I’ve been fighting with habit for as long as I can remember now, maybe even more so the older I become. I don’t remember it being so hard twenty years ago in my twenties. Now it’s hard, both breaking bad habits and forming new positive habits. I guess it’s a combination of being more set in my ways and that I pay more attention to my habitual patterns of behaviors.
To better understand what’s going in my head when I for the fifty-eleventh time slip back into a bad habit that I’ve promised myself to break I decided to explore the science behind habits and the best practices for transforming habits.
This article is my summary of what I found and the approach I now take to increase my chances of transforming and sticking to habits that serve my purpose.
If you’re really in a hurry I’ve summarized the 7 steps at the end of this article!
Where to start? Habit. It’s one of those words and concepts we intuitively think we know all about. While we recognize there’s a lot of power in habit we tend to use it as an excuse rather than harness the power of it. We’re more likely to excuse ourselves with: “I don’t know why I did it, it’s just habit” than to empower ourselves with: “I succeeded because I’ve formed a habit of repeated practice.”
We know that habit plays an important role in life and society, our habits are our past, who we are today and what we will be.
And it’s not only on an individual level. Habit makes society function effectively going about our daily activities in the company of others.
Take the dying patient rushed in to the hospital. The emergency doctor has been through the scenario multiple times in training, as an assistant and as a doctor and can handle the situation out of habit. An untrained person is likely to overwhelmed by the chaos, the blood, the patient’s cries of pain, the relatives rushing around in panic, and would not be able to focus on the critical actions that could save the patient’s life. The doctor has trained his subconscious mind to deal with all the standard patterns of chaos, blood, and noise so the conscious mind can analyze the specifics of the situation and act effectively.
There are a lot more mundane situations we handle more effectively thanks to habits. We get up in the morning, perform our morning ritual and set off to work without analyzing and making decisions about everything we do. And we take comfort in other people’s habits. Knowing the routines of family members and colleagues allow us to anticipate behavior and perform teamwork tasks in a habitual way.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
We’ve all tried to adopt a new habit but most often we slip back into old ways after a few days or a few weeks.
And we have a tendency to reinforce our bad habits in how we speak. “I’ve been so lazy but I will try to start exercising next week.” “I know I shouldn’t eat so much fast food but I’m too busy to cook.”
We give ourselves an excuse to quit in the same sentence in which we state our desire for change.
Transforming habits is actually not rocket science. With a little understanding of how our mind works, a process for transforming habits and by creating a habit of sticking to the new habit it’s definitely doable.
And the reward for being able to transform even just one of your habits is enormous.
Firstly, habits cross-pollinate; for example, getting into the habit of waking up a bit earlier for a brisk morning walk will inspire you to eat a bit healthier resulting in a compound effect on your overall well-being.
Secondly, by learning the “habit of creating habits” you train your will-power which will induce deliberate progress in all areas of your life. The feeling of making progress towards something important in life is a key component to happiness. Whether that’s a promotion, beating your training partner on the 10k run or teaching your child to ride the bike, will-power will make you more likely to achieve what you want and thus increase your sense of happiness.
Therefore, happiness is a habit. And at least to me, that’s a relief. It’s all up to me. Not genes, not some mysterious white-bearded man up on a cloud. All me. Here and now.
The adventurous teen and the loyal mum explaining the mind
Our mind works in mysterious ways. But science is starting to understand some of it.
We tend to believe “I think, therefore I am” and equate thinking to being. So are we not when we don’t think?
Remember your drive to work this morning. How much did you think about the drive? Do you recall the decisions you made getting into the car, adjusting the seat and mirrors, starting the car, reversing out into the street? Do you recall how you analyzed what’s happening around you while trying to optimize your route? No you don’t. You’ve driven the same way hundreds of times before and had it not been for all the idiots in traffic you could probably do it blind-folded.
So what did you think about driving to the office? Maybe what’s to come during the day or what happened yesterday? Maybe singing along to the radio thinking about the upcoming holidays? Maybe you were shaving or putting on make-up in the rear view mirror while driving?
So who was driving the car then? Your subconscious mind was.
I like to use an analogy to explain the difference between the conscious and subconscious mind.
The conscious mind is the adventurous teenage son and he is full of intent. He has highflying dreams and bold aspirations, he’s a bit reckless at times but really believes in himself. He makes plans and visualizes the success. For the teenage son it’s all pretty simple – think up and action and enjoy the outcome. Even before he takes action he tells his friends about how great things will be, because he thinks he is in control.
Honestly, most of the time it’s his mother – the subconscious mind – that runs the show in the background.
The mother is stable and habitual. She steps in and fixes things when the son goes out of bounds. Like any mature adult she’s a bit set in her ways and has a fairly standard response to each particular stimuli. But she has the right motivation and with a little help can change.
It is the same reason self-help books rarely work. Your conscious mind will read the book, be excited by the possibilities and full of intention to change but when it comes to action your habitual subconscious mind takes over and you do as you’ve always done.
The conscious mind is intentional and operates on action-outcome.
The subconscious mind is habitual and operates on stimuli-response.
7 steps to successfully transforming any habit
Let’s jump into the 7 steps of transforming habits. Before we do so let’s just be clear on one thing:
Do you kill bad habits or transform bad habits into good ones?
The latter. The habit loop in step 2 will make it clear why this is the case.
1. Start with core habits that influence other habits
Some habits are so central to whom you are that a change in that habit will spread into other habits like rings on the water. I call them core habits.
A typical core habit is around diet. If you eat well you’re generally more happy and active and thus less likely to create bad lifestyle habits.
A habit of a healthy diet leads to more movement >> better sleep >> increased energy during the day >> getting more done >> feeling more fulfilled >> feeling happier!
Core habits are often resting on values and beliefs so when I work with clients I usually explore the client’s values and intrinsic motivations before going into transforming habits. The reason for this is to understand how deeply rooted the desired new habit is.
For example, if my client says he/she the wants to get in shape and needs help to establish a habit of regular exercise it’s important for success to understand what motivations drive the desired habit. Depending on whether the desired habit is driven by vanity (beach season is approaching), or driven by fear (client’s doctor is worried), or driven by love (new partner or the opportunity to play more with the grandkids) we may take different approaches.
2. Identify the habit cue and replace the reward
The central idea in Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” is the habit loop and talking to people about the book it seems most readers get such an eureka moment from the habit loop that they skip the rest of the book. If that’s you, you missed out; the remaining two-thirds hold a few more equally powerful eureka moments.
The habit loop is a schematic model for understanding how habits are formed, triggered and become routine and the habit loop gives us a model for changing habits.
Let’s use the habit of smoking to explain the habit loop. Every time you have a cup of coffee you have a cigarette and the smoking gives you peace of mind. The minutes it takes to drink your coffee and smoke your cigarette are a welcome break from the stress and chores of life. You’ve been doing this for so long now that just the smell of coffee will have your hands reaching for the lighter.
Your smoking habit is strongly connected to coffee, so strong that your subconscious mind expects the cigarette and the reward as soon as it picks up the cue.
In the beginning, when forming the habit, your subconscious mind experienced it in order: pour the coffee, light the cigarette, let the smoke fill the lungs, a feeling of peace appears.
Now your subconscious mind has formed such a strong association between coffee and peace of mind that you will experience a glimpse of peace of mind even at the smell of coffee, before you’ve lit the cigarette. That’s a craving. As soon as your subconscious mind experiences the cue (coffee) it will build up towards the reward (peace of mind) and it craves the routine (smoking) as fast as possible so it can release the reward in full.
What happens if you get your cup of coffee, the anticipation of peace filling your body and the your realize… you’re out of cigarettes… Your mind short-circuits. Your world is rocked, maybe you become agitated at the idea of not getting the reward your mind was promising you as you poured the coffee. Maybe you start chasing down colleagues in desperation for a cigarette.
Or so you think: that you’re desperate for a cigarette. It’s actually not the cigarette you’re desperate for; it’s peace of mind, the reward.
And by understanding that it’s the reward you’re desperate for, not the routine, you have the key to starting transforming your smoking habit.
The key to successfully transforming a habit is to clearly understand the cue that precedes the routine and the reward at the end of the routine.
- Write down the routine. What exactly, step by step, is the habit you want to transform?
- Focus in on the reward. What feelings does the routine satisfy?
- Analyze the cue. What’s triggering the routine? Is it a location, a person, an emotion, or other?
- Experiment with alternatives routines to follow the cue and that will bring a similar reward.
- Practice the new routine.
In the case of the smoking habit the outcome of this exercise may be that an alternative routine to lightening up may be to go over to a colleague and chitchat for a while. This may bring you the same little break and peace of mind that the smoke did.
The habit loop is a great start but not enough to successfully sustain a new habit. Those who read beyond the habit loop chapter in Duhigg’s book will know why.
3. Anchor your new habit in a strong belief or higher purpose
I’m sure you’ll recognize this – if not the same situation at least the behavior: You got inspired to shape up your life style and has managed to quit the pre-fab so called “food“ and have been cooking real food every day now for 3 weeks. You passed the magic 21 days that some says it takes to establish a new habit, you’re feeling better than ever and you slap yourself a bit thinking: “That wasn’t so hard, why didn’t I do this years ago?”
By the way, the 21 days is complete rubbish but it’s makes for a great sales pitch… (further reading on this)
Then your the best friend invites you for a long-weekend in another town, good food and wine, a bit of party and too late nights. Back home on Sunday evening you’re too tired to cook so on your way home you get your favorite pre-fab dish like in the old days. The next few days you’re slowly recovering from the weekend and “convenience” has taken priority again. You slip back into old habits very quickly. A few months later your normal jeans size feels alarmingly tight and you beat yourself up for only managing 21 days of your new food habit.
Why is it so easy to give up the new habit as soon as there is an extraordinary event?
The answer is belief.
You are much more likely to stick to your new habit if it’s connected to a belief or higher purpose.
I‘m not talking God stuff here, but any belief or higher purpose that inspires you and is so important to you that it’s a part of your identity. For me such a belief is: “I’m healthy and fit and inspire others to be the same.” When I act in a way that contradicts this it hurts and I get a distinct sense of not being true to whom I am. But of course I still do unhealthy things from time to time. Some times I slip (and enjoy!) one of the three white poisons (sugar, flour, dairy) and there are periods when I don’t work out for months. When I get tired of myself not being the “real me” I renew my commitment to this belief and then create habits to take me back to who I really believe I am.
One very common ambition is to create new habits to lose weight before the beach season starts. Eat less junk and exercise more. If your goal is to look good in your bikini you’ve set a finite vanity goal. In a few months when you’ve achieved it, to a higher or lesser degree, you will probably slip back into the habits that created a need to “lose weight” to begin with. If you instead build new habits on the higher purpose of “being a role model for a healthy lifestyle for my children” and really believe that’s important then you’re much more likely to create new sustainable habits. I’ll get back to exploring your beliefs a bit later in this article.
What do you believe in?
Closely linked to belief is the visualization of success.
Let’s build on the example of losing weight and the higher purpose of believing that you need to be a role model of a healthy life style for your kids.
Visualize your higher purpose. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what success looks like, let your mental success movie play and direct it carefully to really make it yours. Pay attention to the details. While the mental movie is playing ask yourself: “How does this make me feel?” Remember that feeling.
If I do this visualization I see a mental movie of me playing with my grandchildren on a lawn a warm sunny day. My 30-something daughter is preparing lunch, a nice vegetable salad with lettuce, spinach leaves, thinly sliced carrot, green peas and cherry tomatoes and there’s thin-foil wrapped fish on the grill. I’m playfully wrestling with my two grandchildren. I’m around 60 years old rolling around in the grass, jumping and sprinting after them with ease, teaching them handstands and the crow yoga pose.”
That mental movie is why I make an effort today and every day to live healthy and create habits to make me stick to it.
An important note here is that research shows that only visualizing the “new you” isn’t enough. Remember the teenage son above?
The real difference in success comes from visualizing the process of achieving success. That’s step number 6 in my 7 steps for successfully transforming habits.
4. Visualize big but act small and consistently.
One hit wonders don’t amount to much. Not in music and not in habit transformation.
I’ve seen it so many times. A friend sets a goal of getting fit and sets off on a long run, much longer than he would ever consider walking. Almost dead he comes back home, crashes in bed and pretty much stays there for a couple of days due to the muscle and joint pain. It takes a week to walk normally again, running has completely lost its appeal and the goal of getting fit fades.
Instead, save the long run for the visualization and act small. Dip your toes on the other side of the comfort zone instead of diving in. If you’re not a runner you primary goal is absolutely not about the distance, it’s about how often you run. Consistency is king. Start with 30 min brisk walk or light run every second day and make sure you stick to it using your understanding of cues, rewards, and beliefs. When that comes naturally, increase the tempo or distance a bit. If it’s too much to complete or the idea of the extra challenge puts you off then scale back again.
The whole point here is: Consistently taking small action that over time will amount to something big.
5. Make it so easy to start that you can’t fail at starting.
My own example here is from a few years back when I really wanted to develop core strength to prepare for more advanced stuff like the back and front lever. I had a clear visualization of myself effortlessly switching between back lever and front lever from the rings at Žluté lázně recreational area in Prague. The first habit I wanted to develop to eventually achieve this was to practice the L-sit daily.
To make sure it was so easy to start that I couldn’t fail I set my goal to 5 seconds of L-sit per day and I kept my push-up handles by the living room couch as a constant reminder. That’s it. Most days I would accumulate 20-30 seconds of L-sit over a few sets but the days I only did 5 secs I was completely ok with that – I was sticking to my habit. When I had a 30 sec hold in the L-sit I stopped this and moved on to other things. I do have a decent back lever now but still struggling with the front lever.
- If your desired new habit is a morning run make it easy to start: prepare your running outfit next to your bed so you don’t even need to get out of the warmth of bed the put it on.
- If your desired new habit is to eat more greens for dinner: rinse and prepare the greens after breakfast so it’s easy to throw into the steamer when you come home tired after work and you crave something, anything, quickly.
You get the idea. Plan the process of establishing your new habit carefully to minimize the risk of slipping back in old habits.
6. Visualize exactly how you’ll succeed sticking to your new habit
This is a key step in transforming habits, to mentally prepare for taking small action and how to overcome any obstacles thrown your way.
“Don’t focus your motivation on doing Behavior X. Instead, focus on making Behavior X easier to do.” Dr. B.J. Fogg
Look for ways of making it easier to perform your new habit. In my case with the L-sit I got obsessed with checking where I could perform this exercise. Two office chairs, two narrow handrails, the corner of the swimming pool, I found lots of ways to stick to my habit.
For more complex habit changes visualize every step of the new habit and look for better ways of performing it. Then visualize what could go wrong or derail you and think of ways to avoid this happening.
If you’re trying to break the habit of smoking your visualization may go something like this (after having worked through your habit loop and visualization of your higher purpose):
- When I experience the cue for smoking I will take my favorite chewing gum that I keep in my purse, in the little compartment with a zipper.
- I will then hold the gum in my mouth for 5 secs enjoying the minty sensation before I start chewing.
- While I do this I will close my eyes and play my mental movie of successfully quitting smoking.
- I will then start chewing slowly while keeping my hands folded to avoid fidgeting.
- To avoid the situation of not having a chewing gum I will make sure I have one pack in my purse, one spare back at home and one in the office at all times. I will check this every morning as I get ready to leave home and first thing when I get to the office.
- If I find myself in a situation with smokers I will excuse myself and take a 10 min brisk walk. To avoid hesitation this is the word I’ll say: “Excuse me but I need a quick walk to energize myself before I get back to work.”
Paint your mental picture and be generous with details.
7. Pro-actively create a supportive environment
To further increase your changes of creating new sustainable habits you should surround yourself with people that give support and inspire you. In a wonderful clip called “How to give an A” British conductor Ben Zander talks about the importance of treating people like stars and how they then will aspire to live up the expectations. Surround yourself with people who treat you like a star.
“There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.” Dr. B.J. Fogg
For this reason it can be very hard to start a new habit if your partner doesn’t join in. If so find different environments where you can be inspired and held accountable.
We subconsciously adopt the behaviors of the people we surround ourselves with and a group of friends tend to develop similar behavioral patterns. One friend enjoys yoga and drags the rest with her. Another friend loves pizza so when they meet it’s often in a pizza place. The rest of the girls start associating good times with pizza. That’s one reason they are good friends, they can relate to each other and share the joys and sorrows of similar activities.
It’s not rocket science, follow my 7 steps to successfully transforming any habit and you’ll increase your chances of successfully transforming bad habits to good habits and sticking with it!
A quick recap of the steps:
- Start with core habits that influence other habits
By focusing on core habits you’ll have a positive carry over effect on related habits and build encouraging momentum.
- Identify the habit cue and replace the reward
You must explore the subconscious cues and rewards to successfully change your habitual routine. Experiment to find a new routine to the cue that gives a similar feeling of reward.
- Anchor your new habit in a strong belief or higher purpose
Link your new core habit to your purpose and direct a mental movie of the “new you” with vivid emotional detail.
- Visualize big but act small and consistently
Sustainable success is not borne from one-hit wonders. Instead plan for the long haul and focus on consistency, not volume.
- Make it so easy to start that you can’t fail at starting
Ease the pain of getting started by carefully setting yourself up for starting. Every time.
- Visualize exactly how you’ll succeed sticking to your new habit
Focus not on the new habit but on how to improve the process of sticking to it. Visualize yourself in challenging situations and how you’ll successfully manage them.
- Pro-actively create a supportive environment
You are the average of the people you hang out with so make sure you surround yourself with people that support your new habit.
Now it’s up to you!
Which habit do you want to transform?
How can the 7 steps help you be successful?
Let me know in the comments below.