The following article is an excerpt from the first draft of my next book. It is about improving your life. I have not decided on the title yet.
Your success, your health, your relationships, and everything else that defines your life are the product of your habits. You base everything you do and every decision you make on your habits. Eating dinner is a habit. Hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock in the morning is a habit. Even deciding to take an alternate route to work might be based on a broader habit of mixing things up every once in awhile.
Since birth, our brains sense the environment and come to logical conclusions about how the world works. We form truths and mental models in our unconscious minds based on all our past experiences. As babies we felt hungry, so we cried, and someone fed us. From that point, we cried whenever we wanted food. It was a truth to us until one day it didn’t work. We cried, and nobody fed us. The thing we knew to be true was proven untrue, so we had to find a new solution. Perhaps a pat of the tummy, or reaching for a bottle, or saying “eat.” Once we find a new solution, then we form a new truth upon which to base our habits.
We use our knowledge of how the world works to develop habits. Our habits influence every decision. And every decision we make affects the outcomes in our lives. That is why when we want to change our lives, we need to change our habits. We can’t change how the world works, but we can change our habits.
Good and Bad Habits
We each have both good and bad habits. It’s obvious that we all want to have more good habits and eliminate the bad ones. But it’s not easy to get rid of bad habits. In fact, it can be almost impossibly difficult.
One way to get rid of bad habits is to replace them with good habits. It can be too difficult to simply stop doing a bad habit. You need something to fill the void. If you can find a good habit that takes the same amount of time and has similar benefits to the bad habit, you can just swap the bad habit for the good habit. For example, if you have the bad habit of talking on your cellphone while driving, you can start listening to podcasts while driving instead. Both activities fill the same amount of time while you are driving. And both activities have similar benefits of filling your driving time with something worthwhile.
While some people may have success in drastically changing their lives in a short amount of time, most people fail at “cold turkey” solutions. Realize that most habits are not all or nothing. If you’re quitting smoking, getting down to five cigarettes a day is better than a pack a day. If you’re starting a jogging habit, getting outside and running once a week is better than none at all. Set your habit goals, but don’t be dissuaded by setbacks. Do the best you can. Even if you fail most of the time with a few minor successes, it’s still better than not even trying.
One Habit at a Time
A common mistake people make when making changes to their lives is that they try to change too much at the same time. That often occurs at the beginning of a new year when people attempt to reinvent themselves. They want to lose weight, start eating raw vegetables, make more money, and quit smoking all at the same time. And they end in catastrophic failure after three days.
Don’t try to change more than one aspect of your life at once. It takes time to turn a lone action into a daily habit. It takes at least a couple weeks to develop a new habit. Develop one habit a month. Create a 30-day challenge for yourself. At the beginning of each month, decide on one aspect of your life you want to change. Then focus on that single issue for the entire month.
Using a series of 30-day challenges to change your life turns it into a game. You either succeed or fail in each challenge. The habit is either created or not. And the challenge only lasts a month. It is a huge accomplishment if you succeed and still beneficial even if you fail. You might not have achieved your goal, but you made more progress than if you had not tried at all. Because the experiment is limited to a month, you can learn from it and move on. Each month you get to start another exciting challenge. You can transform your life by doing a year of 30-day challenges.
Anchors and Triggers
Another common problem people have when starting a new habit is remembering to do it each day. Sometimes people have trouble fitting a new routine into their busy schedules. The solution is anchoring.
To anchor a habit, you attach it to an existing habit. For example, if you want to build a habit of doing thirty push-ups every day, you can anchor it to your daily shower. Resolve to do thirty push-ups before you get in the shower. Your daily shower is already an established habit, so you will not forget to do it. If you make doing push-ups part of your shower routine, you will not forget to do your daily push-ups.
Triggers are like anchors but tend to apply to bad habits instead of good ones. A trigger is something that makes your bad habits more likely to happen. Your location, time, emotional state, people around you, and things you’re doing can all trigger bad habits. It’s harder to avoid drinking alcohol when you’re sitting at the bar. It’s easier to overeat when you go out to the restaurant with your obese friends. It becomes harder to avoid wasting time on the internet once you start checking your social media accounts. Identify the triggers for your bad habits and avoid them. Better yet, preempt them with good habits.
Once you’ve identified a trigger for a bad habit, think about what triggered the trigger. For example, if you’re trying to quit soda and eating greasy foods makes you feel like drinking it, think about what you do before you eat fatty foods. If hunger between meals causes you to eat fatty foods, try anchoring some healthy habits to your mealtimes, so you don’t get hungry before the next meal. You can make a habit of drinking a full glass of water after each meal. Or eat more protein during mealtimes. Or after each meal, make a good habit that doesn’t allow you to take a snack break before the next meal (like going to the library to study after lunch). Just make sure you’re attacking the root of the problem and not the symptoms.
Sometimes the best way to make you stick with your goals is for you to tell others what your goals are. If you tell everybody that you will start riding your bike to work every day, you are more likely to do it. Once other people know your goals, you will feel a sense of embarrassment if you fail to achieve them. The threat of embarrassment can be a strong motivator.
The most powerful form of accountability is personal accountability with another person. Tell somebody who you see every day and have a strong relationship with about your goals. The closer your relationship with the individual, the higher your motivation will be. Tell your spouse, roommates, or best friend. You can even hire someone to hold you accountable. Pay someone to check in on you daily to make sure you’re working towards your goal.
There are also ways to hold yourself accountable online. Many apps can help you build habits.
- Coach.me (www.coach.me) is a social media habit app where you can add friends, send messages, and ask questions. You choose the habits you want to build and check in whenever you complete it. You can also connect with a coach to provide guidance and motivation.
- 21habit (www.21habit.com) lets you set a goal and form a habit in twenty-one days.
- Strides (www.stridesapp.com) helps you set SMART goals. Set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely goals and track your progress.
- DietBet (www.dietbet.com) makes a game out of losing weight. You put real money into a virtual pot. Send “before” pictures showing your current weight. Then you have 28 days to lose 4% of your body weight. If you succeed, you split the pot with the other winners. Otherwise, you lose the money.
While online accountability may be the weakest form, it can still be useful. The main strength of accountability apps is gamification. They turn habit formation into a game by encouraging you to check in every day and comparing you to others.