Few things in life are permanent.
You can’t get ripped by going to the gym once, or by eating clean for a week. Putting in one day of work won’t make you significantly better at anything.
In some ways, that makes things challenging. Almost everything meaningful in life comes through consistent progress. Feeling inspired and setting your alarm early to get to work in the morning is easy once or twice. But how about every day for a month, or a year?
That’s significantly harder.
Inspiration, or motivation alone is too fleeting to get you through the work that really matters.
So you need something more.
So what often separates the most successful individuals from everyone else? The habits they develop.
When you woke up this morning, did you deliberately think through the first hour of your day? Or did you roll out of bed, scroll through your phone, and get ready for the day without giving it a second thought?
How about exercise and nutrition? Did you really think through your decision whether to exercise today, and what you’re going eat at each meal? Or is your exercise, or lack thereof, a product of a habit you’ve developed?
More likely than not, habits run much of what you do in your life. In fact, it’s estimated that roughly 40% of the things you do each day are out of habit.
Habits are incredibly powerful. So it’s worth taking the time to understand how habits work, and to start to use that knowledge to your advantage.
The Habit Loop
Once you understand how habits work, you have the power to design parts of your life.
If you’re really interested in the details and some more examples, I strongly recommend reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. But for now, I’ll touch on the highlights, with most of the technical information coming from Duhigg.
The easiest way to think about the forming of a habit is by comparing it to the formation of a river.
On a perfectly smooth mountainside, rain falls and more or less randomly flows down the mountainside. For one reason or another, more water starts to flow in certain areas, and these areas start to become low spots. This makes it easier for the next wave of water to flow down this same path. Which then engraves the path even more deeply into the mountainside, and makes it even easier for more water to flow there in the future.
Eventually, enough water flows down this one path, that a full blown river is formed. And any future water that falls in the area is almost guaranteed to be funneled into the river.
It’s the same with habits. Once you do something a few times, you start to get in a groove. It’s like that first stream of water trickling down the mountain. At first, everything is conscious. It takes effort to follow the same path time consistently.
But over time, it becomes easier and easier. Every time you repeat the habit, it becomes easier to do it again. And eventually, you start to follow the habit without even thinking about it.
It actually becomes harder to not perform the habit than it is to continue with what you’ve been doing.
So what makes something a habit?
It can be broken down into three components:
- Trigger – a cue that tells your brain to follow a habit
- Routine – the behavior (physical, mental, emotional) associated with the habit
- Reward – the reinforcement that tells your brain to remember the habit.
Each of these components can be highlighted by a device that’s likely sitting in your pocket right now. If you spend any time using it, your cell phone has likely trained you without you even knowing it.
Every time you get a text or app notification, your phone probably vibrations or makes a sound.
That’s a trigger.
It’s a cue that you need to check your phone. So you do.
That’s the routine.
And as soon as you unlock your screen to see why your phone notified you, you get a dopamine rush. You literally feel better because you checked your phone.
That is your reward.
If you want to highlight just how powerful these forces are, try an experiment. Put your phone on vibrate, place it next to you, face down, and wait (you can do this while watching TV or doing something else). Now as soon as your phone goes off, pay attention to your reaction. And try not to check your phone.
If you’re like me, it’s almost impossible not to give in. As soon as I hear my phone vibrate, I can feel my hand start to creep towards it with even thinking about it. It’s automatic. And it takes some serious will power to overcome my natural reaction.
This little example highlights just how powerful the habit loop can be.
So the obvious question becomes: what can you do about it?
Building Good Habits
If you truly want to be successful, building good habits is critical.
Many of the top performers in the world attribute their success to the habits they’ve been able to develop. Whether it’s working out first thing in the morning, taking long walks to generate ideas, or cancelling meetings to guarantee that they can get enough sleep; extremely productive people find what works for them, and make it into a routine.
The good news is that starting a habit like this really isn’t difficult once you understand how you can implement all three elements.
My own life is a good example.
A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to get in the habit of doing a few pull-ups every day.
So I built a habit loop, using my alarm clock as a trigger, to help me do that. As soon as my alarm clock went off, I would walk directly to the pull-up bar and pound out some pull-ups. I then used my cell phone as a reward. I typically like to check my phone in the morning to see what happened while I was sleeping, so I delayed this phone check until after I finished my pull-ups.
Through the use of this habit loop, I was able to easily get into a routine of starting my day with pull-ups. It was simple.
So say you’re having a hard time finding the motivation to get to the gym, or to go for a run. Try building a habit to make it easier.
For example, if you want to go for a run every morning, get your running clothes and shoes ready before you go to sleep, and put them right next to your bed. Then, as soon as you wake up in the morning, but these clothes on. Now that you’re dressed, use that as your trigger to go for a run.
Then when you get back, find some way to reward yourself. Maybe you could treat yourself to a healthy breakfast you enjoy, or to a few minutes of browsing an app you like.
Ultimately, you’ll have to find what works for you. If having your clothes ready when you wake up doesn’t help, try scheduling runs with your friend, and using their presence as your trigger. Or try running right after you brush your teeth. There are endless triggers that you could use.
Same with the reward. If food doesn’t motivate you, try something else. Maybe you can read a book that you like when you get back from your run. Or maybe the endorphin rush, and the feeling of achievement that comes from running is enough of a reward for you.
The key is to find something that works, and then stick with it for at least two weeks until it becomes a habit.
On the other side of the coin, breaking bad habits can often be just as important as building good habits.
Bad habits are things that keep you from reaching your goals, such as:
- Watching too much TV
- Staying up too late
- Eating junk food
- Paying too much attention to your phone when you’re with other people
- Hanging out with bad influences
Just like building a good habit, you can also utilize the habit loop to break a bad habit.
It all starts with identifying the bad habit that you would like to change, and then figuring out what triggers the habit.
As Duhigg says, every trigger falls into one of the following categories:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately preceding action
So you’ll have to do some thinking to figure out what triggers your habit. But once you can identify the trigger, sometimes breaking the habit is as simple as eliminating the trigger.
For example, I got in the habit of scrolling through sports websites when I was bored at home. Rather than doing something productive, I would consistently waste 20 or 30-minute chunks of time reading articles on ESPN or Bleacher Report.
But since I was able to identify that boredom (an emotional state) was what triggered my time wasting, I was able to address it. I simply started keeping a book nearby whenever I sat on the couch. Then, when I would start to get bored, I could pull out my book and do some educational reading rather than wasting time on the internet. Suddenly I no longer found myself getting bored, so I was able to stop wasting time.
However, it often isn’t that easy.
Back in college, I got into the habit of eating ice cream after dinner every day. It was clear to me that the trigger was preparing and eating dinner (the immediately preceding action), but I couldn’t really do much with that information. I wasn’t going to eliminate dinner, or the act of preparing it.
So I had to turn to the reward.
At first, I assumed that I was eating ice cream because it tasted good. And although that was true, there was actually more to the story.
After doing some brainstorming, and playing around with a few hypotheses, I eventually figured out that the real reason for my habit wasn’t the ice cream itself. It was just that I wanted a break.
After working all day, and rushing home to throw together a quick dinner, all I needed was a few minutes to relax before I got back to work.
As soon as I realized that, I was able to find a healthier activity – playing 15 minutes of video games, or playing catch with my roommates – and end my ice cream habit over night.
So why does this matter?
Because understanding the real reason behind your habits is rarely straightforward, but it’s critical if you want to be able to change your behavior.
If I had assumed that I needed something sweet after dinner, I would have probably tried several alternatives – such as eating fruit, or some other type of sweet after dinner. But unless that gave me the break I wanted, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
If you’re going to effectively change a bad habit, you have to understand what triggers the habit, and the reward you receive from your behavior.
Just to summarize, breaking a bad habit can be broken down into a few key steps:
- Identify the bad habit
- Identify the triggers
- Attempt to eliminate triggers
- Identify the reward, and use substitution
So what now?
All of this information on habits is a great foundation, but admittedly it won’t do you any good unless you take action. If you take the time to think about how you can design the habits in your life, you have the opportunity to make a significant impact on your life.
And I’ve actually put together a workbook to help.
If you’re interested, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send you a workbook with some exercises to help you think about what habits you need to be successful in your pursuit, and then how you can focus on building the good habits you need and breaking the bad habits that are holding you back.
I hope to hear from you soon.