You can assume that if you notice that a habit is harmful to your health, you would give it up. Likewise, you can assume that if you have already been in a state of burnout, you would be particularly careful about it in the future. However, changing habits is not so easy.
I'll tell you a story about habits.
There was once a coach who found her calling after experiencing deep depression and burnout. As she found helpful tools to recover from her depression and burnout, she decided to help her clients in stress management and personal development. Her toolkit grew, as did her customer base. The work was interesting and versatile, and there were enough challenges to keep her engaged.
But, suddenly, the coach found herself exhausted. She didn't have any energy to go to work, provide customer service, facilitate training, or do some coaching. She didn't have the energy to get out of bed. Even thinking was painful. So, she laid there for many days before she started thinking about where it all came from.
When she had her first journey surviving from deep stress, she focused on various techniques, methods, and tools. And as she studied coaching and facilitating, there were a lot of them. Then her life started to become more tolerable, and she forgot to use all these tools and techniques. And along with it, the old ways of working sneaked back into her everyday life. Along with these old habits, the almost unnoticeable spiral to deep stress began again.
This is my story about my second time with burnout, which I had soon after the first one.
That is human nature. Actually, this is not so much about human nature but about the normal functioning of our brain.
If we start a completely new habit (whether it is morning running or evening yoga or something similar), then the neuron pathway pattern in our brain has not yet been built. Every single yoga session (or running) that you do strengthens the connection between the nerves. And the more you do the same action, the stronger the connection will become until it becomes so strong that our activity becomes almost automatic. Changing such habits is extremely difficult because such automatic action returns into our daily lives.
What is needed to create new habits?
According to a study made by researchers of University College London, there are 3 phases in habit formation:
- Initiation phase, where you select both the activity (eat an apple) and context (during breakfast).
- Learning phase, where you repeat your activity in the same context (eating your apple every breakfast).
- Stability phase, where this activity has become automatic so you don't have to concentrate on consciously doing it anymore.
The researches of University College London have stressed, that there are 4 important prerequisites to create a new habit:
The extent of your motivation is directly connected to the success of creating new habits. When you are not so much interested in creating a new habit, it won't stick nor become automatic. This motivation should be internal and not come from somebody else (like a family member or even a doctor).
2. Easy habit creation
The chances to create a new habit are bigger if the activity is simple. When the complexity of this activity increases, the chances the activity will be automatic decreases.
Quite often, simplicity can be achieved by making only small changes. To change your whole eating habits, you start with eating an apple during your breakfast. And once this has become a habit, you can add new types of healthy food. It's beneficial to know that simpler actions become habitual more quickly.
3. Making use of existing routines
When you include your new habit to an existing one, you'll be probably more successful with creating it. Eating an apple during your breakfast works better than eating an apple in between your mealtimes, especially if you have no previous habit eating between your mealtimes.
Filling in a simple habit tracker usually helps to monitor the formation of a new habit. If the habit tracker includes also the evaluation on how easy it is to perform (i.e. how automatic it feels), the progress can also increase your motivation.
When changing your habits, you should take into account that creating a new habit is SO MUCH easier than breaking the existing one because it is not possible to form a habit for not doing something.
Of course, there are also some cases where the change in habits can be done almost immediately. That way, you can give up your favourite snack instantly if there is a risk it would kill you (eg, it can cause anaphylactic shock). Very often, the change in lifestyle after serious illnesses and accidents is permanent.
When people are speaking about changing habits, it is often said that 21 days is enough to create a new habit or to remove an old one. That 21 day-rule comes from Maxwell Maltz's book "Psycho-Cybernetics." In this book, plastic surgeon Maltz told about his experiences in which his clients got used to their new appearance within 21 days.
So... are those 21 days really enough to crelate a new habit?
Phillippa Lally (University College London) and his team conducted a study on how many days are needed before a certain activity become second nature. As the results turned out, habits needed to be performed for an average of 66 days before it actually becomes a habit. (Habits were formed between 18 and 254 days).
What can you do to create or change your habit?
- Give yourself time to create a new habit. Sometimes it can happen faster. Sometimes it takes more time. Don't hurry, and do not judge yourself. As the research showed, it can take up to 8-9 months.
- Start with small changes as it is easier to include them into your routine, and they become automatic more quickly.
- Raise your motivation by monitoring your habit change and how automatic these new activities have become. Remember that even small victories increase your motivation!
- Reward yourself for all the small wins you have achieved in changing your habit.
Be aware that as your life situation changes and you experience an increase in stress, you may forget to perform your newly formed habit!
So, what was the mistake I had made in the story? I just didn't focus on those new healthy habits long enough. And when I thought “yeesssss, now everything is okay,” I experienced more stress and those old (bad) habits returned, directing me even faster to the downfall of stress and burnout.