Building new habits for a happier, healthier life

Tina Nayak | Growth Consultant and cofounder, Useristics

Alexandra Connerty

The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone out of their everyday routines. Habits that we had previously relied on to provide stability or find meaning in our daily lives were disrupted or completely removed. But what can we do to not only survive the disruption but set ourselves up for happier, healthier lives? Growth consultant Tina Nayak’s experience during lockdown provides some insights.

You can achieve any goal when you have consistency.
Habits aren't just about being a productive person, they’re about being a happy and healthy person.
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or me and many others, 2020 was a year of many lasts and even more firsts. It was a year when, individually and collectively, we were thrown out of our daily routines and forced to create new ones. Things that brought joy, meaning or even stress to our lives, such as exercise classes, our commute or office small talk, disappeared for the majority of people. Almost overnight, we were forced to rethink our schedules and routines.

This period of uncertainty has also provided an opportunity for us to assess our own lives and consider whether we are really happy and fulfilled. Are there things we could be doing differently to not only survive the disruption but set ourselves up for happier, healthier lives? The experience of Tina Nayak, a growth consultant and entrepreneur based in Berlin, provides some insights.

Unconsciously adopting new habits

One of the most obvious changes that COVID-19 brought to many households was the shift to remote working and remote schooling. Tina says, “It was like going on a permanent holiday with a lot of work.”

We may have lost the stress of the commute, the need to get kids out of the door on time and the requirement to have business-casual clothes clean and ironed, but we replaced these daily tasks with new ones. Many people found themselves balancing childcare and supervising online classes with their own workload, as well as negotiating space with partners, roommates or family members also working from home, often in close quarters and all without a clear end in sight.

Many of us have also made many small behavioral changes. We automatically reach for a face mask before leaving the house and our daily routines are likely to involve a lot more handwashing and social distancing than ever before. Our new habits have taken root without us giving them much thought.

Purposely building new habits

We build new habits all the time, often without realizing but also sometimes in an effort to improve our lives or reinvent ourselves. If you search online for “books on habits,” hundreds of results appear, many of which focus on self improvement and productivity. Multibillion-dollar industries have been created around creating and maintaining habits because we want to stick to a diet or an exercise routine or create a more meaningful life.

In The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg outlines a framework called the habit loop. This is based on a neurological loop identified by MIT researchers that involves a cue, routine and reward. A person will experience a cue, which leads them to take part in a routine and then they receive a reward once the routine is complete.

Charles provides the example of him eating a cookie per day while working on his book. Wanting to change this habit, he decided to create a replacement. At 3:30pm every day (cue) he would go to a friend’s office (routine) and have a ten-minute chat with them (reward) instead of eating the cookie.

But what does this mean for us in the COVID era? Consider taking a look at the routines you have fallen into and evaluate whether they are really working for you. Do they align with your long-term goals or is it enough that they help you get through the foreseeable future? In either situation, are they leaving you feeling positive at the end of the day or adding to your stress?

Perhaps in the first lockdown, you tried to build a new routine with daily yoga, firm working hours or exercise goals but found yourself giving up after a couple of days. Consciously setting up cues, routines and rewards can help you move from a mindset of guiltily thinking you should change things to actually making new routines that stick. “You are nothing but the choices you make each day, and your habits are your choices,” Tina says.

You can achieve any goal when you have consistency.

Tracking habits and compound growth

After a few weeks of lockdown, Tina started looking for new ways to define progress and add structure to her days. “It was up to me to decide how I'm going to change and take control of the day before it takes control of me,” she says.

She picked up James Clear’s Atomic Habits, which focuses on how individuals can create micro habits stacked on top of each other to change behavior. The book explains that “repeating a habit leads to clear physical changes in the brain. Neuroscientists call this ‘long-term potentiation,’ which refers to the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity. With each repetition cell-to-cell signalling improves and the neural connections tighten.”

James Clear explains that we need feedback to stick to a habit, and that if it takes a while to see a result, we can benefit from engineering feedback. He writes, “It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.” For this reason, he suggests keeping a habit tracker.

In Atomic Habits, James also presents a 1% Better Every Day graph. The idea is that by aiming to be just 1% better at a task or habit than the day before each day, the compound growth adds up to a significant improvement over a period of time. Compounding growth is a term borrowed from finance, and that’s commonly used in relation to interest. Compound interest is interest on top of previously accrued interest, meaning that the amount added each month or year becomes higher as time progresses. Just like compound interest leads to the overall growth of money, habits can accrue and be built upon. After a year, a person making a 1% improvement each day could be 37 times better at the skill they set out to learn than when they started.

“I asked myself what the graph would look like if I were to really put data in it,” Tina says. She had some goals and things she wanted to spend more time doing: waking up early, meditation, yoga and learning German. She’d tried meditation and subscription health apps in the past but wasn’t using them. Inspired by Atomic Habits, she built a habit tracker and compounding growth graph for each of the habits she wanted to stick to. They provided a clear picture of how much progress she was accomplishing over just a few days, and this motivated her to keep practising the habits. “I couldn't wait to put more data into the system,” she says.

Creating habits for our worst days

Tina created a habit capsule for each routine she wanted to adopt. “It’s a tiny capsule of time that you define based on what works for you,” she says. She settled on the capsule for each habit by deciding the minimum unit of time she could commit to that particular activity on her busiest days. For example, an hour-long yoga class can feel like a burden, especially on busy days, so she made a shorter habit capsule for yoga. “I wanted to make it something that is hard for me to refuse and say I can’t find time for,” she says. Some habit capsules, such as meditation, were as small as five minutes.

When adding the habit capsule data to the graph, each capsule was worth one point. This made it easy to compare progress graphs across habits, even if they had different habit capsules. For habits that weren’t measured in time, like waking up early, one point was awarded for achieving it each day.

The graph shows how much time per day Tina spent doing her habit plotted against how many days she had been doing it for. The graph started at zero on the first day, and when habit capsules were added daily, they were compounded on top of the previous day’s accomplishments.

Even if Tina missed a day or two of her new habits, the compounding growth curve continued to go up over weeks and months. “The system doesn’t penalize you for not doing a habit, so no effort is lost,” she says. This helped her focus on long-term progress over any short-term pauses or losses.

Tina created this repeatable system to work on her worst days, rather than her best. This helped her achieve something every day, and on her best days, she would be able to achieve a lot. She adds that it’s extremely important to have quantity over quality.

When planning your own routine, rather than aim high and give up after a few days, set yourself realistic goals that you’re likely to achieve even on days when you don’t really feel like it.

Habits aren't just about being a productive person, they’re about being a happy and healthy person.
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Accountability makes habits stick

Tina discovered another way to stick to her habits. She found that particularly with the ones that were difficult, such as getting up in the morning, it helped to know that someone was waiting for her. “You’re using external stimuli or rules to push you without being hard on yourself,” she says.

In April 2020, Tina and I both decided to start taking intensive German courses. Luckily, we were at the same level so we registered for intensive online classes together. We knew the other person would show up, because we, as well as the rest of the class, were waiting for them. We went from barely understanding anything to having basic conversations in German in two months.

We were also both feeling the effects of sitting at home a lot so decided to do a YouTube Zumba class together via Zoom. It was much more fun than doing it alone so we decided to set a daily recurring call to work out.

For the next two months, we’d meet every morning and do yoga together. Sometimes it was only for ten minutes, other times it was for 30 minutes and we’d do a short meditation at the end. Knowing that Tina was expecting me meant that I would show up, and she would make the same effort knowing I was waiting for her. We were in better shape and noticeably happier.

In all of these examples, we’d built in accountability. Although I hadn't consciously adopted an accountability mindset at that point, we were both showing up to avoid letting the other person down.

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How to create habits for a happier, healthier life

Over time, Tina learned how to live a life that would make her happier and healthier. She identified activities, and created daily measurable goals that would put her on the path towards making them part of her daily routine. The habit tracker and buddies provided accountability and motivated her not to give up on days when she missed a habit, or felt like giving up.

Tina describes the components as building blocks for her new habit system. “Now I have a formula for how I can build consistency,” she says. “You can achieve any goal when you have consistency.”

Habits for mental health

A July 2020 article about regularizing daily routine during the COVID-19 pandemic published in the Journal of Global Health states that regularized routines can buffer the adverse impact of stress exposure on mental health. It differentiates between primary routines, such as personal hygiene and sleep, and secondary routines, which include social interactions and exercise. Creating your own system for tracking habits can help you maintain both primary and secondary routines.

When there are monumental changes, habits can be a beacon of stability. In addition to all the COVID-19-related stresses and changes, Tina was dealing with the loss of her parents. She explains that ten days after her dad passed away, she was already looking forward to getting back to the habits she’d built because she missed them. “It's helped me deal with grief in a more productive way, because I have so much to look forward to every single day,” she says. “Habits aren't just about being a productive person, they’re about being a happy and healthy person.”

Almost a year since starting, Tina no longer tracks some of the habits she started with, such as meditation and journaling. These activities have become essential parts of her daily routine. She says that her family and friends have told her how happy she seems, and that some have even joined her in tracking their daily habits. She’s learned lessons in being kind to herself and that no effort is ever lost, and says that she hopes that her experience can help people create consistent habits and build routines to lead happier and healthier lives.

personal development