Is it Possible to Have Good Habits in the Midst of Mom Life?

“Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.” – James Clear

That realization can either be reassuring or really, really depressing. Our habits, the things we do without really thinking, make up 40% -45% of our day to day lives. Therefore, forming the right habits has a major impact on how happy we are.

Yet I’ve found that in mom life, it can be extra challenging to stick with good habits. When there are little people changing up your schedule minute by minute, it can be really hard to rigidly stick to a routine and keep your good habits going. If you’ve found yourself struggling to keep up your good habits, or form new ones since becoming a mom, know that you are not alone.

Habits in Mom Life

Habits in mom life are especially challenging for Obliger and Rebel moms (don’t know your tendency? take the quiz) since most habits are inner expectations rather than outer expectations. As an Obliger mom, I’ve found I’ve let some of my personal habits slip while trying to keep the family routines running. For example, I had the habit of washing my face each night before bed for years. But as I had more and more children, the bedtime routine stretched out longer and longer, baby at 7 pm, preschooler and elementary schooler at 8 pm, middle schoolers at 9 pm.

Bedtime has never been my finest hour as a parent, and by the time all the kids were tucked in bed, (and finally staying there) I found myself drained, exhausted and grumpy. More often than not, I would brush my teeth and choose to skip washing my face in exchange for falling into bed or emotionally checking out with screen time.

In fact, many of my good habits have taken a hit since becoming a mom. With some very conscious effort, I’ve been able to maintain some key habits in the midst of ever-changing mom life. But I sometimes wonder if it takes so much mental effort and reminders, can they really even be called habits? Let’s take a closer look at habits.

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What is a habit?

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, a habit is “a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day. Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows.”

If you instinctively reach for your phone right after you wake up in the morning, that’s a habit. If you greet your kids with a hug each morning, that’s a habit. Always find yourself searching for a little piece of candy after dinner? That’s a habit, too.

How are habits formed?

When we do something new, our brain forms a new neural pathway. The more times we repeat the behavior, the stronger and deeper the neural pathway becomes. When the neural pathway is strong enough, our brain can do the behavior without having to concentrate its limited resources on it. That’s when the behavior has become a habit.

The Habit Loop

Researchers at MIT discovered a neural loop, called The Habit Loop that is the basis of every habit. It consists of 3 parts: cue, routine and reward.

The Habit Loop

First, there is a cue, also known as a trigger. It is something that signals your brain to go into auto-pilot mode and tells it which habit to use.

Next comes the routine, the repeated behavior, the habit itself.

Finally, there is a reward, the benefit you gain from doing the behavior. This tells the brain if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Here’s how that might look in real life:

Let’s say you have the habit of brushing your teeth at night.

  1. The Cue –  you put your pajamas on, that triggers you to head for the bathroom.
  2. The Routine – going into the bathroom, getting out your toothbrush, toothpaste and brushing your teeth.
  3. The Reward – clean teeth, minty fresh breath and the sense that you are “done” for the day.

How do you get a new habit to stick?

To form a new habit, you identify the 3 pieces of the habit loop. One way to get a new habit in your life is to use the cue and reward already in place, but substitute a better behavior in the routine place. When your brain gives you the cue for a bad habit, instead of doing that, choose a different behavior – one that you want to form into a habit – and do that instead.

So in the morning, instead of reaching for your phone (routine) after you wake up (cue) to check your email (reward – social connection or feeling productive) you could instead spend 5 minutes connecting with your spouse (social connection) or writing a quick to-do list (feeling productive). Once you have repeated this loop enough times, in as close to the same way as possible, a new habit is formed. But that process can take awhile.

The 21 Day Myth

There is a widespread belief that it takes 21 days to form a habit. That turns out not exactly true, but there’s an interesting story how it came about.

Maxwell Martz was a plastic surgeon practicing in the 1950’s. He published a book titled Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960, in which he shared “a system of ideas that he claimed could improve one’s self-image. In turn, the person would lead a more successful and fulfilling life.” Wikipedia

In his practice, Dr. Martz had noticed that it took his patients about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face after surgery. He also noted that when a patient had an amputation, it took about the same 21 days for the phantom limb feeling to go away.

In his book, Dr. Martz wrote “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

Well, Psycho-Cybernetics turned out to be a best seller and many “self-help” experts adopted and adapted its teachings. Over time, like a game of Telephone, Dr. Martz’s original message has changed into “it takes 21 days to form a habit.”

If you’ve ever tried to form a habit in 21 days and you didn’t succeed, don’t be discouraged.

Research shows that it can take much longer.

In 2009, Phillippa Lally, published her research findings that it actually takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. Study participants each chose a habit to develop, either an eating, drinking, or activity behavior and then tracked whether they did the behavior and answered some questions each day. There was a wide range of results. Some habits were formed after 12 days, others not until 254 days, but on average it took 66 days to form the new habit.

It’s also commonly said that if you miss a day, you have to start over from day 1. But researchers found that missing one day did not prevent the habit from being formed. The more times the behavior is repeated, the more automatic it becomes. So if you’ve gone 50 days and then missed one day, all is not lost. You don’t have to start over at day one. Just get back to it again the next day.

People are different.

Some people form habits more easily than others do.  In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin describes 21 strategies that can be used to help in developing habits. And she repeatedly stresses the importance of picking and choosing the strategies that work best for you. Because everyone is different. What works for you might not work at all for your best friend, and vice versa.

Some habits are formed more easily than others too.

Obviously, no matter who you are, some habits are harder to form than others. Developing a habit of emptying the dishwasher before eating breakfast is likely much easier than developing the habit of eating only whole, real foods. Those 21 strategies can help you find the right solution for you and for whatever habit you’re trying to establish.

Let’s say you really do want to develop the habits of emptying the dishwasher before eating breakfast and eating whole, real foods.

Some strategies you could use for emptying the dishwasher are:

  • Pairing: hooking the new habit to one you already have formed. For example, when you go into the kitchen, and you would normally go to the cupboard and get out a bowl or plate or ingredients, tell yourself that you can’t get the items until after dishwasher is empty.
  • Monitoring: keeping track of what you do. We manage what we monitor. Put a blank calendar on the fridge and mark off each day that you empty the dishwasher before eating breakfast.
  • Convenience: make it easy. Set life up so that emptying the dishwasher is the easiest choice. Start the load before bed at night so the dishwasher is clean in the morning. Instead of getting the bowl from the cupboard, get it from the dishwasher while you’re emptying it.
  • Scheduling – set an alarm to go off at a specific time each morning to remind you to unload the dishwasher.

Some strategies you might use to build the habit of eating whole, real foods are:

  • Monitoring: keep a log of what you eat, on paper or in an app
  • Loophole spotting: watch for ways you might try to let yourself off the hook, “just this one time.”
  • Scheduling: plan what you are going to eat for each meal and write it on the calendar.
  • Accountability: someone or something that can hold you accountable – a nutritionist, a friend, a doctor, a bullet journal, an app.
  • Abstaining: it’s easier to resist the second chocolate chip cookie if you don’t ever eat the first one.
  • Convenience: make it easy to eat whole, real foods by having them on hand. When shopping, buy the foods you want to eat. Plan meals ahead, batch cook, etc.
  • Inconvenience: make it harder to eat processed foods – stop buying them, eat out less often.
  • Distractions: when you are craving that deep-fried donut, distract yourself by calling a friend, going for a walk, munching some carrot sticks, reading a book, or posting on your Instagram.
  • Reward: the reward for a habit is the habit itself. Tune in to how much better you feel or how much energy you have since you started eating better.
  • Other People: enlist those close to you to join in too or at least to offer their support.

How do habits contribute to happiness?

Good habits can help you have a healthier, happier, more productive life. They help you automatically, without thinking too much about it, accomplish the things that are important to you, be healthier, have stronger relationships and more. Working to create the right habits today will go a long way in helping you live a happier life over time.

Of course, this sounds great in theory. And when you can get it working, it is great. But remember, life with young children requires flexibility. Maybe your habits won’t look exactly like they did before kids. I know my skin sure never will! But your life will also look very different as the kids grow too. It won’t always be so chaotic, one day you might even sleep through the night again. So don’t give up!

Each good habit you can create and keep makes your life a little bit easier in the long run. Take it one day and one habit at a time. Start small and don’t be discouraged. Mom life is an amazing journey, even if when it makes sticking with your habits a little harder.

Try this small thing today:

Think of one habit you want to form. Just ONE. Identify the parts of the habit loop:

  • the cue – the trigger – what will remind you to do the new thing? Hint – hook it to something you already automatically do (the strategy of pairing). Even if there are very few things that you do every day at around the same time, look for something until you find one – like using the toilet, or brushing your teeth or taking the kids to school – and use that to trigger the new routine.
  • The routine – after the cue, what is the new behavior you want to form? What are the steps? Be very specific.
  • The reward – after you do the new behavior, pay attention to what you want to get out of the new behavior. More energy, less stress, more happiness, social connection, etc. Remember that what we look for is what our brain will notice, so pay attention to how the routine is making your life better – and it will do just that.
  • Then repeat, repeat, repeat. In anywhere from 12- 254 days, but probably around day 66 :), you’ll have a new good habit under your belt and be ready to start working on new good habit #2.

Let’s chat:

What’s one habit you’ve formed that’s made your life happier over time? What’s the one habit you want to work on next? What’s your best tip for making and keeping good habits in mom life? Comment here.

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