“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant
Creatures of habits is what we are. Whether you begin your day with checking the news or stock markets, replying to emails, munching on cookies and coffee, or cracking a joke with your co-worker, everything we do is based on mother natures need to conserve energy. If you take a moment to look at your life you will find that the way you think, level of productivity or procrastination, healthy food you eat, all boil down to habit; a repeated unconscious behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.
“Successful people are simply those with successful habits”. –Brian Tracy
At times, we get irritated with one or more of our behaviors and think ‘if only I could change it’. Habits, however, aren’t that easy to change, but is you understand how they work it’ll make the process easier.
Let’s explore how habits work and how to change them.
How do Habits Work?
Habits are the back bone of our behaviors. They are an easy and efficient way for us to live. They allow us to run on autopilot, and only pay conscious attention when there’s something unusual to pay attention to. That’s why when driving to work, for example, you can reach the office and wonder how on earth you got there, as you were daydreaming about vacationing on the tropical beaches of Peru.
Once our brain has learned the initial process and repeated it several times, the need to exert energy is no longer required to carry out a task; it becomes a habit.
Habits take place thanks to the basal ganglia in the brain. Essentially this is what allows the habit to become ingrained in the wiring of the brain, but it will do so only if there is a reward. Any behavior or biological response that produces benefits for the body stimulates the Dopamine system which is “read” as a reward. That’s why for example you might find yourself always reaching for a chocolate bar or soft drink whenever you get bored and tired in the office; the boost in sugar level is energizing and therefore rewarding which is the motive behind repeated behavior.
Why is it Hard to Break a Habit?
To change a habit, you have to override your brain’s previous wiring, which is the hard part. Why would your body and mind want to modify all of its hard work by adopting a new behavior that requires an initial spike in concentration and energy? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. When you try to, your body responds in protest.
How can you Change a Habit?
To alter a habit, all you need to know is how it works and some key pointers to keep in mind.
- Pay attention. The trick to habits lies in the knowledge that they run on a loop system. It all starts with a cue. A cue can be anything in the environment, a person, an object, a television program, a scent, or a time of day etc. A cue triggers a routine – a behavior, an emotion, or a thought process (without conscious awareness) that is subsequent to a reward. For example, when you get out of bed in the morning and walk into the kitchen (cue) the first thing you likely do is reach for a cup of coffee (behavior), that gives you a buzz of energy (reward). When there is reward, there is repeated behavior, a.k.a. a habit.
- Figure out the loop. The most important thing to do is to figure out this loop. Spend a couple of days monitoring yourself, and record your observations in a journal. Watch and question yourself to see when, why, how, where you perform your different habits. Write down why you want to stop it.
- Define a new habit. Habits cannot be removed, they can be replaced; if you’re left with nothing to fulfill the reward system previously wired into the hardware, your body and mind will likely go straight back to the habit you’re fighting to get rid of. Clearly define the new habit to substitute the old.
Now let’s carry on with the above mentioned example: when you get out of bed what if you reach for a cup of lukewarm lemon water instead of coffee. Here you have the same cue (you get out of bed and walk into your kitchen) and the same reward along with various benefits for your overall health (a buzz of energy), but the behavior (having lemon instead of coffee) is different. To do this, write down what new habit you would like to start in your journal. Ask yourself why, what’s in it for you, and what will come out of it on the long run?
- One at a time. To implement a habit, it is best to repeat the behavior every day for a minimum of 30 days, regardless of however often you plan to put the habit into practice. The longer time spent applying it the better. It requires energy and conscious attention, so practice one at a time until it becomes ingrained and automatic, and then move onto another.
Every time you have an impulse to slip back into an old habit, here are several pointers to help you withstand it:
- Open your journal and reread the reasons for the new habit.
- Tensing and releasing muscles is a way to hold off your urges.
- Remember that urges are temporary.
- Find a distraction.
Altering habits can change your life significantly. It is not easy to add and remove a habit but with the right amount of attention and consistency, any behavior can become part of everyday life. Put in the initial effort, resist the urges, and it will be well worth your while.