater about her new book, I wanted to ask her how to preserve good habits in the midst of a changing routine.

Rubin is a big fan of habits, believing that they are "the invisible architecture of everyday life." According to Rubin, habits free us from having to make decisions on a daily basis about routine things such as when to wake up, when to go to bed, what to eat, when to exercise, and how to structure the day. By pre-deciding how you are going to deal with everyday events, you can reserve the energy that typically goes into decision-making for more important things. Any major change in circumstance offers the one-two punch of interrupting our habits at a time when falling back on our habits would benefit us most.

I asked Rubin how to deal with our habits during a period of change. Should we try to maintain good habits or change all of our habits to suit our new life? Should we phase in new habits over time or change everything at once? She offered some great advice:

1. Harness the Power of the Clean Slate. As Rubin writes in her book, "Any beginning is a time of special power for habit creation, and at certain times we experience a clean slate, in which circumstances change in a way that makes a fresh start possible." Large-scale change is the adult equivalent of the do-over and it's an ideal time to put new routines in place.

2. Start Right Away. Rubin recommends not allowing a grace period before establishing new habits. If you are starting a new job and plan on getting up at 6am to exercise before going to work, don't give yourself a couple of weeks off to acclimatize to the new job. Adopt your new exercise schedule on your first day of work. "Start the way you want to continue," she advises, so that you harness the power of the clean slate and don't allow bad habits to take hold.

3. Be Mindful of First Steps. Rubin recommends paying attention to the first steps you take in times of change. First actions tend to set a powerful precedent and "to deviate from them will feel like a deprivation or an imposition," she writes. If you treat yourself to the snacks in the employee lounge at the new start-up you've just joined, you might be creating a bad habit that will last throughout your employment. When I first started the publicity efforts for my business book, I'd treat myself to a latte and a piece of chocolate after I'd completed an interview. On some days, I'd have three or four lattes and a chocolate bar because skipping my post-interview "treat" felt like deprivation. Six months post-book launch, my skinny jeans were begging for mercy.

4. Use a Setback as an Opportunity. As Rubin writes, "even an unhappy change can be a chance for a fresh start." Many people who get divorced start to go to the gym and take the opportunity to invest more deeply in their friendships. Some people use a work layoff to go back to school and then continue to study part-time when they find a new job. Bad habits like overeating, drinking, or shopping often sneak in during times of stress. It's better to use your energy to put good habits in place instead.

5. Consider Your Personality. When it comes to establishing new habits, some people like to start small and build up a habit; others like to start big out of the gate. There is no best way for everyone to form new habits, but there is likely a best way for you. Rubin advises studying the habits you've successfully adopted in the past and see what worked best.

I decided to try out many of the suggestions in the book to help me through my own time of transition. I have just wrapped up a book launch and am taking some time off to plan my next writing project. I'm also going to be getting married and moving into a new house at some point.

My inclination, during this period of flux, would be to invest in some Costco-sized cheese and crackers and work through them while sitting on my porch. Instead, I'm taking this time to cut calories and hit the gym hard. My new habit is to go to the gym Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and alternating Saturdays. Since I like to have an element of choice, once there I can go to the smoothie bar, sit on an exercise bike, or work out hard doing a high intensity class. Since I'm already there with my water bottle full and sneakers on, I tend to do the class.

Change is never easy, but by establishing new habits as quickly as possible, it frees up your mental energy to focus on the real challenges ahead. The trick is to get yourself in a sustainable routine as quickly as possible so that you have some stability in a time of uncertainty. Rubin's book, Better Than Before, offers tips to help put habits into place quickly and effectively.

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