Intentional Habits

~3 minute read

Learning how to consistently perform a play or skill in athletics usually requires lots of patience and many repetitions. Through continuous reinforcement, your brain and body can make these actions feel like second nature. Oftentimes, we form habits because we know how we want to act or perform consistently, but sometimes we create habits without really meaning to. For example, maybe you find yourself scrolling through social media when you’re bored or staying up late because you haven’t properly planned and prioritized your time. Learning to spot how different habits form can help you increase helpful behaviors and decrease unwanted behaviors.

What are intentional versus obsessive habits?

Intentional habits are behaviors you do to feel healthier and happier as well as to stay accountable to yourself and those around you. A few examples include checking in with friends to stay connected, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and taking a daily walk to clear your mind. However, just because the goal of a habit is to improve either physical or mental health doesn’t mean it’s always beneficial to your overall health and well-being.

Some habits begin intentionally but then become obsessive. Obsessive habits are driven by fear and are completed out of a sense of obligation. You might feel like you need to complete a task or else something bad will happen. These kinds of habits can be tricky to identify because they might’ve started as positive parts of your routine and then became burdensome and stressful later. For example, if your cleats need to be tied a specific way so they don’t come undone during games or your hair needs to be pulled back a certain way so it doesn’t fall down during practice, then you might spend a bit of extra time to make sure your shoelaces are tied or hair is done correctly. If these acts start to take up more and more time and it becomes more and more difficult for them to feel “just right,” then there’s a chance that the habit is becoming obsessive. Try checking in with yourself to see if you feel like you need to complete certain habits or if they are helpful parts of your daily routine.

What is intentional versus obsessive control?

Similar to forming intentional habits, it can be empowering to feel a sense of control over yourself and your life, especially when it comes to athletics or school. When you feel like you’re in control, you feel like you have the ability to make positive changes and to endure some of the more challenging parts of sport. An intentional, balanced relationship to control also includes the understanding that some things are not in your control. Obsessive control stems from feeling responsible for too many aspects of your life and needing to feel like you have control over them in order to feel safe and alleviate anxiety.

How do I build habits?

Athletes are trained to build habits. Every time you go to practice, you’re both building and reinforcing the skills that you’re working on. You might notice that when you’re learning a complicated drill, play, or skill, your coach will break it down into simple steps. This helps you approach the new skill with confidence and a greater chance that you’ll succeed. The same goes for building habits off the field, court, or mat. Make sure the habits you’re trying to build are 1) easy and 2) accessible. Successful habits feel mindless and automatic.

  1. Start by making unintentional habits conscious and effortful. Example: if you’re trying to spend less time on your phone, try moving distracting apps into another folder.
  2. Piggyback new habits onto old habits. Example: if you’re trying to drink more water, try having a glass (new habit) after brushing your teeth (existing habit).
  3. Use cues to prompt a habit. Example: set a reminder on your phone or put a sticky note on your laptop.

Most importantly, give yourself grace if it takes some time to find what works best for you. Learning how to create and maintain intentional habits is a skill that people work on for their entire lives. Learning to recognize the intentions behind your behaviors is a great place to start, and it can help you recognize when you might need some extra support. 

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