Habits are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can be an incredibly powerful tool for progress. On the other hand, by automating our behavior, they erode our free will and make us less conscious. It’s vital, therefore, that we remain vigilant about the habits we develop.
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, details the science behind how habits form and how to change them. Close to the center of our skull, Duhigg explains, lies a golf ball-sized lump of tissue called the basal ganglia. Its job is to store habits even while the rest of our brain goes to sleep. Science has proved that repeated habits become ingrained into our basal ganglia forever. Our brain is programmed to constantly find new ways to save effort.
Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often…
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually…a habit is born.
Once born, habits never die. As MIT scientist Ann Graybiel says, “Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”
It’s impossible to create the 5 Day Weekend lifestyle without the right habits, and if you’re governed by the wrong habits.
“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny,” said Stephen R. Covey.
Here are three vital components of strong and healthy habits:
- They are Created Consciously
Unconscious habits tend to be formed by taking the path of least resistance, which is almost never good for us (e.g., sleeping in, eating junk food, watching too much TV, overspending, etc.).
The right habits are those that we consciously create and cultivate, such as healthy eating, daily exercise, and goal setting and planning. Conscious habits take more effort, but in the long run provide quantum benefits for the effort.
- They Take Us Toward Our Goals
Checking your smartphone constantly, wasting time on Facebook and YouTube, negative self-talk, and buying liabilities on credit are examples of habits that hinder your progress towards positive goals.
On the other hand, healthy habits, such as reading every day, practicing new skills, checking and responding to email only at designated times throughout the day, and turning off your smartphone while you’re focused on working are habits that support you in your goals.
- They Support Overall Health and Well-Being
The right habits not only support you in achieving specific goals, but they also support your health and well-being in a general sense. In short, they are simply good for you. They make you smarter, healthier, more productive, and happier.
Any habit that diminishes your overall mental, emotional, and physical health should be eliminated.
Here are five keys to fortifying good habits:
- Develop a Conscious Morning Routine
One of the most important things you can ever do to change your life is to create a conscious morning routine.
Make it a habit to get up an hour than usual. Start your day with some breathing exercises and meditation. Read a nonfiction book. Visualize your goals. Work on a personal passion project. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it’s conscious, positive, and consistent. Don’t allow the digital world to control your first hour of the day. Don’t just prioritize your schedule for the day, schedule your priorities
As leadership expert John Maxwell wrote, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
- Lean on a Support Group
Charles Duhigg explains why this is critical: “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group…The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group.”
Your support group should know the habits you’re working on breaking and those you’re working on creating. Keep them in the loop on your progress (or lack thereof ). The simple act of accountability is often enough to motivate you to do better.
- Focus on “Keystone” Habits
“Keystone habits” are seemingly small and simple habits, but which can catalyze a ripple effect and have a major impact on every aspect of your life.
One such keystone habit is exercise. As Charles Duhigg explains, “When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
Other keystone habits could include completing cutting out TV, getting enough sleep, eliminating negative self-talk, and saving money.
- Drive Habits Deep with a Sustained Time Commitment
You’ve probably heard the commonly quoted statistic that it takes 21 days to form a habit. As it turns out, it’s completely false.
Psychologist Jeremy Dean explored the science and empirical data, which he published in his book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. According to Dean’s research, it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit (though there is considerable variation depending on what you want to do).
My recommendation is to give yourself a solid three months of sustained commitment to form a new habit.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” wrote Aristotle.
- Write Down Your Plans for Dealing with Temptation and Obstacles
Studies have routinely shown that people who anticipate and write down how they will react to temptations and obstacles when striving to overcome a habit are much more successful than those who do not.
Writing your plan down makes us more conscious of your cues, and helps you focus on your rewards. It also strengthens your willpower.
Harness the power of habit to make the journey easier.
Habits can either work for or against you. They can propel you toward your goals, or prevent you from ever achieving them. If you allow your habits to form unconsciously, they will most likely work against you.
Consciously choose the habits you want to create. Work on them diligently and consistently. More so than daily choices, habits are the building blocks of life.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going,” said the late entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn.
In my next post, I’ll look at how you can amplify your energy. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What kinds of good habits are you forming, or have you created? What has been your experience? Thank you for sharing.
Secure your copy of the “5 Day Weekend” book. 5 Day Weekend: Freedom to Make Your Life and Work Rich with Purpose [Nik Halik & Garrett Gunderson]