How do we form habits for a better world?

Though the world is uncertain, we can each take small actions to make it better. We may have an opportunity to talk with someone who is lonely or show kindness to some who feels unsettled. We can enrich others’ lives with the delightful things we create, as simple as a smile or as complex as a symphony. But we can’t do something once and move on. To build a better world, we need sustainable practices for the months and years ahead. How do we form habits that lead to a better world?

How we form habits

Two of my favorite books on habits are The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Start at the End by Matt Wallaert. They look at the way we form habits, and how we can choose behaviors more consciously. 

Duhigg writes about the habit loop, where a trigger makes us take an action, which leads to a reward. If we receive a reward, then the behavior is reinforced and we’re likely to repeat it next time we encounter the same trigger. Because the action worked before, our energy-saving brain assumes it will work again.

Wallaert looks at promoting and inhibiting factors that make a behavior more or less likely. We may or may not be fully aware of these factors for any given behavior. 

To make a behavior more likely we might promote it by increasing the quantity of a known reward, or reduce inhibitions by removing an obstacle to the behavior. We’re often inhibited by the perceived size of an action: it takes too much time or energy. If we decrease the minimum commitment, we become more likely to perform the action.

Long-term habits

If building a better world is a long-term project, then it’s important to make the habits around it durable. While Duhigg focuses on one reward per habit, I’ve found that my most long-lived habits have multiple rewards and meet several needs.

I think this is because I’m different every day. My mood, state of mind and other activities vary and evolve over the course of days, months and years. If there are many positive reasons to take an action, it’s more likely that I’ll find one that’s relevant to me considering my circumstances on any given day.

Here are some of our deep human needs, identified by Marshall Rosenberg in his work on Nonviolent Communication.

  • Connection
  • Physical well-being
  • Honesty
  • Play
  • Peace
  • Meaning
  • Autonomy

Music practice as a long term habit

My music practice is one of my oldest habits. I’ve been practicing trumpet or piano or singing every day since I was 9 years old, and performing for others for almost as long!

  • Connection: music is best when shared. While I’m missing much musical community during the pandemic times, music has given me lasting friendships, regular opportunities to meet and play together with people I care about, spiritual teachers, and the great reward of seeing a room filled with bright smiles and inspired eyes after finishing a performance.
  • Physical well-being: Music provides a motivation to take care of myself. It’s hard to perform on a beat up instrument, and the human body and mind are my most important tools for making music. I’ve also been lucky to have music provide food and shelter for me, whether in the form of a pre-show potluck, a couch to crash on after in a new city, or money from generous audience members who came to see a concert.
  • Honesty: admittedly, it hasn’t always been easy to express myself honestly in music. Impostor syndrome was a constant companion for years! Yet even while striving for greater expressive abilities, I’ve always put my heart into every note.
  • Play: there’s no greater thrill than taking the creative flight of improvisation, and no greater lift than supporting and feeling supported by those who I fly with.
  • Peace: even in the wildness of performance, there’s stillness and calm, motionlessness in the heart of flow.
  • Meaning: sharing what I care most about and experiencing how it touches others is an experience that fills me with meaning.
  • Autonomy: as a musician and songwriter, I have my own sphere of influence, even as it connects and overlaps with my collaborators and audience. 

Habits of compassion and community

After we’ve identified the values we want to optimize for (a compassionate, connected world, for example), we can look for specific activities that will lead to this outcome. 

There are many actions that can lead to this outcome. It’s important that we each choose the ones that we’d truly enjoy most. The ones that spark our interest and seem enjoyable. Then we can start to build habits around them.

We can find as many positive factors as possible. We can learn to anticipate the rewards. When we plan the activity in our day, we can think ahead to the good outcomes more than the bad ones. And we each need to find the ones that work for us. 

Moving forward

Through small actions, we can make a difference in the world. When we make habits around these actions, they become sustainable. It takes consistent work to create anything worthwhile, and surely community, patience, kindness, vulnerability and empathy are not exceptions. 

What habits are you most proud of? What do you wish to sustain in the coming months and days? What do you wish to create?