Many people set and reach goals, such as New Year’s resolutions, only to slide back into their old ways after a period of time. When this happens, we erode both self-esteem and self-efficacy. Developing S.M.A.R.T. habits • habits that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely • is a way of making changes stick. If that sounds relevant to you, then read on. This is one Provision that just may change your life for good.
As a coach who assists people to change their lives for the better, often with a concern for Optimal Wellness, I have long been intrigued by the habit of brushing our teeth. The vast majority of people engage in this healthy practice on a daily basis, if not more frequently, without any effort, grumbling, or backsliding. We just do it and, as a result, we reap the benefits which range from fewer dental problems to sweeter smelling breath to lowering our risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
How does that happen? No one is born with the habit, nor even the urge, to brush their teeth. Indeed, no one is born with teeth at all! So how is it that the vast majority of people master the art of doing something so unnatural and yet so good for themselves on a daily basis, day in and day out for their entire lives, that takes time, resources, memory, and discipline? If LifeTrek Coaching could bottle that formula for other healthy practices, we would have more business than we could handle. The world would be beating a path to our door.
The secret lies in the fact that brushing our teeth is a habit, and a S.M.A.R.T. habit at that.Dictionary.com includes the following eight definitions for habit:
- an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary such as the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street,
- a customary practice or use such as the habit of daily bathing,
- a particular practice, custom, or usage such as the habit of shaking hands,
- a dominant or regular disposition or tendency such as the habit of looking at the bright side of things,
- a mental character or disposition such as a habit of mind,
- a characteristic bodily or physical condition such as the habit of slumping forward,
- an addiction such as the habit of smoking, and
- the garb of a particular rank, profession, or religious order such as a monk’s habit
All eight definitions have something to teach us about habits and how they work. The key concepts are repetition, routine, culture, attitude, posture, compulsion, and signs. When those become S.M.A.R.T. • Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely • we have a lot to work with when it comes to initiating and sustaining new behaviors.
I like the concept of S.M.A.R.T. habits even better than S.M.A.R.T. goals. People think of goals in temporal terms, as though they are projects that we want to check off our list in order to move on to other things. That’s why people lose weight and gain it back, run a marathon and never run one again, or take a class only to forget about it as time goes on.
The concept of a habit conveys something entirely different. We don’t develop the habit of brushing our teeth in order to forget about it as time goes on. We don’t get bored with or resent having to brush our teeth. We don’t think, “I need more variety in my life so I’m going to stop brushing my teeth.” This is one habit that we expect to do for as long as we are able; it is a self-care regimen that most people embrace without duress.
So, too, with all self-care regimens. Through repetition, routine, culture, attitude, posture, compulsion, and signs we can make just about any habit a natural part of life.
— Repetition. I don’t know how you learned to brush your teeth, but chances are that parents and dentists showed you how to do it and then told you to do it, over and over again. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, it does make things easier. The more often we do something, the more likely it will become a habit. At the beginning it takes more discipline and reminding; over time, it become almost involuntary.
Dewitt Jones, a photographer and motivational speaker, calls this acting “as if.” Long before something is a habit, we act “as if” in order to make it so. To do that, we need to be S.M.A.R.T. about our plans. To say, “I want to eat better.” or “I want to exercise more.” offers no guidance as to the habits we want to develop. To say, “I want to start every day with LifeTrek’s healthy fruit smoothie.” Click begins to lay out the parameters of the project. We can then be S.M.A.R.T. about the project plan (e.g., purchasing, storing, preparing, drinking, and cleaning), repeating ourselves until it becomes routine.
— Routine. Routine is the essence of habit. The things we do over and over again, on a regular basis, define not only our ways in the world but also our identities. Modern culture is so attracted to the latest and greatest, it is so accustomed to continual upgrades and overhauls, that many people are actually embarrassed to admit they have any routines at all. Unfortunately, this adds precipitously to the stress of life. From the passing of seasons to the rising and setting of the sun to countless other rhythms and patterns, our genetic inheritance expects and appreciates routines to give life order, significance, meaning, and purpose.
The behaviors we practice routinely define who we are as persons. I was not born a runner, for example. Indeed, I hardly ran at all until I was in my forties. Once I started running, however, almost on a daily basis, I began to think of myself as a runner. The routine led me to become someone different. So too with many Eastern traditions. They encourage the practice of sitting still for extended periods of time because it is the routine, not the philosophy, that transforms the spirit. S.M.A.R.T. routines lead to effortless, life-enriching habits.
— Culture. Habits that become part of the culture, on both micro and macro levels, are easier to maintain. When the entire culture breaks for afternoon tea, for example, who are we to keep on working? Given the creep of culture destruction on a global scale, it becomes even more important to develop healthy micro-cultures in our homes, offices, and communities.
I remember a friend many years ago who went back to work after a heart-bypass operation with a prescription from his doctor to take a 20-minute nap each day in the early afternoon. At 1:00 PM, he went to a private area, asked to be undisturbed, set an alarm clock, rolled out a yoga mat, and laid down. Sometimes he rested awake, others times he slept. As the practice continued, other people in the office started to ask if they, too, could take a 20-minute nap. Soon a micro-culture had developed that supported this habit for as many as were interested. And guess what happened to productivity? It went up rather than down as healthy habits were encouraged by one and all.
— Attitude. I love the fact that the word “habit” refers not only to behaviors but also to attitudes or ways of looking at things. Positive psychology continues to research and validate the connection between the two. Positive attitudes support positive actions, and vice-versa.
Two simple action strategies are to end each day by writing down at least three good things that happened during the past 24 hours and to start each day by writing down at least one good thing that might happen during the next 24 hours. By cultivating attitudes of gratitude and positive expectation, all kinds of good things start to happen. The connection is compelling. To make these strategies S.M.A.R.T., you might want to clear your nightstand of everything except a notebook and writing instrument. No clutter. Just a clean invitation to write.
— Posture. S.M.A.R.T. habits make good use of the body. There’s no way to sit still for extended periods of time, for example, without good posture. To ease the mind we need to ease the body. The latter supports the former and vice-versa.
This applies in every area of life. There is a body-mind connection that we ignore at great peril. Unfortunately, the modern propensity to sit at desks in front of computer screens for extended periods of time is undermining the health of both the body and the mind. Never in the history of the world have so many people been so sedentary for so much of the day. We see it in the faces and bodies of everyone we meet. Taking a break at least every hour, if not more frequently, to walk and to stretch are examples of S.M.A.R.T. habits that can put us back on track.
— Compulsion. Marty Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, has said that he is more or less addicted to the practice of writing down three good things that happen at the end of every day • he calls them “three blessings” • because he has discovered that doing so makes him feel better. And isn’t that why we brush our teeth? That’s what happens when habits become S.M.A.R.T.: they eventually become so much a part of our lives that we cannot imagine living without them.
There’s nothing wrong with having positive compulsions! I hope brushing your teeth falls into that category for you; I know it does for me. Running and healthy eating are the same way. They are a part of my life; I would not be who I am without them. It may take effort, repetition, and practice in the beginning before a habit becomes a compulsion, but wellness has as much power to lock in its ways as weariness. We need only to give it a chance.
— Signs. It’s interesting that the root meanings of the word “habit” include behavior, custom, and clothing. Why clothing? Because it sets people apart as being devoted to certain causes and conditions. Uniforms may not make the person, but they sure have an influence. The first thing I do in the morning, every morning, is that I put on my workout clothes. Those clothes remind me of my S.M.A.R.T. exercise habits: one hour a day, with a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic activities.
Something literally comes over me when I put on those clothes. I think it’s a combination of the compression shorts and the orthotic inserts. They feel different than my regular clothing. They make me want to run. They are signs that promote my best intentions. They are part of making my routine work.
So don’t be afraid of getting into a rut. If the rut is healthy and happy, then it’s a great place to be. S.M.A.R.T. habits are important ways to realize our goals. The more they become part of our lives, the more success we will enjoy.
Coaching Inquiries: What are your S.M.A.R.T. habits? Have they become second nature? Or are you still having to act “as if?” How could you make better use of repetition, routine, culture, attitude, posture, compulsion, and signs? What little tricks could you develop to get on track? Who could share the journey with you? What is one healthy habit that you could start working on today?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
Thanks for your reply about vegetarianism. I’m leaning toward making a huge dietary shift and starting to eat select meats again. I even had a dream about it last night, which may be a sign. I spent some time tonight on the web sites you recommended ordering shredded coconut, egg white protein, etc. I’m almost finished with the “Paleo Diet” book. What an exciting and scary time!
I just subscribed to your channel on AvantGo and I really enjoy reading Provisions that way on my handheld device. I am glad that there is a pocket version that I can take with me where ever I go. Thanks for the encouragement through this site.
Thanks for you and your team’s Provisions delivered via AvantGo. Your messages often times say just the right thing about thoughts in life. I tried to access your Provision on “How To Be Happy” through the web, so I could show my wife. But I could not find it on your web site. Can you help? (Ed. Note: That essay was adapted from Provision #423 Click. Enjoy!)
What is the cost of the life program and creativity programs? (Ed. Note: That depend on many factors, including who you work with and how frequently you meet with a LifeTrek Coach. I encourage you to contact us for coaching to see what’s possible! Click.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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