Life is habit. Or rather, life is a succession of habits.
This is one of the most important points to remember if you are trying to change your life in any way. Understanding habits, how they work and how your brain processes them can lead to a much more successful life. Let’s talk about how they work, and specifically how you can start creating good habits right now for whatever goal you are trying to achieve.
Everything Is Habit
Brushing your teeth, riding the train to work, having coffee at 2pm, all of it is habit. It is claimed that 45% of the decisions we make daily are habitual. So nearly half of the things you do everyday are not from a determined choice, but just the natural rhythms of your body, like your heartbeat, or your breathing, most of your choices just happen.
Your brain acts like a factory. Imagine that you own a car factory, and you are trying maximise how many cars you build. You have two options,
1. Have your workers work from manuals, designing and building each individual car by hand from start to finish.
2. Automate most of the processes, making each worker perform repetitive tasks without having to worry about the whole car.
Henry Ford made the second decision, and revolutionized the car industry. Your brain works in the same way. Instead of you having to scrutinize the decision daily to brush your teeth, your brain takes over and you just do it. So how does this work with new habits you are trying to learn? Like eating healthy or exercise?
Motivation is Nonsense
Many people will attempt to create new habits but pure willpower. If you have watched a video about training, or read an article about the benefits of clean eating, maybe you have uttered something like, “RIGHT. From now on, I am going to eat healthy everyday”. That sounds great, but in 14 days when you are eating your 4th pizza of the week you might wonder where you went wrong.
Willpower is a resource, just like coal, wood or oil. You have a limited amount of willpower everyday. If you are trying to “will” yourself to eat well, it will only last so long. If you have a tough day, or you have made many tough decisions, by the time dinner comes around, your old bad eating habits will kick in, since your motivation will be depleted. So, what should you do instead? Create new habits.
How Habits Work
The simple formula that is now widely accepted by the mainstream psychological community is the following:
So a bad habit may look like this:
1. Cue: Feel Stressed at work
2. Routine: Buy and drink a can of coke
3. Reward: Sugar Rush
Your brain is very alert during the “Cue” and the “Reward” period, but during the “routine” your brain activity is low. This shows the way to hack your habits. Don’t obsess about forcing yourself to do whatever you are trying to do. The trick is to concentrate on the cue, and reward. Let’s put it into action.
Creating A New Habit
Using the above formula, you should concentrate on three things to create a new habit. Let’s say you are hoping to develop an exercise habit. You want to go to the gym every night as soon as you get back from work.
This is what you focus on first. These are the details of the habit, they are the things you are going to add to your life. So, if you want to go to the gym everyday, plan out what you are going to do there. Have a routine, have goals, know what you are going to do when you get there.
With exercise, the hormones that your body releases are uplifting enough to become addictive. They, in themselves can be a “reward”. However, the problem is that it will not happen overnight. If you are not used to exercise, and these hormones are not something you already crave, your body will not treat it as a reward immediately. This is where you need to trick yourself. Pick a reward that you will actually enjoy. This can mean chocolate, or some food that you love.
As soon as you return from the gym, give yourself that reward. This will cause your brain to crave that reward, thus cementing the habit. Eventually, your brain will learn to enjoy the hormones from the exercise, thus cutting out the need for the chocolate. By that time, the habit will be formed.
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, when they heard the bell, their brains told them to eat. Your brain needs something to trigger the behavior of going to the gym. For example, if your gym shoes are kept in a place where you see them as soon as you enter your house. This can be a cue.
What will happen is that your brain will see the shoes and automatically think of the chocolaty reward that awaits. This will trigger the trip to the gym.
So, the idea is:
Visible Gym Shoes — Trip to the Gym — Chocolate
Making it work for you
It might be that different rewards and cues will work better for you. It is up to you to experiment, pick a cue and reward you think you will respond to, try it for 21 days, and see the progress you make. The science and anecdotal evidence is huge in support of this method. If you rely on intelligently dissecting your habits, you won’t have to use willpower at all to completely transform many aspects of your life.