In the Understanding Habits and Why Mastering Them Guarantees Success I talked about how the majority of our actions are based on habits. I described the scientific findings that I think were useful in order to achieve better awareness on how the mechanism works in our brains. I remind you that the habit loop works as following:
First there is a cue that passes the message to the brain what automatic behavior to restore. In the experiment described in The Power of Habit the rats didn’t know in which place they were but the specific sound and the opening of the door were the cue that amplified the actions that lead to the food without even deciding it in between.
The later actions is the routine of the habit, the automatic behavior that is triggered.
Lastly there is the reward which in the case of the rats was the food.
So let’s see how we can influence the system and make it work automatically in our favor. As explained, we don’t need to work on the system directly by, let’s say, having the right behavior all the time in our minds because this wastes too much willpower and most of the times is a certain loss. Instead we can use our tiny glimpses of consciousness to set the conditions for our habits to work on our favor and to lead us towards the direction we really want to go.
First and foremost as always is our mindset.
Focus on consistency instead of results: We need to understand that forming a new habit is a long term process that should be approached with humility. As I explained, we have to deal with strong forces in our brain existing for millions of years. Our enthusiasm in the beginning is understandable but above all we need to always remember that what really matters is CONSISTENCY. I’ll tell you what. In the beginning not only we are enthusiastic but we are results driven. We want to achieve things fast. Can you fully forget about it in the first months? Focus on the fact of doing it instead of how well you do it. Our brain is plastic and the neural pathways for any behavior are strengthened the more we perform it.
So if you want to start walking every day focus just on doing it every day. Everyone can walk for ten minutes per day right? At least for the first 66 days (Remember in the previous article I mentioned about the study of UCL) ignore how much you walk, just never miss walking. And I am sure that day by day the minutes will be increasing by themselves. But, as I said, even if they don’t increase it doesn’t matter at all. You don’t want by any way to finish your willpower and return to old bad automatic behaviors. You want to make this action part of your life and there is no way to be a champion or an expert in anything in 66 days. Even ten minutes per day are 660 minutes in this period which is 11 hours, much better than zero that most people are at the moment. So what you care most is to go beyond the first 66 days.
Most people are enthusiastic in the beginning. No problem. You can walk for more than 10 minutes so that you will build stronger pathways quicker and the behavior will become automatic sooner. Focus your positive energy in what you want to become, that’s a good thing. But don’t be immersed in your enthusiasm. Your first priority is consistency. Achievements and results can wait for later. Going beyond the 66 days is the most important achievement you can have. This is when most of us lose it. You know many times we believe that a behavior has become automatic but we aren’t always right. So we become relaxed and we return to the previous habits. Thanks to UCL we now have a “compass”.
Find your whys: In a long term journey you need a compass to guide you when you lose sense of direction. As we said the mind isn’t always aware and our moods change constantly. Your whys have to do with what most people call “the heart”. We here call them emotions. Every real why you have triggers you an emotional response. By starting a new behavior what person do you want to become and how do you feel about it? How will you feel at that time? Learn your specific why if you don’t know it yet and feel deep sense of this emotion. Focus on it, picture it and remember it. It will be there for you any time you need it.
Second comes our environment.
Recognize the cues that lead to bad habits and eliminate them: We talked about the habit loop before. I guess you recognized the importance of the cues. So first you can understand that without being obsessive about it, you need to remove any possible cues that trigger you bad habits. This isn’t always easy. In order to reach that point you have to recognize what is the cue that triggers this craving. When you know that when you hear the facebook messenger notification sound you will immediately check it, then a good idea is to have the sound turned off when you want to focus on something. There exist browser apps, plugins etc that block websites such as twitter for the time you want to avoid them. When you are on diet you don’t need to leave chocolates around the house.
Maintain the cue and the reward and change the bad routine: In fact is really difficult to extinguish a bad habit. But you can do something different. Keeping all the parts of the loop same apart from the routine. For example in the Power of Habit Dunnig mentions that the alcoholic anonymus provide that change in the routine of the alcoholics. So when a person has the urge to drink he had the meetings where he could relax and talk though anxieties. The reward was the same with the drink but the behavior had changed.
Create a cue and a reward to enforce a new routine: As we said before by focusing your emotions on your whys you remain in a direct connection with the rewards of the behavior. The reward can also be a snack after training or the endorphins in your body. But don’t forget the cue. And also don’t forget to connect the cue to the reward. That’s when the behavior starts becoming automatic. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. It’s useful to stick to certain times when we want to stick to a habit. If you drink 500ml first thing in the morning then it soon becomes automatic. When you work on your second most important task of the day after a nap then it becomes automatic. When you plan to go running and you leave your sports shoes next to your bed then by watching them the cue is starting being created.
Connect your consistency with something physical:
Our visual memory is our most important type of memory. If you want to remember something well try to make it visual. At the same time actually watching a physical change definitely creates a better experience. However, consistency doesn’t always have a way to be expressed. Maybe you will notice a physical change in your body if you start going to the gym but you may not notice a physical change when you start reading informative books for 1 hour per day. What you can do is to find a way to express your consistency in physical terms. For example, every day that you finish your 1hour reading of a scientific book you can be throwing a small paper ball in one plastic glass. You will be amazed with yourselves when you see how many they will have become someday without you even noticing. You will be standing next to them soon saying:”Oh well, have I thrown all these?” The reason is that the throwing of the paper ball in the glass will also have become a habitual behavior.
Participate in a respective community:
As many times mentioned humans are social animals. We have the tendency to pe parts of other groups that we share commonalities. This can be the state (commonality based on geography), religion (in fact commonality based on geography), athletic groups (commonality based on interest) etc. When we engage in a group we are influenced by each other and as a result we are motivated towards the common vision of the group. There are plenty of different mechanisms that influence the interaction between us. You can understand that participating in a group that wants the same things that you want will motivate you and thus decrease the chances of you giving up.
Put commitments-barriers that forbid you to not perform the behavior you expect from yourself:
Can you tell your friends publicly what new habit you are willing to put in your life? You don’t want to appear a fool if you abandon it. However, be careful with this. Only commit to friends that you know can understand your predispositions and your mindset. If your new behavior may sound weird to some, avoid it. You don’t wanna mess with the negativy of the unchanging. You can also form accountability groups. Groups that you meet every a certain period of time and present how well you did and what are your new commitments that of course come with time constrains. I guess this can be connected to the community too.
If you want to play harder in the game you can also commit to a financial amount, as Eben Pagan recommends. You can write a check to a friend and commit that every single day he will be receiving an email from you mentioning that you performed your new wannabe habit. If in any case any single day they don’t receive an email they have to cash the check for themselves.
Here is one simple example to show you in practice all the methods I have mentioned. Coincidentally the 66 day period finished today that I am finishing this post. So, I have been reading about meditation for several years. I have started doing daily for several times but I had never managed to stick to it for more than 6 weeks. This time I decided to do it differently and up to now is going really well and I haven’t felt my willpower being drained either. All the process seems to flow easily.
So first of all I decided to make meditation part of my daily life. I wanted to achieve more awareness during the day, more control over my behaviors, more tranquillity and several other benefits which will be the topic of another article. These are my whys and most of them are really important to me. I sat down and wrote at least 10 different aspects of my life that will be improved if I follow my plan. I most of the times try to remind to myself how much I desire these to be part of me and how happy and grateful I am the more I see them being me.
I never cared to practice more time than what I was already doing. I started with 10 minutes. Then I naturally increased to 15 and after 2 weeks to 20. I am still on 20. If the bell on my mobile rings, if I want I stay for more time. Whenever I want I meditate 2 or even 3 times per day. Other days I meditate only once. I don’t think about it at all, whatever comes to me naturally. My mind sometimes tries to search for outcomes of the process and I stop it and look at another direction. Then I get into situations that I behave differently. The outcomes appear clearer when you don’t search for them. I leave the process do the job by itself and I stand watching the change occur because I believe in the process and I just receive feedback from here and there to see if I need to adjust my sails.
As well, I defined a cue and a reward. These of course are essential. So, as it is anyway advised, I meditate first thing in the morning. When I wake up I don’t check my phone and I don’t look at the laptop. I only wash my face, I drink 500ml of water and I turn on the espresso machine. The product of the latter is my reward for meditating in between. Freshly ground double espresso.
I, also, made this simple calendar.
It has a nice picture to positively prime me and motivate me. Whenever I finish my daily practice I put an X. This is the physical expression of my consistency. We humans have the tendency to fill empty spaces. I am a small primate that would hate to see boxes not filled in in the middle of others!
Lastly I follow a meditation course in my neighborhood. In there I learn from people definitely more experienced than me in meditation so I grow quicker than trying it just by myself. Secondly I connect with similar minded people which gives more essence in my personal purpose. Also by watching others you become influenced towards their behavior and are more motivated.
As you see by using your creativity and initiatives you can do strategic moves and put pieces into place that in the long term make it hard for you not to do what you rationally want to do. Think of yourself sometimes like a puppy, that you train it
I would like to close with a word that may seem obvious but the more I understand its essence the more confident I feel. And the more it motivates me to put one by one new habits that will make a better Angelo day by day. The word is faith. When you really believe with every part of your being in something specific and constantly and in practice focus your energy towards it then it’s a matter of time to see it in front of your eyes. It has happened several times in my life without me even recognising the process. The last few years that my awareness has increased all the parts one by one come into place and show me how valuable our specific beliefs are. But be careful, the Universe replies only to specificity as the great NLP trainer Dr. Wyatt Woodsmall had said. So not only goals, specific visions instead. And I am not talking about any woo-woo new age wishful thinking here. I mean using your knowledge to set up efficient mechanisms that drive us directly but only through actions towards what we have vizualized.
In my experience when we believe deeply in something it’s not that the universe conspires for it to happen. Instead we shape our part of the universe the way we decide it to be created. Notice it, you can make the rules. Most people just look at what others do and either do nothing or follow blindly. Don’t be like this. Haven’t you seen? Whenever you had made a change most people from your environment were sceptical, critical or even ironic. But when you remained consistent and you had results they suddenly started taking it for granted and accepting you. They may even rationalized that this is what they always expected. Remember, you make the rules by your inititiatives.