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How To Start a New Healthy Pattern in 3 Steps Using the ‘Habit Reflection’ Strategy

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisJuly 6, 2020

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During your time in quarantine, perhaps you’ve challenged yourself to undo some habits you don’t love. I, for one, would love to unlearn my reflex to stress-bite my nails. My main obstacle in making good on this is remembering my intention before, not mid-nail bite. And if you, like me, are having trouble bidding certain instincts ado, one productivity strategy in particular may help you out: habit reflection.

Essentially, habit reflection involves thinking back on and acknowledging your past successful habits in order to make a roadmap of sorts that can help guide new ones. And after two years of research on 500 people who wanted to form basic healthy daily habits (like exercise routinely and drink more water), researchers Doug Moore and Spencer Greenberg found habit reflection to be the most effective method for making the intentions of the study participants stick—and according to a mental-health pro, that’s for good reason.

“We know that past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior,” says says licensed psychologist Selena Snow, PhD. “When trying to establish a new habit, key elements are repetition and consistency, so we can look back to see what strategies we used to maintain consistency with other habits and goals in the past. [And that’s true] even if it was a very different type of habit in question. Although the content of our behavior may be different, the process of creating consistency and repetition may be the same.”

So how can you practice habit reflection to start a new healthy habit (or, if you’re like me, undo a not-great current one)? It all boils down to three easy steps, outlined by Moore and Greenberg in a Fast Company earlier this year:

How to master habit reflection in 3 steps and kick-start new healthy routines.

1. Reflect on habits that are sustainable for you to keep

Whether you’re angling to successfully change an existing habit or create a new one entirely, look back at what’s worked and stuck historically. For instance, if you were diligent at practicing violin when you were younger, perhaps a reason why is because your parents supported your habit by driving you to and from your lessons. And if you didn’t practice at home, when the time came to go to your lessons, you wouldn’t be prepared.

In this case, it’s clear that you benefitted from a support system holding you accountable. So, how can you add a layer of accountability to your current goals?

In the case of my goal, to stop biting my nails, a habit of manicuring them might help. The ritual of regularly taking time to tend to my nails, combined with a potential the social agreement to do so with a friend over Zoom can be effective.

2. Write down the lessons you learned when forming that habit

The next step is essentially to jot down how to successfully form new habits, or take note of the tactics you used at the time. And if you can note several positive habits or routines you’ve been able to adopt in the past, consider the commonalities between them. This step allows you to identify your motivations for adopting a habit the first time.

So, using the nail-biting example, I can note several components that have allowed me to keep my nails polished (and, thus, my teeth off of them) during spurts of time in the past: I re-polish my nails at the first sign of serious chipping, so I’m not tempted to gnaw at and ruin them; I am intentional about making a polish-color choice I like; I keep my polish collection organized and visually pleasing, which makes me happy to use it; and I watch old episodes of The Hills with my roommate while painting, which I enjoy.

3. Create a brief plan for applying the lessons to your new habit

Here’s my plan for quitting my nail-biting habit, informed by what I learned from the first two steps of habit reflection:

  1. Keep my nail polish in one place and have a mix of reliable colors.
  2. Do my nails at the first sign of chipping, before I start biting.
  3. Don’t expect perfection from a DIY at-mani—just making sure the nails are covered should stop biting.

That’s it! Hopefully, the three steps involved in habit reflection will set you on the toward better routines and, if you’re like me, healthier cuticles.

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