To Start a New Habit, Make It Easy

Removing obstacles makes it more likely you’ll achieve a new health goal. The 7-Day Well Challenge will show you how.

Whether your goal for the new year is to lose weight, start exercising or focus on self-care, ask yourself: How can I make this easier?

In the scientific study of habit formation, the thing that makes it harder for you to achieve your goal is called friction. Reducing friction means removing an obstacle or coming up with a strategy that makes a task easier to do. And if you figure out how to make a goal easier, you’re more likely to succeed.

Friction typically comes in three forms — distance, time and effort. For instance, living far from the gym or a favorite walking trail makes it less likely that you’ll go. (One study found that people who lived 5.1 miles from the gym went only once a month, but those who lived within 3.7 miles went five times a month or more.) Time constraints can also get in the way of new healthy habits. If you don’t have much free time, it’s harder to start meditating or working out. And if something requires a lot of effort — like healthful cooking in a disorganized kitchen — you’re less likely to do it.

Sometimes adding friction to your life helps you achieve a goal. In one study, slowing down elevator doors by 26 seconds prompted more people to take the stairs. Removing vending machines from schools makes it harder for teens to snack on junk food or drink sugary soda.

“The friction you set up or remove in the environment is going to have an effect long after you’ve gotten discouraged and are less excited about the new behavior,” said Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.” “That’s why friction is so powerful. It persists.”

Pandemic life has altered many of our routines — so friction that used to be there may have disappeared, and new challenges may have added new friction. For instance, some people no longer commute to work, giving them more time to do other things. While online schooling has made life tough on many parents, families also may have fewer extracurricular obligations, making it easier to have dinner at home. To identify the friction that may be stopping you from achieving your goals, take a moment to think about the time, distance and effort the goal requires.

“Ask yourself, ‘What would make it easier for me to do this?’” said Dr. Wood. “You want to reduce the effort. The thing about friction is we often don’t focus on it when we’re changing our behavior. We focus on ourselves and keeping ourselves motivated and exerting willpower. But you have to recognize that you’re also going to be influenced by the things going on around you.”

For today’s final Well Challenge, try to make a new habit a little easier with these friction-busting ideas.

Day 7

Everybody has different goals for better health. Here are several different ways you can create a new health habit with less effort. Choose one or several to try or come up with your own easy health resolution.

Sleep in your workout clothes. If you’re trying to start a morning exercise routine, make it easy to get dressed for a morning run or workout. Sleep in some or all of your workout clothes. Put your shoes and socks by the bed. It’s one less obstacle to slow you down in the morning.

Put hand weights by your desk. Keep light hand weights nearby and do some reps while you’re on a conference call.

Hang hooks by your door. Whether you’re always losing your keys or forgetting your mask, creating a station of hooks or shelves by the door for masks, keys or any other essentials you need when you leave the house will help you make mask-wearing a habit.

Put extra masks in your coat pockets. I bought a pack of disposable masks and always have a half-dozen stuffed in the pockets of my coats. You never know when you might drop a mask on the ground, decide you want to double mask or offer a mask to someone in need. Over the summer my daughter rode a bike to meet me for an outdoor dinner and her mask blew away. She knew I’d have a replacement handy.

Stand on one leg while brushing your teeth. Standing on one leg while brushing your teeth is a way to practice balance. (Change legs after a minute of brushing.) Or use tooth-brushing time to practice mindfulness. You can find a tooth-brushing meditation here. When you add a new habit (like meditation or a balance exercise) to an old habit (like brushing your teeth) it’s called “stacking.” Stacking your habits makes them easier to remember.

Buy kitchen tongs. You’ll be amazed how much easier it is to cook, toss a salad or serve noodles with the right set of tongs. In general, having the right gadgets for your kitchen is a way to make cooking easier, and easy is good. Read “These Are the Only Kitchen Tools You’ll Need,” from Julia Moskin, or check out Wirecutter’s advice for the best kitchen tools.

Organize your refrigerator. Often the tipping point in a kitchen is the refrigerator. When your fridge is a mess, it’s hard to know what you have available to cook, what food might spoil soon and what you need from the store. Wirecutter has the best fridge organization advice from Marguerite Preston, a former pastry chef, who knows how professional chefs organize a kitchen. “In restaurants, organization is important not only because it helps cooks move quickly and smoothly, but also because wasted food is wasted money,” she writes. “The same is true at home. You may not see the effects of a chaotic fridge in a bad Yelp review or a balance sheet, but they will show in the time it takes to cook dinner and the stress involved.”

Watch the jellyfish. One of the best mindfulness tips I came across this year was from Cord Jefferson, the television writer who thanked his therapist on national television when he won an Emmy. Mr. Jefferson told me he struggled with traditional meditation, but he enjoys watching the feed from a web camera showing the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bookmark the jelly-cam on your phone or laptop browser and get lost in the jellyfish for a short mindfulness break during your workday.

Do the Standing 7-Minute Workout. All you need is a wall and a chair nearby for balance. You don’t even have to change your clothes. Our new workout video is a friction-busting workout for anyone who avoids exercise because it’s hard to get up from the floor after a push-up, plank or situps.

Complete a 1-minute task. One of my favorite health tips for dealing with stress is the one-minute rule. It comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before,” a book about forming new habits. This simple advice helps you decide what to tackle on a long to-do list. Just do the one-minute tasks first. Hang up a coat. Read some emails. Clear and wipe the kitchen counter. Tidy a book shelf. Whenever you take on a one-minute task, you’ll get a sense of accomplishment and quick boost of happiness.

Do a five-finger meditation. This is an easy way to calm yourself, no matter where you are. (I tried it in a dentist chair, and it worked for me!) Start by holding your hand in front of you, fingers spread. Using your index finger on the other hand, start tracing the outline of your hand. Trace up your pinkie, and down. Trace up your ring finger and down. As you do this, breathe in as you trace up, and out as you trace down. Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand. Now reverse the process and trace from your thumb back to your pinkie, making sure to inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down. You can find more tips for beating stress in my story, “Peak Anxiety? Here Are 10 Ways to Calm Down.”

Create a Sunday basket. I learned this tip from Lisa Woodruff, author of “The Paper Solution.” She suggests dumping your bills, receipts and various papers into a basket. (She sells a product for this, but I just use a regular basket.) Once a week, sort your actionable papers (those that need attention) from your archive papers (those that can be filed.) The Sunday basket approach (she claims it will add five extra hours to your week) is part of a larger system proposed by Ms. Woodruff that uses three-ring binders rather than a filing cabinet. (She suggests five binders for financial information, medical needs, household reference, school items and daily operations.) For me, the Sunday basket is enough, but if you feel chronically overwhelmed by paper, you can learn more on the Organize365.com website.

Buy partially prepared food. Buying chopped up food and meal kits costs more, but it does save time. “I always used to avoid buying cut fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, but I found I actually use them sooner, so in the end it kind of pays off,” said Dr. Wood.

Keep a tip jar. Tipping in person (rather than by credit card) is an easy way to add a gratitude practice to a delivery day. Pandemic life has meant a lot more deliveries to my door, but I never had cash, so I usually just added the tip to the card. I decided to create the tip jar and make an effort to tip in cash. What I didn’t anticipate is that I would get so much more enjoyment out of tipping in person. (I always wash my hands first, wear a mask at the door and keep it brief.)

Put a notebook and pen by your bed. Keeping pen and paper by your bedside allows you to do a nightly stress-dump of all the things on your mind that might otherwise keep you up at night. You get a head start on tomorrow by creating a to-do list. And you can end your day with a simple gratitude practice — writing down three things for which you are grateful.

Create a device charging station outside your bedroom. The blue light in your screen has the same effect on your brain as sunlight, which means it wakes you up just when you want to be drifting off. If you’re trying to cut back on screens at bedtime, add some friction by setting up a charging station in your work area, the kitchen — anywhere but your bedroom. “If it’s in the bedroom, it’s easier to use,” said Dr. Wood. “That’s part of the temptation of always staying online. Keep devices out of the bedroom.”

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