“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”
Habits define our lives – it’s that simple. We are the result of the actions we repeatedly take. As powerful as our minds are, there is no substitute for action. For every success we seek to achieve, there is a series of habits that can lead us there. The downside to this is that there is also a series of habits that lead to all failures as well.
We all understand that habits are the things we repeatedly do without thinking. However, a habit isn’t just some imaginary idea that controls us – it is the result of actual processes that we’ve programmed in our brain. Every time we do anything, our brain sends messages to corresponding parts of the body through neural pathways. When we do something new, a new neural pathway is formed. The more a neural pathway is used, the stronger it becomes. This explains why breaking old habits and creating new habits are both difficult, because they are physically more difficult for the brain to do. This is also a large component of why we improve in particular skills with practice over time; we are strengthening those neural pathways.
Our brains are constantly operating without us consciously thinking about the individual processes like breathing, food digestion and blood circulation. So it isn’t very far-fetched to think that our habits could run on cruise control as well. This concept is very important to grasp before trying to change a habit. You need to realize that you are reprogramming neural pathways that may have been strengthening for years or even decades in some cases. It’s not enough to just want to change, you need to understand how to change also.
Identify the Root of Your Bad Habits
To take control of your habits you need to first identify them. This is usually the easy part, but try to look for bad habits that slip through the cracks. Many people don’t think checking Facebook every 20 minutes is seriously a bad habit, but just imagine if you made a habit of doing something productive every 20 minutes instead. Our bad habits are often a coping mechanism for something negative in our life, but not always. Sometimes we get too concerned with one area of life and don’t notice the bad habits forming in other areas. Identifying the root of the problem will help you decide how to address the habit and change it.
For every habit you identify, ask yourself why you started this habit? This is the most crucial part to changing a habit. Sometimes just knowing why is all you need to change simple habits. There’s usually not a simple answer to this question and you will need to actually spend some time in deep thought analyzing yourself.
I used to have a habit of watching too much TV, especially late at night when I should’ve been sleeping. This habit started when I was a kid, because I would watch TV when I got bored. Since that is how I chose to respond to boredom, my brain made note of that and every time I got bored it offered up a quick solution that worked in the past – in the form of a craving to watch TV. When I gave it some thought I realized that I was bored because my mind wasn’t being stimulated enough and when I was a little kid I thought watching TV was the best way to do that, or at least the easiest. As I got older though, I realized that reading and learning were what stimulated my mind the most. The result was that I was bored less often, so that neural pathway was used less often. I still got the urge to watch TV when I was bored at night though. It wasn’t until I filled virtually ALL of my time with other fun tasks that I reached a point where I never got bored anymore. Eventually the habit died off and now if I ever do get bored I get an urge to read instead. (By the way, I’m not anti-TV or anything. I just don’t ever turn on the TV to “see what’s on”, I prefer to DVR shows I like so I can skip commercials and get more entertainment in less time.)
To help find the root cause of your bad habits, look at your good habits. Most good habits are formed to add something positive to our life, where bad habits are often formed to deal with something negative in our life that already exists. Many people have a good habit of brushing their teeth because they want to have clean teeth. Most of us would agree that it doesn’t matter if a person is confident or insecure about their smile, they brush their teeth regardless. They might choose a whitening toothpaste if they feel their teeth aren’t white enough, but the main reason they brush to begin with is for hygiene.
Therefore, you should look for the negative thing your bad habit is treating and deal with that separately and not be distracted by a false reward. For example, people who have a habit of procrastination will often say that they are doing more “preparation” to get a better result when they finally tackle the task they’ve been putting off. In reality, the real reason usually comes from a fear of starting. Maybe they are afraid they can’t handle the task or that the result won’t be good enough. I would argue that some people who claim to have a good habit of “preparation” actually have a bad procrastination habit.
This isn’t going to always be black and white, so like I said, you really need to give it some thought. You should set aside at least 30 minutes to an hour to write down your bad habits and contemplate why you formed them. It is important to accept that you did form them, especially because it is going to be up to you to break them.
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”
How to Break Bad Habits
I’ve already covered the first two steps:
- Identify the bad habit
- Find the root cause of the bad habit
I’ve heard of several strategies for what to do next, but I’m just going to talk about what I’ve personally used since I’ve seen it work firsthand.
- Approach the root cause logically
At this point you need to look at the situation from a third point of view. Pretend a stranger was describing their problem to you, what would you honestly be thinking? That same critique should be applied to you as well. Think about it, at this point you have identified a habit that is holding you back and you have figured out why it is happening. Why would you want to continue this cycle at this point? There’s just no excuse anymore. All those years of reacting “without thinking” and all you had to do was take a second to question your own behavior. Obviously, the next step is to find a solution to the root cause.
- Implement a solution
At this point, you know when you are faced with the root cause that your mind will instinctively tell you to react with the bad habit. You will need to make the logical decision to ignore this impulse. The easiest solution to implement is to replace the bad habit with a good habit. You see this all the time with recovering drug addicts who completely change their lives and become obsessed with crossfit or their church. I’m not saying this is always the ideal solution, but it is effective for people who have addictive personalities.
I prefer to cut off the habit by addressing the root cause. Such as in the case of myself watching TV late at night. I just committed to reading a certain amount every day and this prevented me from getting bored enough to get the urge to watch TV.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Neuroplasticity and Forming New Habits
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to restructure itself after practice or training. To summarize: “neurons that fire together, wire together… neurons that fire apart, wire apart.” For the more detailed version, go here. Essentially, your mind strengthens a tangible neural pathway when you repeatedly do something. With enough dedication, you can form any habit as long as you can actually get yourself to do that task consistently for a little while. According to studies a new habit can be formed in as little as 7 days, but most recommend closer to 30. Personally, I think it takes at least 90 to create a good, permanent habit that was initially challenging.
Now this may sound like a long time, but that’s why I recommend starting small and building momentum. Forming new habits is obviously not easy, but you can make it easier than it has to be. In fact, you can make a habit of forming new habits.
How to Form New Habits
- Choose a new habit that benefits your life
- Break it down into specific benchmarks
- Set goals for each benchmark
I’ll show you how this works in practice. When I was a kid, I was a morning person. I hated sleeping in. Then in high school and especially college, that changed. I’ve always hated sleeping in, and refused to sleep in past 10- even on weekends. However, I had a very busy schedule and I would sleep in until I had just enough time to make it to class on time. Then when I graduated, this habit graduated with me. That’s when I decided to start waking up early on a regular basis.
I tried many different times and always failed miserably. Then I decided to change my approach. Instead of going from waking up at 7am to waking up at 5am, I decided to start slow. I first got comfortable waking up at 6:30am for a week or two, then 6am and so on. I’ve found that this works for two reasons:
- It requires less change
- You commit to a smaller timeframe
Waking up 30 minutes earlier than usual isn’t near as bad as 2 hours earlier than usual. Also, committing to one week is easier than one month. After all, if I couldn’t make it for one week of only waking up half an hour earlier then I definitely couldn’t have woken up 2 hours earlier for a month. By the end of that week I know where I stand. The good news is, a small change for one week isn’t that bad. Then you can use that momentum to push you to the next benchmark.
The Result: A couple years later, I now wake up every weekday at 5am and I’m in the gym by 6. For the first time in my life, I can actually workout in the morning before work! On the weekends I let myself sleep in ’til about 7 or 8 usually, I think it’s important to have balance in everything we do. If I can go from miserably rolling out of bed at the last minute to actually waking up early and going to the gym – you can too! You just need to figure out how to apply these principles to your particular situation and follow through.
Ultimately, there is no strategy that will help you change habits if you don’t dedicate yourself. You’re going to have to decide for yourself that you deserve to be committed to yourself. The world doesn’t reward wishers, it rewards doers. The thing about doers is that they have a habit of taking action. You recognize that you have bad habits and you know how to address them. You have new habits you’d like to add to your life and you know your brain has the ability to accommodate that change. What are you waiting for? As always, I leave you with two options. Make progress or make excuses.
Bonus: For those with crippling habits stemming your childhood or from a traumatic event, check out this book. It goes into way more detail than I did regarding identifying the root cause and breaking the connection.
99 Habits For Those Who Want it All
This FREE guide includes 99 action steps to get in shape, feel excited to start the day, and accomplish more in less time!
What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or have any thoughts to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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