The very wealthy and extremely intelligent Warren Buffet once said “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken”. Another wise man, Aristotle also told us “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The majority of things we do on a daily basis have been automated and are basically habit at this point. Take driving your car for example, when you first got behind the wheel you had to think about each thing to do: turn the key, hit the brake, put the car in reverse, steer the wheel, hit the gas, look in your mirrors. Chances are now you hop in and take off without even thinking about it. This is because you have wired it as a habit in your basal ganglia. Once a routine is automated it seems as easy and mindless as tying a pair of shoes. Our habits have the ability to build us or to destroy us, if we take control of our habits we can take control of our lives.
So how do habits work?
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains:
“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”
To change an old habit, we have to identify the cue that causes the habit, develop a new routine and give ourselves a new reward. When your brain expects a reward even after changing a bad habit, you are more likely to pursue the new routine and stick to it.
“It seems like every time I try to create a new habit I cant stick to it” I feel ya. That’s why the gyms are packed in January every single year and by February they look like a ghost town. It can be very difficult to establish new habits. It would be nice to tell you there is an easy way but there isn’t. Your brain is literally wired for your existing habits and re-wiring your brain isn’t so simple. It won’t be easy. It may not be fun. It will be worth it.
Here are a couple scientifically proven ways to build new (and better) habits:
1) Find Habits You Can Group Together
Our habits, good or bad, tend to have other habits associated with them. Take smoking cigarettes for example, when studies were done on the health effects of coffee it was determined that it’s detrimental to our health. It turns out that coffee is full of antioxidants and actually pretty good for us, what the scientists didn’t take into account was that many of the coffee drinkers were cigarette smokers as well, they formed a habit of having a cigarette when they drank coffee. If you want to establish a new habit, find a couple other you can group together. If your goal is to eat healthier you could start going to bed earlier, or working out an extra day a week to make eating healthier easier to associate in your brain. Birds of a feather flock together and so do our habits, when you start a new routine find a couple other things you can group with it to make the change feel seamless.
2) Track Your Habits
Thanks to smartphones tracking our habits and taking control of our lives is easier than ever. Anecdotally speaking I have found it super easy to form new habits by simply keeping track of them using an app. There are a ton of apps out there for building new habits or breaking old ones, I highly recommend taking full advantage of them. I personally use an app called Strides. In Strides I can choose wether my habit should be practiced daily, weekly or monthly. I get to choose how many times per day, week, month, etc. I want to practice my habit. The app allows you to see a log of every habit and even builds streaks for you so that you know how long you’ve consistently done the habit. You can even have the app send you notifications which kind of acts as an accountability partner to remind you to take care of business. Personally this is my favorite method of building new habits. It makes the process simple and fun.
3) Eliminate Excessive Options
We could dive into all the studies of willpower and why it is better to have fewer options when it comes to pretty much everything in life but we don’t the attention span or the patience to read all that. Long story short this is why Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and Barack Obama (as POTUS) wear the same thing every single day. Reducing our choices allows us to focus on the shit that really matters. Willpower has been proven to run like a machine. At the beginning of each day we get a full tank of willpower. As the day goes on and we make more choices, pushing off this for that, choosing to do this instead of that, our willpower fuel is being used up until eventually we are on E. Eliminating excessive options will reserve our willpower for things that actually matter. Take a conscious look at your life and analyze all the small things you waste your willpower on that could be put to better use. Chances are you waste time and willpower over what to wear, what to have for lunch, which shoes match your outfit. I’m not saying wear the SAME thing every day like Zucks or eat the same meal for breakfast lunch and dinner but I am saying try to minimize the process because in the grand scheme of things the belt you wear isn’t worth burning up our willpower fuel over.
“Compounding is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.” — AlbertEinstein. Compounding applies to our habits too. If we create good habits eventually they will compound on one another and pay dividends to us. The key to a great life is to develop great habits.They either build us or break us. Hopefully this helps you develop some better habits and stick to them.