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Musing about setting goals and establishing habits

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About a year and a half ago, I started flossing regularly.

I had been told to floss since I was a kid, but had never done it regularly; had probably spent years at a time without doing it. My dental hygienist had been pushing me to do it for, oh, probably a year or two, and I knew the benefits and wanted to take good care of my teeth, but somehow that didn't translate into action.

And then somehow in fall of 2012, I started doing it regularly. I don't know what changed, but it suddenly felt feasible. (I think one thing that changed was that I realized how little time it actually took, but I don't think that was all of it.)

But the aspect of this that's relevant to today's entry is that even a year and a half later, it doesn't come naturally to me. Every night, I have to remind myself to floss. Most nights I give in to that reminder and do it; some nights it feels like too much work, even knowing how little time it takes, and I decide not to.

This is in contrast to brushing my teeth at night, which is such an ingrained habit that I feel weird if I don't do it.

And I'm not sure what leads to automaticity in one case but not the other.

I had always thought that if you just kept doing something consistently every day for long enough, it would become a habit. It turns out that there's a widespread belief that it takes 21 days for that to happen, but that belief has no empirical support. Instead, a 2009 study showed a lot of variation in how long automaticity took, depending on the kind of habit and on the individual, with a plateau in automaticity at an average of around 66 days. It also showed that missing one day doesn't make it harder to establish a habit. (A couple of discussions of that study: How Long to Form a Habit? and How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit.)

This stuff has been on my mind lately because of two things I've started doing this year:

  • Writing fiction every day, starting March 1. As I described in detail in a previous blog post, this has gone fairly well; I haven't done as much writing each day as I'd hoped/intended, but I haven't yet missed a day. But it's still not automatic; I still need to push myself each day to do it.
  • Biking to work regularly. Which I mentioned in passing in a blog post in February, but I've been meaning to write more about it. So here goes.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to set myself a goal of biking or walking to work at least one day in every week in which I go in to the office.

On the one hand, that's a pretty minimal goal. On the other hand, it's more than I had managed to do for more than a couple of weeks at a time at any point in the past couple of years.

And so far this year, I've biked or walked to work at least twice a week every week. (Except for the first week of the year, which was only two workdays long.)

I'm pleased about that. In the first three months of the year, I biked or walked to work at least 26 times. (I think there may've been a couple more that I failed to write down.)

Some reasons that seems to be working so far:

  • There's a program at work that provides rewards for people who bike or walk to work. But that's been in place for years. It definitely helps, but it isn't enough in itself.
  • My doctor told me my cholesterol was getting worse, and also commented negatively about my having gained some weight lately. This made me irritated and grumpy, not inspired; and she told me the cholesterol thing most of a year ago but it didn't get me to really push myself to get more exercise. Still, this is a factor.
  • It seemed like a very small and manageable goal. I didn't tell myself I had to bike to work every day; I just said once a week.

But despite all of that, I think that the biggest factor in getting me to do this was that a pedometer app I was using, called Moves, told me that it took me only nine minutes to bike to work. Which is approximately as much time as it takes me to drive, unless traffic is very light. And when traffic is heavy, it can take twenty minutes to drive. And on days when the parking lot is full, it can take another fifteen minutes of frustration to find parking.

So my usual excuse to myself—I'm running late, I have to take the car—doesn't work.

(What with putting on biking gear and locking my bike afterward, and dealing with traffic, biking is probably more like 15 minutes door to door. But even so, that's not a lot slower than even my fastest driving time.)

Walking is a harder sell; it takes half an hour, maybe forty minutes, to walk. But on the other hand, I can read or chat on the phone while walking. And I'd much rather walk in a light rain than bike in it.

So with all of these advantages, the real question is why I'm not biking or walking more than two days a week. One quarter a few years ago, when I lived at my old slightly-closer-to-work house, I biked to work an average of three days a week; I think there may've been two weeks in a row when I biked to work every day.

And I think that part of why I'm not doing that these days is the lack of automaticity. My default is still to drive. I can sometimes convince myself not to, using an array of arguments and techniques, but some days I need to go grocery shopping or go to a dentist appointment or run errands, and some days it's raining and I don't have time to walk, and some days my legs hurt or I'm at the tail end of a lingering cough, and some days I'm conducting an interview and don't want to show up sweaty and out of breath, and so on. There are lots of excuses not to bike. (Btw, am not looking for advice on ways to get around those excuses. I can come up with such ways on my own. My point here is that it's very easy to fall back on any of innumerable excuses as reasons that I need to drive that day.)

So that's where I am with biking.

While I'm here, one more item in the general area of habits and goals: learning the basics of Spanish.

There's an excellent gamified-language-learning website called Duolingo. Last year, I worked through the lessons there regularly. I enjoyed them, and felt like I was learning a lot. But then I missed some days. And when I went back, I found that the site had started degrading my previous scores over time, so I had to redo a bunch of the earlier lessons in order to get back up to full scores. And then the next time I missed a few days, the same thing happened. And then the next time I missed a few days, the thought of having to redo those early lessons was just exhausting, and so I skipped a few more days, and now it's been a couple of months since I've been back. I still want to go back, I still intend just about every day to do so, but I keep not doing it.

I don't have any really clear conclusions about any of this, but I guess my tentative partial conclusion is that I've now demonstrated to myself that I can set this kind of goal and stick to it, at least for a while, but that it helps a lot to have some tools, such as: setting small/achievable goals; getting rewards for achieving them; not skipping; not getting penalized for skipping; conscious awareness of how little time is required; public announcement of goals and progress toward them (see entry about writing goals for details on that); and so on. And that's great; but so far, none of that seems to be improving automaticity for me. I suspect that having a more regular schedule and linking new small habits to existing ones would help with that, but I'm probably unlikely to get around to trying that anytime soon.

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