Most of our lives revolve around our habits. Habits govern a lots of our daily activities. For example, when stressed and incapable of making a decision, we resort to our habits. Old habits are hard to break. New habits are hard to form. This is due the behavioural patterns which humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways.
In this post I’ll cover four steps which when learned will give you the foundation to change unhelpful habits into positive ones.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle
Formation of habits
As a habit is forming, it can be analysed in three parts:
- the cue,
- the behaviour, and
- the reward.
The cue is the thing that causes the habit to come about, the trigger of the habitual behaviour. This could be anything that one’s mind associates with that habit and one will automatically let a habit come to the surface. Some examples of triggers:
- When you wake up (trigger), you start the coffee machine (habit).
- You arrive at work (trigger), you check your email (habit).
- When you get stressed (trigger), you eat junk food (habit).
We fill our lives with these trigger-habit combos, often without our being aware of them. If you drive home from work every weekday following the same route, you probably often drive by rote. You’ll make turns without thinking about it, because of constant repetition.
The behaviour is the actual habit that one exhibits, and the reward, a positive feeling, so continues the “habit loop”. So, how did these habits form?
- Through consistent repetition over the years.
- They started with actions performed very consciously at first, before they were a habit. And over time they became more automatic and less conscious.
- There is a feedback loop that helped us repeat the habit for a good length of time. For example, if you are stressed and then eat junk food, you might get pleasure or comfort (positive feedback). And if you don’t eat the junk food, you remain stressed (negative feedback). So positive feedback for indulging an urge and negative feedback for not indulging it makes to want to do it repeatedly, whenever the trigger happens, which leads to the formation of a habit.
The opposite feedback loop
The opposite feedback loop exists for many things, including exercise and eating healthy:
- If you dislike exercise or are out of shape, then when you exercise it is painful or unpleasant (negative feedback) and much more comfortable if you don’t exercise (positive feedback).
- If you prefer unhealthy food, then when you eat healthy food you think it’s boring, bland, or unpleasant (negative feedback), and when you eat unhealthy food, you enjoy yourself more (positive feedback).
And so feedback is set up so that you are unlikely to stick with these habits for long enough to actually make them automatic habits. Feedback is instead set up so that many bad habits (eating unhealthy food, being sedentary, doing drugs, will be repeated often enough to become habits.
We can reverse the feedback loop by engineering our habit environment. The following four steps explains how:
Step 1: Pick small easy habits
Do one habit at a time, and do it super small. How small? One extra glass of water a day. One extra vegetable. Three push ups. One sentence of writing a day. Two minutes of meditation. This is how you start a habit that lasts.
If you start small, you remove the resistance to starting, which is the hardest part.
Step 2: Pick a reliable daily trigger
A trigger is something already in your daily routine to which you will attach the habit. Habits become automatic after we’ve created a bond between the trigger and the habit. Each time the trigger happens, you need to consciously perform the new habit. It has to be very conscious and deliberate at first. But over time this gets easier, and the new habit becomes almost automatic. Do it as consistently as possible, every time the trigger happens. The less consistent you are, the weaker the bond between trigger and habit. The more consistent, the stronger the bond.
Some examples of triggers you might already have:
- Waking up
- Brushing your teeth
- Eating breakfast
- Reading your morning paper/checking email in the morning
- Commuting to work
- Coming into the office in the morning
- Eating lunch
- Commuting home
- Arriving home
So every time the trigger happens, you’ll very consciously do the habit, immediately after the trigger. With enough conscious repetition, the habit will become mentally bonded to the trigger. So you will need less conscious effort and reminders and accountability. And if we have bad habits, we want to take them off autopilot and disassociate them from their triggers. We need to list every trigger for the bad habit, and then come up with a new positive habit for each trigger.
Let’s say you’re going to meditate when you wake up, or work out when you get home, or read during your lunch break. When the time comes to do the habit (the trigger happens), launch into doing the habit, without delay. Focus on getting good at this skill of starting. When the trigger happens, have a reminder note nearby that says, “Just start.” Lower the barrier to doing the habit by making it smaller (meditate for a minute or two), create barriers to doing your usual distractions, and take the smallest first step. You’re going to practice getting good at starting, every day. If you master this, you’ll also get a lot better at not procrastinating with other stuff!
Step 3: Make a commitment
One of the best motivators (the best way to actually do the habit and stick with it) is social accountability. To do that, pick a group of people whose opinion you care about. Then make a commitment to doing this new habit every single day this coming month. Why a month? It’s a convenient amount of time, and it’s around the amount of time it takes for an easy habit to form if you’ve consistently done it every day. That’s not set in stone and depends on consistency and difficulty of habit and how much you enjoy the habit.
As soon as possible after doing the habit, report to the group of people you committed yourself to. Post a simple “did it!” will suffice. If you like, report on your stats as well: “I’ve done Day 6, I’m 6-for-6!” It’s important that you report each day, whether you failed or succeeded. Even if you fail, commit yourself even more to doing the habit the next day.
Step 4: Exploit feedback loops
Create positive feedback for habits you want to form. Good ways to do that are to start with habits you enjoy. Focus on the enjoyment of those habits, create social accountability (step 3 above) by telling your friends that you acted on the good habit, and rewarding yourself.
Create negative feedback for not doing the habit. Back to Step 3 again, social accountability is a good way to do this. Tell your friends you’re going to act on this new habit for 30 days, and for each day you don’t, there will be a negative consequence.
Reduce negative feedback for doing the habit. Don’t expect to form habits you persistently dislike; find healthy foods and exercise that you enjoy. Only do the activity you want to make a habit for 3–5 minutes at first, so it’s easy and not something you dread.
Reduce positive feedback for not doing the habit. If you sit on your butt and don’t exercise, don’t allow yourself to do other pleasurable things. Create negative consequences. Make people get on your case and take away your wireless router and cable TV box, for example.
How will you use the above four steps to change your life? Good habits will help you root productive, positive changes you want in your everyday life. They will help you focus on what’s important, not just what comes up. They will help you make sure you get done all the things you want to make sure gets done everyday. And that can mean a lot.