Making the Habit of Kindness Stick

Making the Habit of Kindness Stick

“I have 50 minutes to drop off these gifts, mail this last package, and buy the eggs and butter I need for the cookies I have to bake after dinner,” I calculate as I glance at my watch, already beginning to consider which post office might have the shorter line.  As I search for parking, I notice there is a ‘15 minutes only’ slot open next to the entrance of the office building, where I need to drop off the gifts, and guide my car into the space with relief.  I gather the presents and rush in. 

A missed opportunity for kindness

Right on schedule, 11 minutes later, I briskly walk to my car.  Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a security guard ambling towards me.  I pick up my pace.  “Ma’am?  Excuse me, ma’am!”  I whip around, glaring at him and seethe through clenched teeth, “I was ONLY here for 11 minutes, and the sign clearly states that 15 minutes are allowed!”  His shoulders drop and he looks at the ground, “Oh, I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

I have embarked on a pursuit to create a habit of kindness in my life.

My mission is to instinctively think and act with kindness towards myself and others, because I don’t want to be that person who makes the security guard hate his job.  I want to increase the happiness of others and do something beneficial for myself at the same time.  Acts of kindness have been proven to positively impact our physical and mental health: slowing down our ageing, protecting our hearts, lowering levels of stress and anxiety and simply making us feel happier.   But how do I make this a habit, an instinctual response, and not just a fleeting fad?   

“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.”

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

I think most of us have been there – the disappointment and shame we feel when our commitment to those New Year’s resolutions peters out.  Why do we quit when we really want to make the changes?  Luckily, we don’t have to figure this out on our own, because there is an exhaustive amount of research on building habits.  The key is finding what works for your personality and lifestyle and consistently applying it to the behaviors you want to create in your life.  This is the process I am using to create the habit of kindness in my life.

This is the process I am using to create the habit of kindness in my life.

1. Define your goal.

This is the most important step in creating a habit.  To achieve your goals, you should not only believe in what you want to do – but also enjoy doing it.  Tal Ben-Shahar wrote one of my favorite books, Happier.  He discusses self-concordant goals: “those we pursue out of deep personal conviction and/or a strong interest.”  Linking your goal to something you are committed to bolsters your desire to accomplish that goal.

Clarifying that concept for you…

My goal:   Be kind.

My self-concordant goal:   To increase the happiness of others and myself through thoughts and acts of kindness.

Just to make sure you get it…

Hypothetical goal:   Run a 5K.

Hypothetical self-concordant goal:   Improve my physical health so I have more energy to engage with my family after work.

As Ben-Shahar points out, “We pursue these goals not because others think we should or because we feel obligated to, but because we really want to – because we find them significant and enjoyable.”

2. Break goal down into measurable, concrete tasks with a defined timeframe.

While the goal you set reflects your desire and meaning, the tasks you define are the means of getting there.  These should be specific, achievable activities set to a clear schedule.  The more defined the tasks are, the easier they are to measure and achieve.  As you make your list of tasks, ask yourself, will one check mark complete this task?

My self-concordant goal:

To increase the happiness of others and myself through thoughts and acts of kindness.

Examples of tasks to achieve my goal:
  1. Reading about kindness and/or topics of positive psychology.
  2. Gratitude journal
  3. Daily Loving Kindness Meditation
  4. Regular research and writing for my website,
  5. My Rings Project – strengthening my current relationships
Hypothetical self-concordant goal:

Improve my physical health so I have more energy to engage with my family after work.

Examples of hypothetical tasks:
  1. Purchase running shoes.
  2. Jog for 20 mins, 3 X week for the first 2 weeks in January.
  3. Do Yoga stretching class with my spouse twice a week.
  4. Jog for 30 mins, 3 X week for the last 2 weeks in January.
  5. Sign up for 5K race by Feb 15th.

Basically, you’re building the foundation to succeed by breaking down the process piece by piece.  The result is a schedule of manageable tasks that support your ultimate goal.

3. Create a visual tracking system for your defined tasks.

“Research has shown that people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t,” James Clear reports in Atomic Habits. 

Keep your system simple and appealing.  I use the app, Streaks, to track straightforward goals such as quantity of cardio workouts, yoga sessions, and daily journaling.  For my kindness pursuit, I chose a paper checklist that lists the tasks defining my goal and the days of the month so I can see my comprehensive progress at one glance.

4. Daily check-ins – use that tracking system!

Our lives are filled with habits we perform automatically: we brush our teeth and moisturize our faces, prepare meals and clean up the kitchen, faithfully show up for work.  We want our new habits to become just like these – instinctive rituals that are no longer a mental battle to make ourselves do. 

“Two behaviors, we have found, dramatically increase the likelihood of successfully locking in new rituals during the typical thirty- to sixty-day acquisition period.”

-Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement

Revisit your overall goal and vision.  First thing in the morning (even before I have coffee!), I sit down to practice my Loving Kindness Meditation.  I think about the day ahead of me and choose my “people” for the meditation.  After, I quietly sit and consider my goal (creating the habit of kindness) and, with that in mind, set an intention for the day.  The whole process takes about 10 minutes. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not always the serene, spa-like experience outlined above.  Sometimes, it’s me sitting on the closet floor, attempting to drown out my son’s singing and my spouse’s zoom call.  But, I still try.  Find a time and a place that can work for you: maybe it’s while you walk the dog or on your commute to work. 

Complete your task tracking system.  A tracking system is only useful if you use it.  Your brain needs this data for a few reasons.  First, it helps you remember what you’re supposed to be doing – it keeps you on track.  Second, most of us get a weird jolt of joy every time we check things off our list – it’s a visual incentive.  Finally, the data provides insight into what is working for you and what clearly is not.

“Measuring your progress at the end of the day should be used not as a weapon against yourself, but as an instructive part of the change process.”

-Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement

5. Reflect. 

This is not the same as the daily check-ins.  Imagine zooming out, stepping back from the task list, and reexamining your intention.  As a detail-oriented person, I find that I get caught up in the data and forget the greater goal at hand.  Sure, I may be doing a bang-up job with my daily gratitude journal and meditation.  But, if I miss my brother’s birthday and am constantly short-tempered with my son, am I achieving my goal?

No one is perfect.

The process of building a habit isn’t perfect; there will be setbacks.  Taking the time to reflect and thinking about your intention and priorities, can help you stay on track and notice where your defined tasks need to be tweaked so you increase the likelihood of success. 

Once a month, I spend 15-20 minutes examining my task list to evaluate how they are helping me achieve my self-concordant goals.  I try to be honest, but kind, with myself.  It’s also when I take the time to congratulate myself and recognize the progress I’ve made.  Building a habit will make the goal automatic; reflection creates a pause when you can appreciate the healthy addition in your life.

What do you think about this process of habit building?  Am I missing something?  Are you trying to build more kindness into your life?  I’d love to hear from you.  As always, let’s be kindful of each other.


"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."
Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher & Poet

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