On Habits & Routines | Part 1

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Wednesday 29th November 2017

I am currently on a roll with sixteen consecutive days of violin practice. A practice session counts if it’s at least fifteen minutes long, though I’ve been aiming for closer to 45 minutes to 1 hour at a time. Last night as I was cycling to the gym I started thinking about habits, routines, and how we make ourselves do the things that we want or need to do in life.

Before going to the gym yesterday evening, I’d almost stayed at home instead. It was 3C outside, dark, and I wasn’t sure that I’d charged my bike lights. On top of that, Ed was training locally rather than at the stadium, and so I knew that he’d be back an hour earlier than usual. All of my temptations and excuses were lined up in a neat row, but I went through the motions of getting ready to go to the gym all the same. Over the years I’ve found that getting started is the hard part.

I started running when I was 18 and in the summer semester of my first year at university. There was a lake on campus right outside my halls, and I started off by alternating walking and running the 500m around the lake every night after I’d finished studying. I was only running for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, but it became my routine and by the end of the summer term I’d switched the lake for the canal towpath and could comfortably run about 3 or 4 miles at a time. Over the years, exercise has been a regular part of my life. I’m not fast and I have no interest in racing or running with others, but I enjoy getting out three to five times a week and doing my own thing. It’s a well established habit, and I often find myself unpicking it to work out how to develop new habits and routines in other areas of my life. After some thought, here are the behaviours that I think have helped me establish the habits that I have as well as to branch out and learn new things.

Practice daily

I started running by running every day until it became second nature. I taught myself photography by picking up a camera each and every day as part of a ‘Photo a Day’ project which started back in 2011 on a point-and-shoot camera, and over the years led to me teaching myself video, too. I still take a photo every single day, even in winter when nothing inspires me. I’m getting back to playing the violin using the same method. Daily practice is key.

Set realistic goals and aim for just fifteen minutes a day

The second part of daily practice is that whatever my goal is, it needs to be realistic and easy to achieve. If I’d told myself back in 2004 that I would start running by running 6 miles every single day, Murakami style, I wouldn’t still be running. Instead, my rule was and still is to exercise for fifteen minutes, and anything goes in those fifteen minutes. Some days I would walk more than run, but others I would keep going for 90 minutes. It’s still the same today. Some days I go to the gym, do 20 minutes on the bike and some weights and then come home. Other days, I’ll do intervals until I’m a sweaty mess and I can’t walk straight. Those are my favourite runs, but they don’t happen everyday and if I forced myself to run like that every day, I would either end up injured or fed up.

With photography, there are some days that I just take a picture of my cat. In fact, during the winter months my photos are almost exclusively of my cat. During the summer though, I get more adventurous. When I was teaching myself photography I went through so many different phases. There was the night photography phase, the trick photography double exposure phase. Then there was the crunchy, oversaturated, oversharpened phase (shudder), the crush-the-blacks phase, and the shallow depth of field phase. I would become obsessed with whatever phase I was going through and take hundreds of pictures to refine the technique, some days playing with my camera for a couple of hours at a time. Other days I would snap a picture of a cake I made, or something else that was happening in my life and call that my daily photo.

With violin, I am in the early days of re-establishing a practice habit, but I am applying the same rules. I pick up my violin every day at roughly the same time, and practice some scales, some studies and some repertoire. Two days ago I just practiced G major over and over. I wasn’t really feeling it, but it was important that I didn’t miss a day. Last night, I found the music for Monti’s ‘Czardas’ and did some very slow sight-reading to shake things up a bit. I’m trying to make sure that I practice daily, but that I am flexible with it so that I don’t get bored and give up all over again.

Keep your tools in easy reach

Two or three days a week Ed goes running in the morning before work. Those are his double days where he runs twice; he goes once at 5am to fit in approximately 10km of ‘easy’ running and then does a session in the evening with friends. Getting out of bed to go running when you got back from your last run less than twelve hours beforehand is not an easy task, especially in the winter. As such, on Monday and Wednesday evenings he sets out his running clothes and shoes by the front door. If he had to get up, turn off the alarm and then rummage through his drawers to find his clothes he’d probably wind up back in bed instead.

I employ a similar approach. I don’t run in the mornings, but to make sure that I go to the gym or pool each day I need to make sure that my running clothes and swimming things aren’t at the bottom of the laundry pile. I handwash items that are quick to dry and leave them to dry over the bath so that they’re always ready, and I leave my mp3 player, earphones, bike lights, water bottle, gym locker band and keys in the same place so that I don’t have to hunt around for them when I need them. It really helps.

When I first started photography I took my camera with me everywhere I went. These days I have relaxed the rule a little bit because I know what I enjoy taking pictures of and on the same note, what I don’t enjoy taking pictures of. Whereas once I would take photos of everything, I don’t anymore as I am no longer in that beginner phase. I like portraits and still life photography but I don’t have as much interest in landscape, macro, or wide-angle photography. I turned an ordinary shoulder bag into a camera bag by making a foam insert for it that I could rest my camera in. If I want to take my camera with me, it’s really easy to move the insert to my rucksack or shoulder bag and go.

With violin, I leave my violin out. I don’t have a stand for it so I do keep it in its case, but I make sure that the case is in easy reach. I also leave my music stand up with the music on it, rather than putting it away each and every time I finish. This means that I can always see it, and starting a practice session doesn’t involve too much effort.

My final thoughts

I am by no means perfect. The final secret ingredient of success in establishing a habit is that you have to want to do whatever it is that you’re setting out to do. I am stubborn and my personality type means that I am prone to being obsessive about the things I like and dismissive of everything else. When I am interested in something, I am fascinated by it. When I’m not interested in something, I couldn’t care less. Being this way is a double edged sword as whether I succeed at something or not depends entirely on how much enthusiasm I feel for it.

On my list of things to drum up enthusiasm and a regular practice habit for are learning Polish and driving. I speak a bit of Polish but it’s very basic and I want to improve. Language learning is a whole new frontier for me though. I never got on with traditional language classes and need to find a system that works for me before throwing myself into it. As for driving, I can drive and have my licence but I’m not particularly confident on my own. I need to drive regularly to develop my confidence, but I am averse to doing that for environmental reasons. It’s hard to justify driving for the sake of driving, especially when I am perfectly happy to walk, cycle or take the train.

Behavioural Design