‘We are what we repeatedly do’ – Will Durant, Philosopher.
Creatures of habit
A habit is something that you do frequently and regularly, often without having to think about it. Indeed, the phrase ‘creatures of habit’ has come about for good reason. Human beings are naturally inclined towards habit and routine. Our brains are always looking for ways to save time and energy, and creating a habit does just that. Habits are formed in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain which originates emotions, stores memories and recognises pattern. Usually we do our thinking and reasoning with the pre-frontal cortex, but when something becomes a habit, the basal ganglia instantly activates, saving the pre-frontal cortex the cognitive effort of decision making or thinking about our actions. In fact, researchers have shown that so efficient is the system, a whopping 45% of our daily actions are controlled by habit!
The problem with the effectiveness of the process is that when combined with the modern world it makes it all too easy for us to slip into bad habits. Alcohol, food, electronic devices, entertainment – we’re surrounded by temptations and our brains are brilliant enablers, turning our poor decisions into routine, automatic repetitive behaviours.
The power of habit
But what if we could use this extraordinary capability of our brains for good? Bad habits may be easier to fall into (there’s usually an instant gratification pleasure reward) – but good habits, once set, can also be enduring – and have a huge positive effect on our lives, well-being and happiness. This is what behavioural psychologist Charles Duhigg calls ‘the power of habit’ in his book of the same name.
What’s the catch?
Good habits are harder to develop. The reward is usually long-term rather than instant and they require willpower to get going. Let’s face it – we will all have had the experience of enthusiastically making New Year resolutions to develop good behaviours in lots of aspects of our lives, only to fall at the first hurdle. We’re all searching for the magic bullet – the big change that will transform our lives – but it’s this all or nothing approach that often leads to failure. Researchers have shown that we have a finite amount of decision-making energy, and as our brains get fatigued we make poorer decisions. If we’re trying to change all our behaviours at once we’re likely to overwhelm our brains and give up.
Make one change.
The key then, is to have an incremental approach to forming good habits. Charles Duhigg recommends you start with one ‘keystone’ habit – and that doing this one thing will have a compound effect on other behaviours – starting off a kind of chain reaction of good habits. Imagine you make the decision to focus on forming the one habit of getting a small amount of regular exercise. You can put all your effort and willpower into concentrating on this alone. If you manage to keep this going, it will have an organic knock on effect on other areas of your life. Perhaps it will make you eat better, sleep better, feel happier so you improve your relationships, and feel more alert and energetic so that you are more productive at work. Intentionally forming this one good habit has naturally nudged you into forming several others. Perhaps you decide to take up a daily 10 minute mindfulness or meditation routine. Committing to this one small change and practising so that it becomes habit could have a similar domino effect on other areas of your life. Perhaps it makes you calmer and gives you perspective so that you can problem-solve better. Maybe it makes you feel more positive and confident so you can try for that promotion, or resolve that relationship issue. Focusing on just one keystone habit that you can control will ultimately have exponential good results for your life and well-being.
The crucial method for successful habit-forming then, is to start with one, and to start small. Small changes are easy to make – and the easier the process, the more likely you are to stick to it. One of the best good habits that I ever formed was getting up early. This calm, quiet time I have to myself in the mornings is key to my balance and well-being. If you’re not used to getting up at 7.30am – suddenly switching to 5.30am might be too challenging. Why not try 15 minutes earlier for a week, then half an hour and so on? Build on your one keystone habit with baby steps that make it hard for you to fail.
In attempting to make one keystone good habit – be accountable. Include other people in your intentions so that they can remind you to stick to them. They could even work on that habit with you so that you can support each other in your efforts (exercising together, for example.)
But not with a glass of wine or a chocolate bar – that way bad habits lie! Celebrate your progress with something that makes you feel good – half an hour in the garden, a chat with a friend, a chapter of your book. Learn to associate these positive feelings with your new good habits.
Use the power of habit for good and you’ll be that much closer to achieving your life goals. What’s the first change you’re going to make?
Tune into this week’s podcast to hear more about the power of habit. I can help you form good habits in my Having it all coaching programme. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.