Everyone’s talking about habits and their importance these days. It seems like most people have caught on that you can’t find success in business or in life without eliminating your bad habits and putting good habits in their place.
Habits literally define who you are and what you achieve. If you have a habit of sitting on your couch watching television every night for five hours, there’s no way that you will ever achieve all those big dreams you have or create that amazing thing you’ve always dreamed of creating.
But establishing good habits doesn’t just refer to what you do at work or what you do to improve your professional prospects. Every aspect of your life, from your health to your relationship to your finances is affected by the habits you establish and maintain over the years. Which means that good habits aren’t just the key to achieving your goals, they’re also the key to living a healthy and happy life. And that’s the most important goal you should have.
What good habits do you want to adopt? What bad habits do you want to get rid of? And how much have you struggled with both of these aims?
The Science of Habits
Habits are very energy efficient. The human brain has thousands of things to do at every moment and everything takes energy. Which is why it’s constantly looking for ways to save energy. Establishing habits is a great way to achieve that. When habits are well entrenched, they take very little thought to execute. You do them without thinking and without arguing, leaving more energy for the brain to do other things. This is why the brain creates neural patterns for each habit, literally wiring them into the brain.
These patterns may be useful for saving energy, but they also make it really difficult to break old or bad habits. These patterns can be changed, but the old patterns remain under the new, ready to be triggered and re-established at any time. This is why some people go back to their old habits months and even years after breaking the original habit.
When your current habits give you pleasure it can be even harder to break them. This is because of the reward centre of your brain. Your brain is designed to be sensitive to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s released when you do something pleasurable. This rush of dopamine improves your mood and makes you feel good, but it can also reinforce bad habits.
People who overeat or smoke are probably reacting more to this rush of dopamine than to the activity itself. And unfortunately, because the brain loses its sensitivity to dopamine with repeated exposure, people have to do more of their bad habit to get the same level of pleasure from the dopamine release. In some cases, this can be extremely dangerous as it leads to addiction and other associated problems.
The Lies about Habits
There is no one way to create habits and achieve success. The truth is that there are thousands of ways, and each of them may work depending on the context and the person. Habits aren’t magic pills and there’s no secret strategy or idea that will suddenly make it easy and simple. And if you’re looking for that, you’re just going to be disappointed.
The truth is that there’s only one way to develop good habits and that’s to work at it. It takes time and hard work and dedication. You will fail and you will have days when you feel so dispirited that you just want to give up and watch television. And no amount of motivation, magic strategies or good advice will change that. But if you push through those times, if you make the decision to keep going regardless of the barriers, you will probably find that success is waiting for you just on the other side of the obstacle. That’s often the way it goes.
Another lie that’s told about habits is an old one and you’ve probably heard it. This lie says that it takes 21 days to establish new habits. The truth is that this is an arbitrary number. Some habits are established faster and some take more than sixty days. Everyone is different and their lives are different, and the amount of time it takes you to establish a new habit is going to depend on you, on your brain chemistry, and on your dedication to your goal. So whatever you do, don’t get to 21 days and think that you can relax, because your new habit will probably disappear without a trace.
What Do You Really Want?
When it comes to creating habits you need a lot of motivation and drive. Which means that you need to understand what your dreams are and how your habits can help you get there. This may be more difficult than you think. A lot of the time life gets in the way of your dreams. The minutia and the demands of the everyday drowns out that quiet voice deep inside that wants to write a book or fly a plane or volunteer for a charity. Too often, that voice is lost and with it goes your drive and passion and you find yourself working hard for things that you don’t even really want.
For some people, this is just life. But for others, it isn’t good enough. So when you start this process, let yourself dream again. Don’t listen to the voice of reality, at least not at this stage in the process. Dream big and let it motivate and excite you. And write it all down so it’s all there, a record of your hopes and maybe even a reflection of where you’re going. And choose one to work on. This doesn’t have to be the biggest and it doesn’t even have to be the most realistic. In fact, you should probably choose the one you’re the most excited about.
And get moving on it, which means you need to start creating the habits that will help you achieve that big goal.
The Habit Loop
Charles Duhigg, author of the bestselling book The Power of Habit, says that habits are comprised of three separate parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue comes first and it triggers the routine (the habit). And after the habit comes the reward. This is called the habit loop and it may seem abstract, but it’s actually fairly simple. It’s also something that you can use to your advantage when it comes to creating your own good habits.
For example, if you get up every morning and turn on the kettle to make a cup of coffee or tea, this is probably one of your habits. You get up, which is the cue, fill up the kettle and turn it on, which is the habit, and as a reward you get a steamy hot drink that wakes you up and makes you ready to face the day.
This habit loop is vitally important because it’s quite literally a neurological loop. It allows your brain to perform behaviors without thinking or arguing about them, allowing it to save energy. This also means that the loop is fairly hard to completely break. For example, if you want to stop drinking coffee in the morning, it will be very difficult for you to experience the cue each morning (getting up) without filling up the kettle afterwards. But you can also use this habit loop to your advantage when you’re creating new habits or changing old ones.
Breaking the Habit Loop
If you want to create a new habit, or stop an old one, you need to use the habit loop to do so. The first step in this process is to study the patterns. Examine the bad habit that you want to change. Write down the habit itself, what you do beforehand and what reward you get from it. You can’t change anything if you don’t understand it, so this needs to be your first step.
Once you understand the process, the key is to replace the habit, not try to eliminate it, and to do that, you need to understand the reward. It can be difficult to identify what reward you’re getting for negative habits. For example, if you overeat when you feel stressed, it can be difficult to see a reward in the feelings of nausea, shame and self-hatred that you feel afterwards. But there is a reward there somewhere. Perhaps you want to push down your emotions? Feel a sense of control? Perhaps you want to punish yourself somehow? No matter how negative your bad habit may be, you’re getting something from it, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.
Once you’ve established what your reward is, you need to find a habit that’s better for you but gives the same reward. This is going to be highly individual and you will need to experiment with different behaviors. So the next time you’re stressed you might try running around the block, which could burn off your negative emotions. Or you could try screaming into a pillow for the same result. Experiment with responses to your stress until you find something that gives you that feeling of relief and reward. And then substitute the new habit for the bad. Just don’t replace a bad habit with a worse one.
Creating a New Habit Loop
You can also use the habit loop when it comes to creating new habits. The following steps will help you create good habits using this idea:
Choose one habit
You should only try to add one habit at a time to your routine. This will increase your chances of continuing that habit for a year or more by 80% because it means that you have greater focus and more energy to devote to your goal.
Choose your trigger
Using the habit loop to ground your new habit can be helpful. Look at your life and what you already do and find a place where you can add your new habit. For instance, if you want to create the habit of reading more and you already have the habit of drinking a glass of water in the morning, use that as a trigger for opening your book and reading a few pages. This is called habit stacking, using one habit to trigger another, and it’s a very energy efficient way to build good habits.
Make it simple
Don’t try to start a habit of reading a chapter every day. This is a big ask that just sets you up for failure. Instead, going back to the reading habit again, set the intention of reading a single page or spending five minutes reading. This is easy to do, will give you a sense of accomplishment, and you can always read more if you’re really getting into it.
Make sure there’s a reward
This doesn’t have to be a tangible reward, in fact it’s usually better if the reward is intrinsic. The key is to ensure that your new habit is rewarding in some way. So if you’re trying to create the habit of reading, make sure that it’s pleasurable for you in some way. Or if the reading is educational, make sure it helps you get closer to your business goals. If there’s a solid reason for the new habit, and a clear purpose, you’ll find it much easier to continue with the behavior until it becomes habitual.
The Importance of your Plan
Not to be too blunt, but life will get in the way of your new goals and habit at some point. This is inevitable. You will have days when you’re tired or busy and you’re tempted to let the chance to perform your new good habit slip away. This is normal and human, but it’s also a dangerous time. If you miss your habit once, it’s much easier to skip it the next day as well. And before you know it, you’ve gone a month without doing the new habit at all and have to start all over again, if at all. But accepting the reality of failure shouldn’t convince you not to try, instead it should be used as motivation for creating a plan that takes problems into account.
Creating a plan for failure will give you a clear blueprint of what to do on those days when everything’s just too hard. And the more detailed it is, the better it will work as well. This is also linked to the idea of implementation intention. According to this theory, if you have a specific plan for failure as well as for success you’re at least two times more likely to achieve your goals. So if you want to go to the gym and exercise every second day but are afraid that you’ll be too busy, you might plan to do a quick yoga workout at home on those days. Without the plan you might not even think about this option, and end up missing your workout that day. By planning for failure, and setting the intention, you’ll achieve your goal in a slightly different way.
How To Plan for Failure
When you’re setting up your new habits, your plan must acknowledge that barriers and failure exist. That’s the only way you can create an advance plan for dealing with these problems. To boost your chances of success by creating a plan to fail, use the following steps:
- First, establish your goals and deadlines on the goals.
- Write down every obstacle that you might encounter on the way to your goals.
- Look at each obstacle and write what you plan to do in response to it. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and are concerned about cravings, plan what you’ll do when you experience cravings.
- Be specific and detailed, the more obstacles you plan for, the higher your chances of actually succeeding.
- Look at your plan and follow it when you do encounter obstacles.
The Vital Work of Accountability
Making yourself accountable is essential if you want to succeed at your goals. This means that you need to tell someone about the goals, and ask them to check in regularly to see how you’re going with them. This works because it’s much easier to quit a new habit or a goal if you’re trying to do it on your own. After all, nobody will notice if you quit or miss a few days, so it doesn’t really matter. But if someone will notice, if they’ll be disappointed in you, you’re much more likely to keep moving forward with your goals. People always behave the way they’re supposed to if someone is watching. It’s only when they’re unobserved that problems occur.
Using this very human tendency to help push you towards your goals is highly effective as well. In fact, there are studies that suggest that making yourself accountable to a friend or family member is one of the most effective strategies in goal achievement. So after you’ve set your goals, make sure you enlist help. Tell a friend about your goals and about the habits you’re trying to establish that will help you achieve your goals. Or even spend some time with a motivation expert to get expert advice and inspiration. Whichever strategy you choose, you need to check in weekly once you start, and let them know exactly how your journey is going.
The human brain likes rewards. It likes the rush of dopamine it gets when you achieve something amazing. And no matter what type of person you are, everyone wants to celebrate when they achieve something. There’s nothing worse than finally doing something momentous, something you worked towards for years, and watching the occasion go by unmarked.
This applies to finally establishing a good habit or breaking a bad one as well, so make sure you reward yourself when you achieve something amazing. Make the celebration or the reward commensurate with the effort and the achievement. Ring up friends or family and brag that you’ve taken up running. Plan a night out for dinner and a movie when your study habit helps you pass that course. Buy yourself something that you’ve been thinking about for months after all that study gets you that promotion. Just make sure you don’t break your new habit while you’re celebrating it.
Great Habits for Life Success
The habits you add to your life will depend on your goals. If you’re most concerned about your work then you should try for habits that improve your productivity, or habits that decrease the amount of time you spend procrastinating. And no matter what habits you choose, as long as they help you move towards your goals, they’ll be worth the effort and the time you put in. But if you don’t have any goals that are particularly urgent right now, you might struggle to decide which good habits to add to your life. Again, this depends on your goals and your personality, but you can’t go wrong adopting the habits of some of the most successful people in the world.
With that in mind, here are some of the good habits that successful people swear by:
Everyone from Bill Gates to Warren Buffett claims that creating a reading habit is one of the best things they ever did. People who read are exposed to more ideas, to more ways of doing things, and they build a lifelong habit of learning that serves every aspect of their lives.
Keep a journal
Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, advocated the use of a journal to help clear the mind and record important thoughts. And in fact, his journal is still one of the most popular books on philosophy, good living and thought today. Nothing has really changed since that time. Keeping a journal is a great way to get your thoughts out of your head and onto the page where you can work on making them real, or on dealing with the unpleasant ones.
Learn to meditate
Life is busy and frantic and sometimes your mind can feel the same way. Whether you’re spiritual, religious, or something in between there’s a form of meditation that can help with that. People from Jerry Seinfeld to Steve Jobs have found this habit useful and so will you.
They get a good night’s sleep
It’s fashionable in some circles to brag about how little you sleep, the idea being that you spend all your time doing something more productive. But there’s nothing more productive or valuable than sleep. It heals the body and the mind and it gives your brain a chance to muse over everything it’s learned and store it for future use.
They exercise regularly
If you want to perform at your best in the workplace your body has to be able to keep up. And it can’t do that if it’s a rundown pile of aching bones that can’t walk down a corridor without getting tired. Richard Branson even claims that exercise markedly improves his productivity. So if you want to be really successful, make time to train your body and enjoy some important mind benefits as well.
Self-control is a habit and it’s one that you can cultivate. It’s also just as important to the formation of other habits as motivation and willpower, perhaps even more so. Without self-control you would become a slave to every impulse and emotion, and this is not the way to achieve business or life success.
If you want to achieve your goals, then you need to look at your habits first. Habits are automatic behaviors or actions, and setting them is far more efficient than trying to use willpower to achieve your goals. Creating habits means that you perform good behaviors without thinking about them and without arguing with yourself about them. And that means that you can use your willpower and energy to do more important things in your life.
So what habits, good or bad, are a part of your life? And what habits do you need to add to or remove from your life to achieve the success you want? Let us know in the comments below.