When the reality of coronavirus sunk in earlier this year and we started getting more familiar with the consequences of a world dominated by a pandemic, a strong trend appeared in the online sphere. I noticed voices all over social media calling me and everyone else to use all of this “free” time to finally take up hobbies and implement changes that we always wanted to introduce in our lives.
"Why don’t you start working out systematically?” I thought to myself. “You always wanted to be flexible, now is the time to do more yoga, it’s your show time!” the voice inside my head would cheer me on.
Oh, was I eager to start my new healthy habit! At first, my excitement levels were going through the roof. My thoughts would wander to the end goal of my sporty routine. I would imagine all the asanas performed by my incredibly elastic body. It worked like fuel for my motivation. I was stretching every single day - something that would have never happened before became my new normal.
Well, maybe not so much when I paint you the bigger picture…
Week number 2 of my new yoga life came along and the initial rush sort of deflated. The end goal was so far, I couldn’t see the immediate results. I still had to bend my knees in a simple Downward Facing Dog and in general I wasn’t so attracted to this glorious idea anymore. With time it had only gone worse and worse. I missed a day or two… or three.
There were so many distractions and other responsibilities. Basically in the end my mind decided to give up completely. Life got in the way and just about everything else turned out to be significantly more important than my yoga practice. Eventually, as I stopped putting it on my to-do list, I also abandoned the new routine before it had a shot at becoming a real habit.
More than half a year later I decided to start over but this time I did my research to diagnose my mistakes. I also wanted to implement an effective method for my behavior. I read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg with the intention of cracking the code of forming a successful long-lasting routine.
The science behind the process of developing a habit is very simple - it all comes down to a little thing called a habit loop. It is in fact a neurological loop in our brains consisting of 3 elements that appear one after another: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
A cue is a trigger that initiates the specific habit and orders the brain to go into the automatic mode. The most common example of a cue is a post-it note stuck to the fridge reminding us to buy more milk. Unfortunately, a cue can also be the craving that appears right after we see someone eating a delicious ice cream.
A routine is something we all know only so well. It could be anything from the act of buying more milk to the act of brushing out teeth before bed.. It can be physical, mental, or even emotional, like eating more food when we’re sad or bored.
A reward is a piece of information for our brain on whether this specific habit that we just performed is worth remembering or not so much. A reward plays a role in differentiating the important from the irrelevant. It is a dangerous zone though because our brain can also get a signal of rewarding a bad habit. Then the unhealthy act of, say, smoking a cigarette is labeled as important and the mind decides to attach meaning to the reward.
How to create a new long-lasting healthy habit then?
By starting from the trigger which reminds us of performing the routine. Visual cues in particular have been proven to successfully play the role of a reminder. The majority of the sensory cortex in our brains is dedicated to vision, therefore it acts as an image processor. As an effect, images are easier to not only remember but also recall. Our brains register all the images and visuals automatically and effortlessly. The best part is that we don’t even know when or where it happens. Besides the intricacies of our neural structure, there are many more reasons why this technique works.
Why visual cues are amazing.
Number 1: They act as reminders of the behavior that we need to perform. Their function is to simply send a signal to the brain that says: “It’s showtime! Go do your thing now!”
Number 2: No thinking or remembering is required. The latter can be especially hard in the busyness and commotion of everyday life. No matter the obstacle, whether it’s your job, other duties, or maybe lack of motivation, the visual cue is there to help you.
Number 3: It can also provide this extra push to motivate us to be more consistent with our new habits. Sometimes we feel lazy or stagnant and all we need is a glance at the visual cue of choice to get us moving and stay on track.
Ok, now the question is: how to choose your personal visual cue?
It has to be somehow related to the change that you’re intending to implement in your lifestyle. This object needs to trigger both: the routine of your choice and a craving for the reward to come.
It can also be helpful if some kind of measurement system can be applied to your cue so that you can track your growth as you go on. There’s no denying the fact that making progress is so, so, so satisfying! The common rookie mistake is that we barely ever measure the progress that we make. A visual cue that does that can be not only a reminder but also clear evidence of the development and evolution of our journey!
In this way, visual cues are effective in building the habit both short-term as well as long-term. A proof of your daily activity, when accumulated, becomes an impressive testimony of absolutely breathtaking progress.
What kind of object could be both: a measure and a reminder of a mindfulness routine?
The answer is... incense. I think that this idea is just too good not to share with the world. The sticks of incense make a perfect pair with an incense holder, which is not only a perfect visual cue but also a grounding aromatic ritual on its own.
Start by placing the ceramic piece in a crucial area of your home so that it can serve its purpose as a visual trigger and remind you of making time for a mindful practice like yoga or meditation throughout the course of your day. Put the fragrance of your choice either in the same spot so that you can increase your chances of performing the new routine.
I invite you to start your mindful practice by lighting up the incense, sitting in stillness, and observing its beautiful aroma. The burning time is approximately 15 minutes, which is just an ideal amount of time for an optimal meditation or a daily yoga stretch.
A reward at the end is not only the feeling of clarity and calmness but also the heavenly scent filling your home. A box of incense may hold between 30 and50 individual incense sticks. With each day of incense burning, the number of pieces left in the tin decreases. That is the measure of your progress. In this case, less is more! Just remember to stock up before you run out of your incense pieces completely!
Incense offers busy people a beautiful daily ritual to make space for mindful moments in their lives.
Let me know in the comment section below what mindful ritual you'd like to embark on and how you intend to implement it in your everyday.