Our lives are a culmination of lots of habits.
These habits form because our brain essentially needs a break, a way to automate simple processes so our brain can work more efficiently, leaving room to spend more effort on complex processes. Because of this automation we fortunately don’t have to think about something as simple as how to tie our shoes each morning.
Your habit of tying your shoes is something that became a habit because you did this small thing every day and it eventually became automated. When you were a child you thought. “Now that I’m 4 I should learn how to tie my own shoes”, or who we kidding Mom was sick of doing it and said, “Honey, it’s time for you to do this on your own”. So the new task at hand was the new goal. My goal wasn’t to tie my shoe once. My new goal was to become someone who ties their own shoes. My point, although illustrated in very juvenile terms, is actually the most crucial aspect of the habit making process to understand. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, said
“A habit isn’t a finish line to be crossed, it’s a lifestyle to be lived.”James clear
To create healthy habits it’s imperative to integrate them into your lifestyle.
Habits also serve as a mechanism for quick problem-solving. When we encounter pain, our brain immediately searches for a way to avoid it. Similarly, whenever we encounter joy or gratification, our brain stores those neurological linkages to keep benefitting from that pleasure, to repeat it.
With unhealthy habits, we get immediate gratification. The results are instant. It’s in the long run that they hurt us. Think of eating a donut. It’s delicious, it satisfies our sweet tooth and you don’t see the weight put on that day nor the decay on your teeth that night. But in a year you will see the effects.
With healthy habits, we get the opposite result, no instant gratification. The now is really hard. Working out for example you get sweaty, tired, and sore. You don’t even see the results of your workout when you’re done. It’s not until the future that you get the satisfaction from your efforts.
Since we are not naturally wired for delayed gratification it’s hard to do hard things that we don’t see the benefits of until many months later. To read more about delayed gratification click here. Our Paleolithic roots were all about keeping us alive. We had to run so we didn’t get eaten by the lion. We had to work hard all day to find food to eat that day. All of our efforts were to keep us alive and we had instant gratification for doing so. Just in the last 500 years or so we’ve had a shift in how humanity survives. We no longer have to work all day just to eat. In fact, we work all day to receive a paycheck in 2 weeks and we go to college for 4 years to get that degree so we can get a job to eat. Our healthy habits are the ones we have to work hard for now and be patient enough to see the benefits of in the future.
The cost of your good habits is in the present. The cost of your bad habits is in the future.JAMES CLEar
PROCESS OVER GOAL
This is why having not only a process but the right process is crucial.
You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your processes.JamES CLEAR
Without a process, we are beholden to our habitual, automated brain to take the path of least resistance. Our brain will default to easy and comfortable – instant gratification.
When we were young most of our habit formation was due to our life influences: our parents, friends, and teachers. We take on the habits of the people around us. If my parents drink soda at every meal, I grew up doing the same. If my parents went on walks every night after dinner, I probably still do that. If my parents are republicans, I probably am too. If my friends all played soccer I probably wanted to be right there with them.
As we become adults we start to recognize our habits. We mostly notice them because we’re not satisfied with something. We might notice that we’ve put on weight or that we wish we had more money.
Our goal is always the same, I want something different or better. We decide I’m going to go on a diet or I need to get a different job. But why is this not easy to achieve? Why don’t we just do it, make the change? The problem isn’t the goal. The goal is a great idea but it’s just an idea. The goal doesn’t make the habit which then makes the life change. The problem is what we DID OR DID NOT DO to get us to where we are now, the place where we are NOT happy or thriving.
The habit is the ACTION that gets me to achieve the goal. Our lives change when we integrate new daily steps, new habits. It’s the action we take. But before we can incorporate habits we have choices to make. What’s my plan or process?
The goal: I want to lose weight.
The process: what plan should I put into action to get me there?
The habit: the daily action or steps I’m going to do to achieve weight loss.
These are important questions because the answers are crucial to our success. We want to create a new habit that causes us to have a life change. The goal we can now toss to the side, we don’t need to focus on that anymore. Our focus needs to be on the choices, the process first. My choice to run to lose weight might be a good choice because it could take my weight off the fastest. But, what if I abhor running and I have a bad back? I will have a tough time keeping my process if I hate it and if I’m too sore to do it. Even if I do make it to my goal and lose the weight, I won’t be able to make a life change because my back won’t hold up. On top of that, I won’t enjoy my life very much if I’m doing something every day that doesn’t make me happy.
So make a better choice!
If you love playing basketball you’ll be excited to do it, you’ll enjoy the friendships you make and look forward to meeting up with your friends. The weight might not come off as quickly but you’ve created a new lifestyle that got you to your goal, you enjoy your new life, and your body doesn’t break down which means you can play more often. You’ve created a new habit because you picked the best process for you.
Next is the daily or consistent action. You can’t just say I’m going to play basketball when I get an invite. You have to take action. Join a team that plays consistently and practices multiple times a week. Or if you’re playing pick-up make sure you gather a list of back-up players so that if someone cancels you don’t have an excuse not to play.
Buy a bag and take your gear with you to work each morning. Make a list of things that you’ll need to do each day to make sure you play. If you can only play a few days a week, commit yourself to exact days and times each week. Make the proper reservations ahead of time so you have the court.
The more specific and prepared you are the better. Creating your process takes some effort and time in the beginning but soon it’ll be a new consistent schedule that you won’t have to think about anymore.
I often sleep in my workout clothes and put a full water bottle on my nightstand each night. This way when I wake up, I have no excuses. I’m dressed and I have my water, so I head straight to my exercise bike. It’s been automated because I don’t have to think about anything. My sweat towels are in a basket next to the bike and I have a stack of books that I look forward to reading each time I’m on it. I’ve created an environment for success that voids out the distractions. If I had to go to the kitchen to fill my water I’m giving myself ample opportunity to be distracted by the tasks I need to get to in the kitchen.
HOW TO STOP YOUR UNHEALTHY HABITS
The process of automating routine tasks is beneficial for my healthy habits like when I’m thirsty, for example. I don’t have to think about this simple problem. I don’t have to re-learn what to do every time I’m thirsty.
What about when our unhealthy routines get automated? Here’s an example. Every morning while getting my kids off to school I end up yelling at my kids because they’re not hurrying and I don’t want to be late. When I start to yell at them they kick it into high gear and hustle their buns and we’re not late. My trigger is alleviated. I got my kids to respond. It’s a quick fix. But this is an unhealthy habit. My kids responded but in the end I feel worse because my kid’s don’t leave to school on a happy note, feeling love. I don’t feel good about myself either. I’m being a horrible example of how to communicate and I’d love to have more happiness and love in our home.
The process goes like this:
You’re thirsty (the trigger)
You get a drink (the solution)
You’re satiated (trigger alleviated)
I’m mad– no one is listening to me about hurrying up for school so we’re not late (the trigger)
I yell– they finally listen and start moving quickly (the solution)
The kids are startled; feel threatened– so they start hurrying. (trigger alleviated)
How do we “un-automate” the unhealthy habits?
The key is to SEE the unhealthy process that is in place so that we can change that process to one that facilities the healthy changes we want to make, getting us to our healthier goal.
You have a need that craves to be satisfied. If you stop cold turkey you will be unsuccessful at stopping the habit because the craving is still there. People that smoke might think they just crave the nicotine but really it might be gathering outside for a break with friends during work with other smokers. The need is your craving for a break and socializing. If you recognize this then you can put into place a process to meet with a different group that doesn’t smoke and instead play cards for 15 minutes.
STEP ONE: Recognize Your Triggers!
By watching and seeing when your unhealthy habit manifests, you start to see patterns. Patterns like, does it appear at a certain time of day, or when I’m in a certain mood (happy, sad, anxious, tired, hungry, or threatened)? When you watch it, you then start to see what TRIGGERS you. Because so much of what we do is on autopilot we might not know what is actually driving that unhealthy habit. By addressing what triggers you, you can then take away the power of that trigger.
Here are 3 of the most common triggers.
Waking up is a common trigger that usually leads to a sequence of habits. However, there are also some examples in which time triggers a routine that is less obvious. If you think about your everyday behaviors, you can probably recognize some things that you do without really thinking about it at the same time every day. Maybe you eat chips at work every day at 3, or you watch television every night before bed.
If you can recognize WHY you engage in a certain habit around the same time every day, then it will be easier to form a new habit that will serve the same purpose.
Your environment can either encourage positive habits or influence bad ones. When we were all quarantined for COVID-19 I was home all day. I rarely drove anywhere. Before this, I would easily go through a pack of gum a week. I noticed that I hadn’t eaten any gum in weeks. I started to notice the pattern that supported it. It was because I only ate gum when I drove. I didn’t realize that chewing gum while driving was a weird habit I had. Some habits can easily be broken when we realize the environment that supports them.
Environmental-based triggers can also be the impetus for creating new habits. In fact, research has shown that new habits are easier to form when you’re in a new location because you’re not being exposed to familiar triggers. For example, people who are trying to stop drinking are often told to not go to the places where they usually drink. Instead, they should find new places to hang out that they don’t associate with drinking alcohol.
One possible reason for this is that we associate habits to certain locations. You probably associate your office with working or the shopping mall with buying new things. If you wanted to form a new habit in a location that you frequent, you would have to overcome the trigger that you’ve already assigned to that area. On the other hand, forming a new habit in a new place offers you a clean slate where you don’t have to overcome triggers that are already set in your mind.
3. Emotional State
This one is HUGE. In fact, I would say this is the driving force behind most of all of our behaviors and habits. We are often weak when we are driven by our emotions because it’s painful or uncomfortable. Our brain naturally defaults to “GET RID OF IT QUICK”. We let the emotion rule us. We use this as an excuse too. We say well I was hungry so I had to eat the Doritos that were sitting right in front of me, instead of being uncomfortable for 20 minutes and feeling the hunger pain until I got up to make myself a healthier choice of meal.
Or, like my previous example when I’m feeling pressured for time in the morning with my kids. As I focused on my triggers I noticed that I was triggered not only at certain times of day but also I had emotions that were being triggered. I noticed that I consistently felt the same emotions. When I patiently asked my kids to “hurry so we’re not late” and they didn’t respond on my 4th time repeating myself I started to feel not respected or appreciated. In fact, I felt like they deserved to be chastised and yelled at because how dare they not see how hard I’ve worked for them all morning. When you address your triggers, “you call them out” you say I notice that I am triggered by X, it decreases it’s hold over you, it gives you power over it. In fact, it’s the first step to taking your power back. You are now the one in charge. I can now CHOOSE how to act and I can act better! CLICK The Power of Choice to read more about the power you have to change your life!
When you start to get triggered….NOTICE IT! If you know you’re about to blow your lid or get triggered it is “here” where you can STOP it. But you have to see it coming. When I feel my anger rising I think, “ oh crap I’m about to lose it”. And then insert anything that will cause me to pause. What works best for me is to take a DEEP breath. This instantly creates a space in my brain where I “insert” rational thinking in place of my uncontrollable reaction. Instead of my child receiving my emotional reaction they hear “I’m about to get really mad and I don’t want to do or say something I’ll regret. I’m going to leave the room for a few.” That deep breath is my pause and it allows me just enough “space” in my brain to catch myself from spiraling.
This might take some practice. It’s hard! It requires you to be aware of whatever emotion you’re experiencing, meaning you have to be both emotionally and consciously aware at the same time. Unfortunaely, you usually aren’t aware of your more extreme emotions until after they’ve passed. How many times have we been in a situation where we’ve felt awful for what we just said and wish we could turn back time for a re-do?
Unfortunately, there are no re-do’s. By noticing first, then pausing we don’t have to “hate” ourselves after a blow-up anymore. By taking this “pause” it allows us to gain control again and step out of your emotion and be consciously aware. So now that you know to notice your triggers…
STEP TWO: Address The Trigger Or Need
When you find out what triggers you, you need to address that emotion properly. You don’t want to put in place a fix that doesn’t address your need. For example, if you’re trying to cut down on wasting time on social media then find out why you enjoy being on social media. If you just enjoy reading about people’s lives, reading a book could fill that need, but if you go on social media because you’re lonely and it’s a way for you to be social and connect with friends then reading won’t fill that need. A better replacement would be calling a friend on the phone. Now you will be addressing your need for friendship and community. Your new habit will be easier to keep because you got to the root of the need and found a proper solution for it. Another bonus is you’ll build better connections with friends and family by reaching out to them and speaking directly with them. Watch a great Ted Talk about the power of connection given by Shawn Achor with over 22 million views. The title of his talk is The Happy Secret to Better Work. It also addresses our needs for connection which is a common trigger for a lot of us.
STEP THREE: Replace The Habit
Like with my gum, when I learned that my trigger was environment, just changing that fixed my trigger. I didn’t need to replace the habit with anything. But for most habits, there is a need it fills, usually emotional. Find a better, healthier was to address that need. Often people think that they can stop a bad habit cold turkey, that the habit it the problem to address. Of course, the habit is a problem but it’s not THE problem. For example, an alcoholic started off taking a drink and it made their difficult emotion go away (sadness, stress, loneliness) so just taking the drink away doesn’t make the problem of the sad emotion go away. It will be really hard to keep the new habit of not drinking if you don’t replace it with a different habit that makes that pain go away. If we had the choice to never be sad or stressed or lonely then we wouldn’t need to replace it but we live in a world full of emotions. It’s not healthy to not have feelings and emotions even when they’re the hard ones. Read more about the importance of feeling ALL your feelings in How To Find Happiness In Your Suffering.
Instead by finding a healthier “hobby” when I’m feeling stressed or sad, I can find a better, healthier way of addressing or feeling these emotions. For example, if you’re feeling lonely, call a friend or go on a walk. Make a lunch date for tomorrow so you have something to look forward to. If you’re feeling stressed go play cards with friends, or paint, go do your favorite activity that can allow you some space to take a break from the problem.
Going on a walk is my go-to. The power of being in nature is a great way to put life into perspective and getting your body moving produces endorphins, a natural mood booster, so you can better clear your head and be better equipped to take on the things in your life causing you stress. In my example of yelling in the morning, because I knew that I felt triggered by lack of time I started preparing the night before. I had the kids lay out their clothes for the next day. I made the sandwiches and vegetables for their lunches the night before so they could just grab them in the morning when making their lunches. This was a pretty simple fix that alleviated a lot of stress in the morning. And when I didn’t feel hurried I didn’t yell at my kids.
STEP FOUR: Connect Your Habits
We are all accustomed to the sequence of many common events. When a horn honks, people look out to address it, when the phone rings, we answer it, when we’re thirsty, we get a drink. Like we talked about in the beginning our brain automatically simplifies these everyday events to make its brain life easier. But this also holds true with forming unhealthy habits. We just connect the easiest and quickest things to our need and then over time, it became a habit. But at that moment before I let my automated mind take over, if I pause and realize I have a choice on how I want to connect the need or trigger that pops up, I can connect the need with a healthier solution to satisfy my need.
For example, if usually when I’m feeling lonely I grab food to fill the void why not just switch my “unhealthy fix” for a “healthy fix”. Instead, I can call a friend every time I feel lonely or go on a walk with my dog to the dog park because I’m bound to run into someone I can talk to and connect with. Do you see how this is an actual real solution to the need I’m having? I’m creating better habits by finding lasting and fulfilling solutions to my real needs.
These sequences are automated responses that have become habits. So why not do the same thing when we want to create a new healthy habit? Create habit sequencing or habit connectors. When we do something over and over it becomes automatic, it becomes a habit that we don’t think about or even have to put effort towards keeping. When I wake up I put my workout clothes on and go for a run. I don’t leave room for a decision, I just do it until it becomes automated. I don’t think many people wake up in the morning and say “I wonder if I should brush my teeth this morning”? It’s automated. There’s no choice. Your body just does it.
STEP FIVE: Practice
Being able to form habits is just like any skill. It takes practice. If you wanted to run a marathon you wouldn’t be very successful if you showed up for the race without any training. This is the same as being successful at learning habit formation. Start with a goal you know you can keep. For example, when I talked about getting up and running every morning, you might need to practice it first. So a better way to start would be every morning, the first thing after waking, I’m going to put my workout clothes and walk around the block. It might take you 10 minutes max. Train your habit making muscle by doing just that first. Eventually, you’ll have automated that routine. You won’t even think about it. Even when you’re still in your sleep fog, you are dressed in workout clothes and heading for the door. You might not even realize how you got there. You’re just taking baby steps towards practicing a small goal that you know you can keep. You might have to do this for weeks until it becomes a new habit. But that’s ok because right now you’re just practicing and learning how to get better at keeping habits in general. The focus isn’t actually the running right now. The focus is on strengthening your habit making muscle. It takes time. But that’s fine because we’re no longer looking for the “quick fix” we’re looking for changes we can make and keep for a lifetime. Eventually, you’ll add on to that habit and start running around the block, after a month of this, you start adding more blocks until you’re on your way to becoming a person who runs.
STEP SIX: Start Small
I love this concept because you can’t have any excuses. For example, if I want to read more. I pick an amount of time I know I can commit to. I can have a goal to read for 5 minutes every night before I go to bed. Everyone can do that. Or I can do 5 sit-ups. It’s not that 5 sit-ups is going to get you rock hard abs, obviously, but what you’re teaching yourself is that I can totally do 5 sit-ups. It takes about 10 seconds. Or if you have a goal of drinking more water, you can make a goal to drink 5 sips at every meal. The point is, you’re more apt to do something simple, because it’s so ridiculous. Why not? Inevitably you end up drinking most of the glass of water or doing 10 crunches and each day you do a little more. What’s even better is when you start small and then connect it to another habit. Like, every time I brush my teeth I’ll do 5 crunches. Because you have the habit of brushing daily, you are reminded to also do your crunches. Starting small also means start with 1. Choose one goal at a time. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Keep it simple and concise so your focus can be on this one thing until you get it accomplished. You’ll have greater success at keeping the one habit.
STEP SEVEN: Build Off Your Prior Successes
When you accomplish something that was hard or uncomfortable to do, you just proved to yourself that, “I CAN DO HARD THINGS”. Ride that wave of confidence. Success begets more success. Now that you just “started small” and accomplished that first, high-success, easier goal, step it up. This is where you stretched yourself and you grew. Build on that and do something a little more challenging when you’re ready for the next goal to tackle. Click Being Uncomfortable Is Paramount For Success to learn more about the benefits of doing hard things and why pain is necessary for growth.
HOW DO I GET BETTER AND DO BETTER?
TO CHANGE A HABIT
1. Notice what TRIGGERS you.
2. When you know your trigger find a healthier SUBSTITUTE that still meets your NEED. Do you need to CHANGE YOUR ENVIRONMENT, do you need to be aware of the TIME or lack of time? What EMOTIONS need to be addressed?
3. REPLACE your habit with a healthier habit.
TO MAKE A NEW HABIT
4. CONNECT your new habit to a habit you already have
5. PRACTICE by growing your habit making muscles.
6. START SMALL and pick things that will be easy for you to achieve while in muscle making practice mode.
7. BUILD OFF YOUR PRIOR SUCCESSES. As you have success your confidence will grow. You’ll realize I just created a new habit. I can do this. I have a process and it worked for A…now I’m going to try B (something a little more challenging) and I’m sure I will be able to do this too.
Please let me know how this helps you create new healthy habits and get rid of the unhealthy ones. Or, if you have something that works for you I’d love to learn form you! Please comment below!