“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
— Will Durant
As the brain takes in more and more complex information, it looks for any repeatable tasks it can put on autopilot to free up mental energy.
With half our days spent on autopilot, it’s essential that we build healthy, good habits that make us better.
When we’re obsessed with hitting a certain goal, it can be all too easy to fall into a desire to reach our destination—one that fools us into thinking the result is the prize. Instead, we need to switch our focus to our daily actions.
Change comes from understanding. The chain reaction that make behaviors shift from a choice to a habit:
- Reminder/cue: The trigger than initiates the behavior. E.g. your phone buzzes in your pocket.
- Routine: The behavior itself; the action you take. E.g. you take your phone out of your pocket and look for where the notification came from.
- Reward: The benefit you gain from doing the behavior. E.g. you find out what the notification was and satisfy your curiosity.
If the reward is positive, it creates a positive feedback loop that tells your brain to do the same actions the next time it’s triggered.
“A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”
— Charles Duhigg
Building a habit:
Start by scheduling your reminder. How?
- Actually schedule it: set a daily timer.
- Create ‘if-then’ statements if your habit isn’t necessarily time-based.
- Make your routine as easy to do as possible: Most new habits fail because we’re over ambitious in what we can achieve.
Eliminate all the other options: Until a habit becomes automatic it’s still a choice. The more you can make your routine not only the best option, but the only option, the more likely it will become automatic.
[…] On studies on self-control: “making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant.”
“To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.”
— BJ Fogg
A keystone habit is an action or behavior that sets off a chain reaction that encourage us to build other healthy habits without trying.
For example: for many people who want to be more healthy, they know they need to exercise, eat better, get more sleep…
Rather than building all of those habits individually, we can look at just exercising as a keystone habit. When we exercise, we’re more inclined to eat better, we fall asleep faster, and have more energy throughout the day. The one habit builds others simultaneously.
“The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self image. Basically, anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.”
— Charles Duhigg
Keeping good habits:
Awareness is key to building good habits. Red flags may be:
- Focusing too much on the end goal (“crash diets”).
- Taking on too much at once: maybe there’s more on your to-do list that you could do today. Taking on too much gives you an easy excuse to put off those habits.
- Procrastinating before we even trigger our habit.
- Creating a deadline, not a schedule: goals vs. habits. When you set a deadline for building your habits, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment if you don’t hit it. Instead, commit to a schedule. The power is in the process.
- Not being excited enough about the reward: a trigger and a reward aren’t enough to build a new habit. To build one that lasts, your brain needs to start expecting and anticipating the reward.
- Willpower: Willpower is what makes sure you don’t procrastinate and/or make excuses before triggering your routine.
- Motivation: Motivation is a tricky beast and can feel like it comes and goes without warning. To increase your motivation, first, reflect on your performance and the pride you find in completing your good habits. If this doesn’t work, try reminiscing about your past performance.
- Track your process: To keep ourselves on track and move our habits from decision-based actions to automatic responses, we need to be able to keep track of our performance.
- Feedback loops: These are quick and easy ways to track your actions and give you feedback on ways to improve them.
- Weekly, and monthly reviews: Regular reviews are great ways to see if you’re keeping up with your habits. A guide for weekly, monthly and anual reviews.
- Tools to track your actions: Both of these practices involve self-awareness of how you’re spending your time.
How to get back on track:
Life is chaotic and we can’t always stick to our new goals. The best strategy isn’t just to avoid failure, but to plan for it.
- Find an accountability partner: Habits built in silence are easier to break.
- Don’t fantasize about the end result, visualize yourself doing the work.
- Create a supportive environment.
- If you can’t do your habit, just do something: Missing one of your routines isn’t terrible. Just do something. If you want to build a habit of writing 1000 words but don’t have time today, write 500.
Change bad habits:
- Discover what sets off your bad habit: the trigger.
- Understand the craving your habit satisfies: you need to replace the routine, but replicate the reward.
- Switch the routine with something more beneficial
Setting boundaries for your actions is the first step in controlling your decisions. Control your decisions and you control your habits.