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Habits help structure our lives (and they don’t have to be productive)

Make nice habits – not just “better” ones.

Cory Zanoni
Cory Zanoni
3 min read
7 nuns posing for a photo. Nuns wear habits, you see – that's the link to this article.

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I don’t hate doors. But, when I’m sinking into a depression, I start gently punching them as I open them. (Bathroom doors, mostly. It’s weirdly specific.)

Because my slides into the woe can be subtle, I often notice the knuckle rapping before I notice my mood. The habit is an indicator I need to start paying attention.

You are what you do. And caring about your habits is about more than just “optimising your productivity”. They’re the material of our lives.

A brief-ish definition of habits

In his book Hard to break, neuroscientist Russel Poldrack argues that habits have three main components:

  1. Habits are actions or thoughts that happen automatically when triggered by a certain situation or stimulus.
  2. Habits aren’t tied to a particular goal. Instead, they happen because of their trigger (meaning they can continue long after whatever led to their creation is no longer relevant).
  3. Habits are sticky.

(Personally, I’m not sold on the “not tied to a goal” thing but I’m not the neuroscientist. The triggers are vital, of course, but I’m of the opinion that everything you do has a goal of some sort. But we’ll get into that in a future article.)

Poldrack goes on to say that three things influence our decision making:

  1. Our long-term goals and all the thing we want in the future.
  2. Our immediate desires (and everything that looks real good right now).
  3. Our habits – all the things we do without thinking.

They’re not necessarily distinct, of course. A behaviour that starts as a conscious effort to achieve a long-term goal can become a habit. And, of course, all three can be in conflict. Gotta keep things spicy.

Because of these elements, Poldrack suggests that habits form the bedrock of our actions and decision making. This goes well beyond the big, obvious habits of our lives. Small actions – like smoking or brushing our teeth – matter too.

Habits and mood – power through repetition

All of this coalesces into an argument Brianna Wiest makes in 101 essays that will change the way you think: habits create mood.

Wiest suggests that thoughts (or actions) gain their power through repetition.

Thinking something cruel about yourself once might not totally derail your day but, if the thought pops up again and again, you could find yourself stuck on the couch, staring into the void before you know it.

This extends beyond your own thoughts and actions too: a stray comment from someone important to you in and of itself mightn’t mean much but, if they make a habit of saying it (or similar things), their words can take on more weight.

If we catch these patterns, we can gain insight into ourselves. Like my depression-induced door tapping, the behaviour tells us something important.

More than that, we can use habits and repetition to our advantage. If an action or thought gains strength the more it happens, we can use constructive habits and routines to help set the stage for positive moods.

Don’t build better habits – make nice ones

That feels obvious until you stop and ask yourself how often you’ve thought about building habits for things you actually enjoy.

So much of the chatter about habits is dominated by building “better habits” or stopping bad ones. It’s about convincing yourself to do things you feel like you should do.

There’s value to that, of course. Sometimes you just straight up need to retool your life, schedule, routines and habits to get yourself onto a healthier track.

But that’s not all habits can be. Sometimes they can just be about nice things.

That’s what I set about doing earlier this year.

I’d fallen into a nice – but slightly stultifying – habit of just poking around home every weekend. Watch some basketball, play some video games, do a light bit of gardening. Like I said, it was nice. But it wasn’t fulfilling.

I decided to make “prioritise my relationships and community” my goal for 2023. So I worked on some new habits:

  • Plan one catch up with friends each fortnight.
  • Plan one trip to a gallery or gig each month.
  • Go to the movies with my partner each fortnight.

Nothing mind blowing, sure, but for a homebody like me, it was revelation.

The mechanics are simple. I added a prompt to my diary on Mondays to plan things out for the following weekend. The results have been fantastic: I’ve been to more gigs in the last few months than I have in years (and spent some amazing nights with my partner watching some great local musicians) and I’ve caught up with friends way more consistently.

In short, I’ve spent more time with the people I adore – doing things I genuinely I love (but that take, you know, effort). And it’s been simple.

The planning and scheduling has become a habit. One that makes my life immeasurably richer.

Cory Zanoni Twitter

Writer, teacher, tired.