Your life is a reflection of your habits. Good habits or bad habits. Or to put it more eloquently:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit” -Aristotle 

I am in the process of trying to implement a morning routine that will increase productivity, mental health, improve my diet and build more muscle. I have given myself 30 days to try and force it into a habit.

So what am I referring to when I say good and bad habits?

 

Good Habits are those that make you stronger, more successful, wiser, healthier, happier or less stressed: e.g. cultivating a positive mental state, good diet, moderation and exercise.

Bad Habits are those that affect your health negatively, make you unhappy, stressed, unsuccessful and unproductive e.g. negative emotions, laziness, excess, smoking, or a poor diet.

 

Often – especially when approaching a New Year – we notice the build-up of bad habits; we realize the effect they are having on our life and dream of where we would like to be and what person we would like to become; it’s time to try and force a change, time to create some new habits and resolutions.

While trying to build these new habits, it is common and even expected that they will not last. We joke about our poor efforts and inevitable failure. But it is important to remember that building habits take time and self-discipline. If you can bring yourself to start a new habit then it will either stay forever, or you will reach a ‘tripping point’.

A tripping point is a moment or event that disrupts the new habit. This can be a niggling voice in your head, succumbing to temptation or an unavoidable break in the habit.

A habit is formed when the brain notices a sequence of actions, repeated over and over again, and decides to categorize them together (when one happens, it will expect the others). A common example would be: if I hear my alarm, then I press ‘snooze’.

Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) says that as soon our brain receives a cue it assigns the most relevant habit or routine to achieve the expected reward. A good example would be going to the gym before work every day. The cue is the time of day, the routine is going to the gym to workout and the reward is the rush of endorphins afterwards.

The more this same process occurs, the stronger it gets – until you body may even crave exercise. This sounds easy, but it is only truly effective if the brain craves the reward. If, when we first start a habit our brain doesn’t want it bad enough, then other cravings (such as going back to sleep in the morning) will over power it. This is why it takes a while to force the repetition until you crave it.

The same applies to bad habits: so breaking them is hard. However, it also means that if you notice a bad habit forming, you have the chance to stop it before it becomes a craving.

A solution to this is to focus on creating new good habits rather than trying to kill bad ones. For example: instead of trying to stop smoking by completely cutting it out – along with all associated cues, routines and rewards – try continuing to take your smoking breaks and socialize outside with people, but replace the cigarette with a bottle of water. This way you are still taking the breaks and still socializing outside with friends but removing the damaging habit (keeping the good parts and swapping out the bad).

So we need to look at the weak spot in this whole process: getting from idea to craving. This period of conditioning is where we have to put in the hard work and where we are most likely to come across a tripping point.

 

Steps to starting a new habit:

  • Set achievable and measurable goals, if necessary break down a seemingly unachievable goal into smaller steps. Start with step 1 then keep going until you reach the ultimate goal.
  • Set a period in which you can condition yourself into the habit. 30 days is usually a good place to start: 4 weeks of practice seems achievable.
  • Tell others about your month long commitment to building a certain habit, with the aim that they will hold you accountable. Preferably tell those who you know will be strict and supportive and will notice if you do not practice the habit one day.
  • Make the habit a daily thing. Rather than a habit of doing it once or a few times a week. For example, instead of spending one evening a week learning a new language, make it 15mins a day. This will be far more effective at making it stick.
  • Define ‘why’ you are putting this habit in place. The stronger the ‘why’, the better your chances of sticking to it when you are faced with a tripping point.

 

How to avoid a ‘tripping point’:

  • Come up with a list or reasons why you may ‘trip up’ in your habit conditioning. By making yourself aware of their potential appearance you can calmly approach each one like a bond villain: “Ahh Mr. Tripping Point, I have been expecting you!” For example, getting up at 6am in the English winter means getting out of a warm blanket into the cold and dark. To get over this issue I put a warm hoodie, tracksuit trousers and socks next to my bed… this allows me to put them on while still under the covers to make a smooth transition into my morning routine.
  • On a day-to-day basis you must focus just on the actual action plan or the individual motions one by one. The bigger picture of ‘weeks, months or years of hard work’ may put you off, whereas the small task of ‘rolling out of bed’, or ‘putting your gym kit next to the door the night before’ are easy to digest and therefore less intimidating.
  • Disassociate yourself with your previous views of who you are and how you act. You are no longer that person. The voice in your head is not the ‘real you’, it is just conditioning from previous bad habits and experiences… it will eventually change to match your new conditioning. When the voice starts to reason with you that ‘one cigarette won’t hurt’ or ‘you deserve a treat’, don’t listen to it! Instead, take a step back and acknowledge what is happening: “this is just the old habits trying to bring me down… I choose to not do what my urges tell me to”. This is difficult, but you were expecting this anyway weren’t you?!

 

Although it is easier to maintain a habit once it has been embedded and has become a craving, there are still tripping points that can kill the habit. Some tripping points to be aware of that can force out good habits temporarily are: new schedules, new locations, new accommodation or the mental drain of something new such as:

 

  • Going on holiday – Time away from healthy eating and daily routine.
  • Moving house – Maybe the longer commute makes going to the gym before work more difficult.
  • Starting a new job – Added stress, changes in routine or a new working culture (e.g. everyone takes regular smoking breaks or go out after work for drinks most nights).
  • Loosing or gaining a girlfriend/ boyfriend – Adjusting to new timetables, spending more time on the relationship or having to go out with friends more to get your mind off a break up.

 

The key in dodging these is to be prepared and to set aside time to plan how you will quickly get back into the routine or what adjustments need to be made to accommodate the change without the loss of your good habits.

Finally, resolutions and new habits are not just for New Year. Don’t wait to start at a convenient time: start today. However, if it takes a New Year party and a firework display to put you in the mood for change, then why not use it? Write out your list of new habits and resolutions well in advance followed by your list of potential tripping points. Do it now and prepare to be extraordinary in 2015.

 

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Original cover photo by Thomas Hawk

 

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