How to form a daily reflection habit (that sticks)
April 26, 2020

We all know that small daily investments in our health lead to major benefits over time — so how can we make them a habit?

It's unlikely that sitting down for a 5-minute meditation today will  yield life-changing results for you.

But if you sustain your practice over time, you can experience major shifts in your life.

You will feel more calm and clear, and your brain will change.

A lot of us struggle, though, to make self-reflective practices (such as meditation or using Open Dialogue) a daily habit.

We start and then stop.

Start …

… and then stop again.

But habit formation doesn't have to be such a struggle. Read on to learn how.

A simple framework for forming habits

I learned this from James Clear, a habit expert. It explains the building blocks of habits, and how they connect with one another.

“The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.” — James Clear

The Cue:

A cue triggers your brain to start a behaviour in anticipation of a reward. We are continuously scanning and analyzing our environment looking for signs of potential rewards.

The Craving:

Cravings are the motivational force behind our habits. Without craving some sort of change, we have no reason to act.

It’s important to note here that what you crave is not the habit or action itself, but the change in state it delivers.

For example, you don’t crave brushing your teeth. You crave the cleanliness of your mouth. The refreshing sensations. White teeth. No cavities.

When it comes to self-reflection, you don’t crave sitting on a cushion meditating or talking with an A.I. in Open Dialogue. You crave clarity and peace of mind.

The Response:

The response is the actual habit you perform.

The response is directly influenced by how motivated you are to act in this way. It's also influenced by how much friction is associated with the action, as well as your own ability to complete it.

The Reward:

The response aims to deliver some sort of reward, which is the end goal of every habit. The purpose of the reward is to satisfy your craving. Once complete, this lets you know which actions are worth repeating in the future.

We all analyze which behaviours yield which rewards, and adjust how we act as a result of what we think will deliver the best results.

If a behaviour lacks any of these steps, it won’t become a habit.

For example:

  • If you are no longer aware of a cue, there’s no reminder to act in the first place
  • If you reduce the craving, you won’t be motivated enough to act
  • If the response is too challenging, you won’t be able to complete it
  • If the reward doesn’t satisfy your original craving, you won’t be incentivized to do it again in the future.

A lot of this seems obvious, right?

So how do we apply this, practically, if we want to introduce a new healthy habit into our lives?

Cultivate a habit around self reflection

To bring this framework to life, let’s imagine that you want to form a habit of reflecting each morning with Open Dialogue.

Your underlying purpose with this goal is to cultivate more peace of mind and be better equipped to handle the stressors in your life. Note that you could use this approach to develop other reflective habits such as meditation or journalling, too.

James Clear has four laws for changing behaviour, each one linked to a stage of the habit loop.

The 1st Law (Cue): “Make it obvious”

There are a lot of ways to make the cue for reflection more obvious. Setting a daily reminder in your phone for a specific time or pasting a sticky note on your bathroom mirror are both simple but effective tactics.

More potently, Clear introduces “Habit Stacking”, which involves pairing a new habit with a current habit.

For example, you could decide to sit down with Open Dialogue every morning after you brush your teeth.

The habit of brushing your teeth is already well-established for you (I hope). As soon as you finish, that could be your cue to begin your daily reflection with Open Dialogue.

There’s nothing stopping you from using Habit Stacking in addition to phone reminders and sticky notes to help to ensure the cue doesn’t go unnoticed.

The 2nd Law (Craving): “Make it attractive”

“While it’s not possible to transform every habit into a supernormal stimulus, you can make any habit more enticing,” Clear says.

One way that we can do this is through what he describes as Temptation Bundling. It works by linking your new habit with one that you’re already highly motivated to do.

You could bundle your reflection practice with checking social media in the morning, agreeing that before you can go on your phone, you must first complete your reflection.

If we combine this with the Habit Stacking strategy from earlier, your new habit might look like this:

“After I brush my teeth [current habit], I will reflect with Open Dialogue [new habit], and then I can check social media [highly motivated habit].”

The 3rd Law (Response): “Make it easy”

One of the biggest mistakes we make when trying to form new habits is making the response (i.e. the habit action / behaviour) too difficult.

This is why Clear recommends starting with a habit that you can do in two minutes or less.

Make it easy.

In this way, the focus is more on frequency and consistency, rather than the amount of time (i.e. duration) spent performing the behaviour.

Clear says, ‘One of the most common questions I hear is, “How long does it take to build a new habit?” But what people really should be asking is, “How many does it take to form a new habit?”’

With your reflective practice, make it that simple:

“I will reflect with Open Dialogue for 2 minutes each morning.”

If you’re motivated to reflect for longer, fantastic, but all that you need to do to complete the task and start to reinforce the habit is to spend 2 minutes doing it.

The 4th Law (Reward): “Make it satisfying”

The challenge with a lot of healthy habits is that there is a mismatch between immediate and delayed rewards.

For example, if you do a good job at work today, you’ll get paid at the end of the month. If you set aside some money for savings now, you’ll be more likely to have enough to retire decades from now.

Our brains evolved during a different time, when a much more significant percentage of our rewards (and threats) were immediate (e.g., securing food, protecting ourselves and our families).

Back then, it made sense to value immediate rewards much more highly.

So Clear reminds us, “What is immediately rewarded is repeated.” This is why a lot of us pursue instant gratification so intensely — most people spend all day chasing short-lived satisfactions via social media, for example.

When trying to lock in a healthy habit like self-reflection, it is important to recognize that it is a life-long practice.

Although you stand to benefit immensely from greater self-knowledge, it’s unwise to expect dramatic breakthroughs in your understanding every day you sit down to reflect.

To help provide some sort of immediate reward, a simple habit tracker can often provide the jolt of satisfaction you need to keep going. Using a calendar, or even a digital note pad, to mark off the days you complete your habit, works well.

More importantly, capturing any insights you uncover while reflecting, and considering thoughtfully how they might impact your day-to-day life can be immensely rewarding.

However big or small they might be, documenting what you learn can provide the satisfaction you need to keep exploring and uncovering more!

“Perfection is not possible”

We all fall off the boat from time to time, and miss a day when we’re trying to form a new habit. This is totally normal, and Clear’s rule is simply: never miss twice.

“Perfection is not possible,” he says. It’s not the first mistake that causes the new habit to disappear, it’s the downward spiral of repeated mistakes that ensues when we give up on our intention.

“Breaking a habit doesn’t matter if the reclaiming of it is fast.”

Get started now

If you’d like to start a new habit and use Open Dialogue, sign up here.

If you have questions or comments, as well, I’d love to hear from you!

Good luck and stay curious!

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