Breaking and making habits: self-care and improvement while traveling

Daily rituals are hard to maintain when you're constantly on-the-move. Whether you are moving apartments, cities, or countries, your schedule can change quickly and dramatically. It's difficult to change bad habits or develop good habits, and traveling makes it even more complicated.

Everybody has bad habits they want to break, and good habits they want to nurture. For example, Warren and I both like a drink (or four) after work, and wish we exercised more. He wants to learn Esperanto and I am trying to learn SEO.

All we need to do is put our minds to it and use some good old-fashioned willpower to change. Right?

The most condescending advice is always free.

Eh, not really. According to Psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister, “self-control is like a muscle. Once you’ve exerted some self-control, like a muscle it gets tired." Not drinking a martini is literally exhausting for me.

NYU Psych Professor Peter Gollwitzer believes you can break bad habits using the "if-then strategy". First, identify what triggers your bad behaviors, and determine an appropriate alternative response. If trigger situations arise, then you have a defined reaction, thus taking all of the doubt, guess-work, and self-control out of it. Example: if you always have a martini when you get home from work, then you should instead make a lemonade. So simple! Pretty good idea, right?

Well, anyone who has quit smoking, been on a diet, started exercising daily, or tried to skip their after-work cocktail can tell you that it's not that easy! Everything is a trigger, and my ritual is strong!

You don't know my struggle.

This is where travel is golden: your daily ritual changes constantly, so breaking habits is much easier.

When we moved to Australia, it was a lot easier to skip the after-work drink. Why? Both of us either walked or cycled to work, so we would come home completely decompressed. No traffic to navigate meant less stress, so we came home already relaxed.

Most of all, we hadn't been doing it every day for years. Everything around us was different, and we controlled what turned into a new habit.

As writer Charles Duhigg puts it, "If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you're on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren't there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life."

OK, so you can get out of habits if you move a lot. How about getting into them?


Making better habits can be quite a challenge.

"I'm going to do yoga every day!"

Sure. Every day that you feel like doing it, you'll do it. If you're in a permanent home, you can alter your daily activity to add "yoga time", during which you have no other obligations or distractions. You use some habit changing techniques like:
  • Get your roommate to do it with you
  • Join an at-home yogis Facebook group for support
  • Be OK with failure, but get back to the habit the next day
  • Put a Lululemon ad on your mirror so you remember why you're doing it (to feel justified in buying $100 leggings healthier)

VoilĂ ! You're practically Kate Hudson (or Russell Brand -- whatever, you do you).

But... without the roommate, the space, the schedule... who can keep track? Your schedule is fluid! There are so many new, fun things to do! Who has time for yoga when there's a park full of monkeys down the street?! There isn't any room in your backpack for a new pair of Lulu's, anyway...

Plus, it's hot outside, and cigarettes are so cheap here -- it's almost irresponsible to do yoga instead of smoking by the pool. I didn't know that a swimming pool was a trigger!

STOP! Put down the Bintang and step away from the Marlboros -- I'm here to help!

How to making better habits while traveling

It's so much easier to break old habits if you're constantly changing your routine, but making good habits is much harder. These thing have helped us quite a bit:

Ask someone else to hold you accountable.

  • I started going to the gym by signing up in the morning when I felt great. By the time the 6:00pm class rolled around, I wanted to bail... but I was signed up, so my instructor would know that I quit. It kept me honest in the beginning, then eventually, the afternoon slump just became a part of my pre-gym routine. (At least, on most days. Occasionally I'd walk past the gym, ashamed, in my yoga pants, and I'd drink a martini instead. It's a process.)
  • Social media/technology is also great for this. Find an online group, or ask a friend to "sponsor" your new good habit. Family members might be perfect for this -- they get to talk to you every day (even if it's just over Gchat), and they can become a part of your positive change.
  • Of course, if you're traveling with a partner, they're the best candidate. The hardest part for me is saying, "Shouldn't you be exercising?" without coming across as a harpy/psycho hose-beast/nagging wife. Remember Warren, you wanted me to do this.

Make a to-do list.

  • This one sounds weird, but trust me, it helps.
  • Why, you ask? This allows you to visualize all the super fun things you're going to do throughout the day, and provides you with a reminder to do your one habit-forming activity. You sure CAN go to the beach all day and drink a beer with dinner... but first, just get in a quick yoga workout. 30 minutes out of the entire 16 hour day? Too easy!
  • Plus, once you do it, you get to cross something off your to-do list. It gives me chills just typing it.
  • Make your list whenever your mind is sharp. For me, it's first thing in the morning, but if it's late in the evening for you, then make one for the following day. Then, if you're groggy in the morning, you don't have to rely on your old-habit-brain to decide what to do (like play Sudoku and read in bed until it's too hot for yoga).

Take a couple of days off when you change locations.

  • It's completely understandable that you're overwhelmed and excited when you get to a new place. Let it sink in a bit. What you do on Day 1 isn't going to make or break your new habit.
  • Moving is stressful. Your mind is already strained and you shouldn't strain it further for a couple of days. It's hard to break old habits when you're stressed -- just focus on settling in!
  • This much-needed break allows you to determine what your new days will look like, and pick a reasonable time/place for your new habit. When you're ready, make that to-do list and get back to it.


Take advantage of your fluid schedule.

  • If you screw up your proposed routine, that doesn't mean you've messed up for the day. Every day is different, so even if you are trying to get into a new schedule, it doesn't mean you have to stick to it religiously. If you skipped morning yoga, nothing's stopping you from doing afternoon yoga.
  • A variable routine allows you to forget your bad days a lot easier. Those days of walking past the gym in my workout clothes? I remembered those all week! With a variable schedule, forgetting to do something one day doesn't mean the disappointment has to wear you down all week.

Only pick one habit at a time.

  • Remember, it's exhausting! Growth is slow, and you don't need to shock your system.

View every new city as an opportunity to reinvent yourself.

  • Everything is new around you, so you can be new too. You respond to your environment. Let the environment inspire your new change.

Please keep in mind that what works for us might not work for you. We aren't psychologists, and everyone is different... but I do hope you find these insights helpful. These tips help us, but we certainly struggle too, so don't expect to change overnight :)!

In theory, it's easy. We all know that in reality, changing your habits is hard. Hopefully, moving around the world will give you the inspiration to improve yourself, and the change of pace will allow you to leave behind some bad habits. Try it out for yourself, or comment below with some positive changes that you've made while traveling!


  1. This is brilliant! Really enjoyed reading it, especially picturing you scooting past the gym in your yoga pants to drink a martini. I started putting on my workout gear first thing in the morning in the hope that I would be more motivated to go for a run. But it would reach bedtime and I'd still not side was getting to slob about in stretchy ultra-comfy leisurewear all day : )

    1. As long as you don't put on your yoga outfit to go drink lattes all day with your girlfriends, that's fine by me! You also get a pass because of your children -- just taking care of them is a workout in itself!


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