We are creatures of habit. Knowing this, a reasonable question would be, how are we establishing them?

The basics of habits

Anyone that tried fruitlessly to set an exercising routine or shun away a gross habit like picking your nose know how powerful habits can be, no matter how big the mountains look.

In reality, what we do every day is a fundamental part of what we are, and once set, they become almost unconscious, autonomous and unquestionable.

In spite of all scientific progress on understanding them, our grip on our habits stays eerily constant and creating or destroying them feels like a draconian task.

But does it need to be this way?

What you should know about your habits

Everything we do and say is orchestrated by the brain’s neurones, and you see, the brain is an incredibly efficient machine, so it likes to put actions we often do in “automatic mode”. This is why you don’t think about breathing or blinking – you just do it and could to it asleep.

In practice, the constant repetition of anything leads the brain to create neural paths, which means your brain is creating shortcuts for the things you often do.

Do you see where this takes us to? You can make use of these shortcuts by creating new, desirable ones.

Ride that impulse

A Little experiment: stand up and run, from corner to corner of your room, three times in a row.

We’ll wait.

Did you do it?

We bet no, but if you look closely, there are two tasks:

  1. Standing up and start running
  2. Doing it three times

Do you think you’d have a problem running a second or third time after the first? Just like with workouts, the hardest part of starting a habit is, well, starting. Once you are moving, inertia does its job and doing more laps feels natural.

A common pitfall when setting up goals and habits is that we aim too big (e.g., running 60 laps in 60 seconds), giving us room to feel uneasy about whether “it’s worth it” or not to stand up and run.

Contrary to what conventional “shoot for the stars” wisdom says, you should try to aim just a bit higher than where you are (“Ok, tomorrow I’ll do four laps instead of three”).

Rather than setting yourself up for failure, set goals that while being an improvement, are low enough that you can’t rationalise your way out of them. Completing them will push you to the next step, the secret is always having a next step you can step on right now.

Follow the triggers

Our actions have three ingredients: intention, motivation and skill.

Skill is what all those courses and books have given you; but when it comes to motivation, it’s easy to think of it as wanting to do something, which is just the intention. Motivation, on the other hand, is the catalyst of action.

This distinction is important because you can have all the intent in the world to change but no real urgency (motivation).

Just as likely, you can have all the reasons in the world to change a bad habit, but if you don’t want to (have the intent) nothing is getting done.

While intent comes from within, motivation is often born from outside events (having no money, your loved one dumping you, etc.) So, don’t rely only on yourself for change.

Instead, let others know you want to change your habits and ask them to call you on your failings, write your goals down on paper (or better, a calendar) and pin it on a public board, and in general, do anything that puts outside pressure into completing your goals.

So, look for the triggers.

Set timely goals

How long do you have to do something before it’s considered a habit? 21 Days is a number that makes the rounds from time to time.

Of course, it’s wrong.

In reality, you are looking at 2+ months, or about 66 uninterrupted days. And if it’s a skill you want to get proficient at? We are talking years.

In the end, you’ll need to commit. You’ll need to get into the mindset that whatever you are doing (exercising, reading, eating healthy) isn’t a marked goal down a road you can cross over and be done with. Healthy, personal-growing habits are a lifetime deal, and you should treat them like you’d do eating or brushing your teeth.

The good news? Well, have you ever thought how painful it is to have to brush your teeth every day, probably (hopefully) multiple times a day?

No?

That’s proof of the system working in your favour 😉

That’s all cool but how do I get rid of __________? I’d really like to change that now.

If you can fill the blank, congratulations! Being conscious of your bad habits and having the intent to change is the best first step.

To get rid of bad habits, you can always aim at their three cores:

  • The Trigger
  • Your Reaction
  • The Rewards

Let’s see what these mean:

Aiming for the trigger

Get rid of the stimulus, get rid of the habit. Want to stop eating junk food? Don’t keep any, don’t get anywhere near it, ask others to keep it to themselves.

It’s the same logic behind quitting smoking by running away from cigarettes, and just like it, withdrawal is very common.

What do you do to fight it back? Fill the gap with something better.

For example, lots of habits like biting your nails or hunting for midnight snacks are born out of anxiety; but did you know workouts can get rid of anxiety too? (https://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety)

It might look bizarre (and you’ll feel it’d be asking too much to yourself), but this “cheating” is very effective when eliminating bad habits. In the end, is all about needs and fulfilling them.

Control your reactions

“Like if it was that easy!”

This is where you must get a little help controlling your BFF the brain: reach out to someone you spend a lot of time with and tell them him/her you want to change some habit and you’d like them to keep an eye on you.

You can go further, and promise them you’ll go through punishment (sit ups?) if they catch you breaking your rules.

Next time you face the trigger (e.g. you are offered junk food), it won’t be only you fighting it back, but you’ll have the pressure of not wanting to disappoint your other and avoid the punishment.

It’s not elegant, but neither is trying to tackle bad habits by yourself and wondering where you went wrong one month later.

Eliminate the reward

Have you heard of bitter nail polish? Does cancelling your Netflix subscription sound too extreme? This one is all about cutting out the pleasure part of your guilty pleasures. It’s ruthless, scary, and effective.

Always remember, breaking out of had habits and establish healthy ones will feel a lot like those movies and PSAs about addictions: they’ll come and go and resurface or disappear when you least want them to.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

– Aristotle

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