I had a junior who smoked often.
He came to love this habit. He insisted that he felt more productive after taking a break every few hours.
It was like clockwork.
Soon, he was reaching for his pack of smokes at every hour on the hour. He became cranky if he missed it even by 5 minutes..
Soon, he was like a Pavlov’s dog salivating when it heard a bell. Gradually, it started to interfere with his work life.
He was a slave to his habit.
What you repeatedly do dictates your behaviour, personality, the kind of person you will be, and ultimately decides whether or not you will reach your goals.
The sum of all your habits is what your life is what looks like today. A small shift in your habits can be a determining factor for how happy or unhappy you are.
Habits are as powerful as they are dangerous. What makes them dangerous is the fact that they remove the decision-making process and your brain goes on auto-pilot. You aren’t mindful of your good or bad habits and that’s what makes a bad habit so dangerous.
This even applies to the habits you harbour at work.
You probably spend the better half of the start of your day staring at your overflowing inbox and replying to everyone. You are wasting the best time of your day working on other people’s priorities, only due to your habit.
Maybe you work on your screen slouched on the chair the entire day and then complain of back problems.
To fix these, you need to understand how and why habits are formed.
Charles Duhigg, the author of ‘Power of Habit’ says that habit is a 3 step psychological process that begins with a ‘habit loop’.
First, there’s a trigger that signals your brain to let the action unfold. Second, that trigger forms into a routine that becomes the behaviour itself. Last, there’s a reward of that action that your brain remembers and forms a habit loop.
The more habitual activity is, the easier it is for the brain to shut off. For instance, you can drive almost automatically while your brain can completely focus on a conversation you had at work.
The habits eventually become a part of automated behaviour. Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
How do you break a bad habit and introduce a new one?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no magical number of days that will help in sustaining a new habit. When you modify a habit, there is friction.
There is a conscious decision you need to make each day to keep at it. Over time, these compound and it becomes part of your automated response once we have reached some minimum number of repetition.
However, this number varies from person to person. For some people, it may take 28 days, and for some, it may take 28 weeks.
The first step in introducing a new habit or modifying an old one is to understand the positive intention behind it. Instead of focusing on the new desired behaviour, it is imperative to focus on the reason behind it and keep reminding yourself of it.
You should direct your efforts towards your willpower and introduce it to an already established pattern in your routine.
Identify cues in your environment that will help you trigger the behaviour. It’s more about putting yourself in the habit of putting yourself in a situation that will induce that behaviour.
This is how I introduced gymming 5 days a week into my life.
Instead of focusing on hitting the gym, I first developed a practice around starting the workout. I chose a time right at the beginning of the day. I kept everything ready for the gym once I was up, it was all waiting for me to start.
I placed myself in a position that would allow me to work out regularly which made it possible.
The other thing I did was I started small.
I started off going to the gym once, twice, or thrice a week. Giving yourself no time to acquaint yourself with the new habit will be a sure shot way of failing to develop the habit. You are bound to give up early on if you give yourself unrealistic standards to live up to.
The key is to slowly build up the habit. OR to break a habit.
The way to break a bad habit is the same as starting a new one: Find cues that trigger your bad habit, look to eliminate them or replace the action to those cues, start small, focus on consistency.
Smoking 10 cigarettes a day? Start smoking 9 for the next one week. 8 the week after and slowly wean yourself of it. If you decide to go cold turkey the next day, it’s highly unlikely that you will stick to it.
Try introducing a habit when there is a change in your environment. Your automated behaviour faces friction when the environment changes. This is why it is relaxing to be on a vacation: your habits break.
Duhigg says, “If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”
It is also probably why people go on a vacation after leaving a job they’ve been at for years or after a long relationship. The change in the environment helps you set a new context.
Focus on creating one habit first, and then look to optimise it. The point is to appreciate the process and not what you achieve from it. There is no room for perfection when it comes to habits.
Once you are able to successfully integrate one habit into your routine, it will be easier for the next one to follow.
Habits are malleable. I didn’t always have these ten habits. It took a rock bottom phase, some work, restructuring, and a will to work towards a better life.
We needn’t be slaves to our habits but use them to serve us better.