Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Simple Trick For Building Better Habits

(I'm going to ignore the fact that I went two months without writing a blog post. I blame a combination of work, novel-writing, and the coldest Wilmington winter ever. In other words: life.) 

There's nothing I love more than a good habit. This proclivity isn't because I'm smack in the middle of my 30s, either. Even in my wild youth, I always made my bed first thing every the morning. Always buckled my seat belt as soon as I got in the car. Always washed my bowl when I was done eating.

Of course, I have bad habits, too; nobody is perfect. One habit that I've touched on a bit was drinking a glass of wine (or three...) at the end of the day. In my "Best Budget Wins of 2017" post, I mentioned that I'd cut down on my drinking, which was better for my wallet and my health. This habit was especially hard to break, because relaxing on the couch with a delicious beverage had become routine. Not only that, I enjoyed it! What I did not enjoy, however, were the slow mornings, the extra calories, and the fact that alcohol was such an integral part of my day. (Coffee, on the other hand, is a totally acceptable crutch.)

So, I decided to cut back and it was not nearly as hard as I feared! Here's how I did it, in three simple steps.

1. Set a measurable goal. 

"Drink less" is a great idea, but it's not specific enough to work as a goal. After all, less is relative. It would be easy to rationalize that two drinks on a Tuesday night is less than three, or one bottle of wine on a Saturday is less than two. Yes, I'd be drinking less, but the benefits at that point are negligible. Plus, I know myself. I am very disciplined - until I start drinking. One sip and all bets are off. So for me, the best route was to skip drinking entirely. I started with two evenings a week, and I could choose any evenings I wanted. At the beginning of the week, I'd look at my calendar, see what was going on, and identify ahead of time which days were best for not drinking. Book club was out, obviously. But a night when I had a run scheduled after work was perfect.

2. Find a healthier replacement. 

One thing I discovered was that it wasn't so much the glass of wine I loved, but the ritual of a special drink at the end of the day. Settling onto my couch between my dog and my husband, especially during the cold winter months, while sipping something delicious and shouting out the answers to Jeopardy! is, for me, the height of relaxation. So I knew it was important to find a replacement beverage that would scratch that same itch. I'm not a fan of La Croix or seltzer, so I asked for an electric kettle for Christmas and bought myself a bunch of herbal teas. And wouldn't you know it - holding a hot cup of tea is way cozier than a bottle of cold beer.

3. Keep track of your progress. 

This is my favorite part. I love tracking things - I have more spreadsheets than I care to admit, tracking all sorts of mundane-to-anyone-but-me facts and figures. After trying out a few different apps, I downloaded HabitShare (available via Google Play and iTunes) and it's awesome. You create a habit, set a goal for how often you want to accomplish said habit, and then start tracking. Keeping track is simple - a green dot means you did it, red means you missed, and gray is a skip. Here are two screenshots of my booze-free progress for February and March:

My twice-a-week goal ended up feeling so good that I upped it to three times a week at the beginning of 2018. Most weeks, however, I actually hit four. As a bonus, I've also found that when I do drink, I imbibe less overall. For example, I drank four days in a row this past week, but I only had one beverage each time. So a total of four drinks for a whole week - not bad, especially compared to what I was mindlessly drinking out of habit just a few months ago.

I like HabitShare so much that I now have a bunch of things I'm tracking - a daily writing goal, a goal for workouts, a reading goal, etc. When I lie in bed at the end of the day, it feels great to go through my habits and check off the ones I accomplished. Some days are better than others, which is why I like looking at the month as a whole - it keeps things in perspective and helps me see how my habits are building over time and affecting one another. The less I drink, for example, the more I run and write and read. A fair trade, I'd say.

Do you have any tricks for tracking habits or creating good routines? I'd love to hear them!