Habits provide structure for your life. They make the daily tasks easier for the brain so you can save its capacity for more demanding tasks. Such as trying to figure out why square pegs just won’t fit into round holes. Or does John Snow actually know nothing.
The steps you follow to brew the first cup of coffee after getting out of bed. The way you eat a box of cookies while watching the Anaheim Ducks get kicked out of playoffs. How you bite your fingernails when reading an intense novel. Or how you floss your teeth after placing down the toothbrush. These are all habits that you are doing without necessarily thinking of them. They’ve become a routine that takes a very little cognitive strain because your brain cells are functioning on autopilot.
Before digging into the actual “how to” part, let’s set some ground rules that will make your odds more favorable for changing and starting positive habits.
Step 1: Find your why
This is the crucial part that provides the platform for everything that will follow. This has to be specific. If you want to start an exercise habit you are not allowed to use vague terms such as “to be healthy” or”get fit”. To stick with your training routine you have to get to the bottom of your reasoning for doing so. Maybe it is to look more appealing to your partner, to avoid early onset of diabetes or to have more energy to run around with your kids. Whatever it is don’t settle for a vague answer as it won’t last. You will drop out as soon as life gets busier. And life is guaranteed to get busier, it always does.
Once you’ve find your why dig even deeper and come up with four more reasons to make the total of five why’s. Now, if you can’t come up with five reasons the goal is not important enough for you in the long run. Dig deep, this is important. Write these reasons on a piece of paper, or iPad or whatever if you prefer more modern approaches over ink.
Step 2: Make it easy
As I always say (and people much smarter than me say), what is the least amount of action you can take to get closer to your goal? Is it to train for two days a week? Judge how likely it is that you are going to stick with the new habit. If your answer is 9 out of 10 or more, congratulations, you’ve made a plan to get things moving in the right direction. If you are getting 8 out of 10 or lower it is a sign that you’ve taken on more than you can chew. In which case make the habit easier.
As long as the habit will get you in the right direction it doesn’t really matter. If in the past six months you haven’t done any sort of training, just by doing it once a week is an improvement.
In the past I’ve even heard someone who’s really struggling with exercise make things as simple as getting up in the morning and putting shoes on before taking them off again and going back to bed. Just putting those shoes on is a step into the right direction. Pretty extreme but it’s still part of laying the foundation for the exercise habit. Let’s avoid diving before knowing how to swim.
Step 3: Accept less than perfect
Here’s the truth. Like any other mortal being, I struggle with new habits that I’ve created or changed. Yet I reason with myself and say it doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it’s getting better than before.
One mistake won’t matter but two will make it a pattern. Two turns in to three and now you’ve formed a new negative habit. I’ve seen it happen over and over again with those who only have ON/OFF switch for healthy eating or training. Be happy when you get it right 85-90% of the time. Getting a paper cut doesn’t mean that I should cut my hand off with a chainsaw. Yet we often have that mentality when it comes to changing diet, training or other lifestyle habits. We are being unreasonable with ourselves. The bottom line: the progress won’t be linear. It’s up and downs with a trend of up over a long period of time.
How Habits Work?
The habit cycle is based on three different signals in your brain: Cue, Routine (action), Reward. In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg calls it the habit loop. He explains how the cue can be a visual cue, an emotion, time of the day, company of certain people or a sequence of thoughts. Routines can be complex or extremely simple. And the reward can be physical or emotional.
Let’s say that on most nights you are eating ice cream after finishing the dishes from dinner. You do the dishes and wipe the bench top (cue). You open the freezer and reach for a Magnum (routine). You bite into the creaminess of a Magnum with the intensity of a raccoon on heat. This sets off your taste buds to the sweet sweet dance of joy (reward).
You can find this cue-action-reward system in all habits in your life. Sure, it’s not always as simple as in the above example but the pattern exists, even if buried deep. We are creatures of habits.
How to Change Habits?
First you need to know the habit. This can be hard as we often don’t recognize them as they grow. It’s difficult or even impossible to change something when you can’t see it.
The simplest way to change habits is to use the existing cue and insert a new action. In the situation where you want to stop eating ice cream after dinner, it can be as straightforward as going to brush your teeth after finishing wiping the bench top. Your reward is to have the feeling of clean and shiny teeth as well as the acknowledgement that you are in control of your snacking.
You can also create completely new habits. You sit most of your days at work and want to move more throughout the week. Choose a cue such as setting up your alarm 30 minutes earlier each morning and go for a 30 minute walk. Pick a reward such as having breakfast or a coffee as soon as you finish your walk. Or you can walk somewhere to buy a coffee and then walk back. When the alarm goes off and you feel like smashing the phone (because who really uses alarm clocks anyway?) into the nearby wall think about that breakfast or a coffee or even the euphoric feeling that you’ll get after finishing the walk. Eventually you start looking forward to that feeling more and more and so, a new habit is born.
That’s it. Now, I am not saying that any of this is easy, quite the opposite. But nothing worth changing is easy. But it really is as simple as that. How long will changing a habit take? I don’t know. Some might take a week others might take months. It depends how ingrained something is between the earlobes.
To give you a bit of context how this work in real life, I’ve recently used this to stop my lifelong habit of picking fingers and nails. And trust me on this one when I say that my habit was well ingrained and I’ve tried everything under the sun to get rid of it. In the past I’ve been successful for short periods of time but only when I’ve been on holidays as my habit has always been anxiety driven. I’d pick my fingers when watching a tight hockey game, reading a book, watching a movie and the worst, while writing my blog posts. In the past I’ve decided on hundred or more different occasions that today is the day I’ll stop. And then 10 minutes later I’d be back at nail biting without even noticing.
What I realized was that I had to recognize the pattern when my nail biting happened and insert a new action. My reward? Healthier hands.
So, I found my triggers as I mentioned earlier and changed one small thing: every time I was about to pick my hands I took two big breaths or moved my fingers around with the thumb of the same fist (you know, as if “cracking” my fingers). That’s it. Was it hard in the beginning? You bet. But with each day passing it became easier and easier. And it is still not perfect. But it’s miles further than I’ve ever been before.
Other thing I noticed changing was my mindset. I became one of those people who don’t pick or bite their fingers. I was one them. I should probably say that I didn’t want to be one of those who bite their fingers. That’s part of my reward as well. I believed that I could be a certain type of person and I proved it to myself by having small wins. I believed in me more and more with each day passing.
It’s all well worth it. For the first time in my life I am actually using nail clippers. The first time I told my wife that I have to cut my fingernails the look on her face was priceless – I might as well have said that I’ve become a Scientologist and I believe that cars run on meatballs.
More recent habit I’ve changed is my Facebook/Twitter using. For a long time now I haven’t been checking social media on Sundays. And I find it easy to follow up. But during weekdays I am checking both in the morning and then keep doing it hourly for the rest of the day. So I acknowledged my cue which was checking Facebook after checking the email. So now instead of opening Facebook after email I open the Kindle app and read a page or two of a book. The reward I get is the extra reading time over social media nonsense about…nonsense.
I train a lady who’s slowly been building on habits on top of habits. Her first one was to eat two serves of vegetables for each day. After she was confident with that she added a serve of protein to most lunches of the week and so on.
This is a slow progress but what’s the hurry? She could do more, overwhelm herself (as she’s done in the past) and go back into the default mode that she’s had for her whole life. Then start again. By having these small wins she is starting to believe that she can become a person who values her health. If she is eating few more serves of vegetables and being a bit more aware of her protein intake than what she was a year ago, well, that’s winning.
It’s not sexy. It can be a hard sell for the I WANT EVERYTHING YESTERDAY – generation. But goddammit it works! I don’t care if you get super lean in 3 months if you are back into your old habits six months later. So you looked good for a while, so what? To me that’s not success. To me that’s a waste of time. What I want to know is can you do this in 20 years?
The more aware you are of your habits the better are your chances of changing them.
Here’s how you can get started
- What kind of person do I want to become?
- How can I myself small wins that will improve my confidence of becoming that person?
- What is one habit that I’d like to change in my life?
- Am I confident I can stick to this new habit for at least 90% for the next two weeks.
- What is the habit loop for that action (cue – routine – reward). How can I alter that loop?
- Am I comfortable with less than perfect?
- This will be difficult and you may want to stop. During those times say the mantra, “kids do want they want. Adults do what needs to be done.“
- Seeing a positive pattern will encourage you to stay motivated. Mark an “x” on your calendar every day you’ve successfully completed the chosen habit/routine.