Have you a new habit you’d like to build into your life? Some aspect of your lifestyle you’d like to change for the better?
Imagine as you read this article it is January 2019 (not a misprint!), one year from now. Chances are things will be pretty much the same for you as they are right now today in 2018. You are a creature of habit and tend to keep on thinking, feeling and doing what you’ve always thought, felt and done.
You make your habits and then your habits make you!
Research from University College London has found that it takes 66 days on average to build a new habit to the point where it becomes easier to keep going with your new habit than to let go of it and slip back. That’s a lot longer than you may realise,
-66 days of committing to exercise even when you feel too tired
-66 days when you believe you’re too busy or its wet and windy outside
-66 days of simply taking action.
Furthermore many attempts at change tend to fail after an initial ‘honeymoon period’ of a week or two when you revert to type. Truth is you are a creature of habit and tend to gravitate back to the default position of what you’ve always thought, felt and done. You make your habits in life and then your habits make you.
As a medical doctor, I meet so many people who know what they should do or could do in terms of their health and wellbeing but they still don’t do it.
#Perhaps it’s lack of confidence or lack of support or a definite plan of action.
#Perhaps it’s simply not considered urgent or important enough to start now.
#Perhaps listening to an inner voice that says you’re too old or too late to change now.
#Perhaps suffering from the illusion that you’ll wait until the time to change is ‘perfect’ at some time in the future which of course it rarely is. Whatever the reason, choosing to stay stuck, chained to existing habits.
Aristotle the philosopher put it well when he said that excellence is a habit – not just thinking or feeling excellently, you must act excellently. It’s all about action. Nothing changes until you change. Nothing works unless you do the work.
The challenge I believe is to join the dots, to connect how you think and feel with what you do and how you behave.
Many habits are effortless decisions; hardwired, automatic and ritualised behaviours that shape your health and life overall.
While each individual habit you have is not necessarily a gamechanger on its own, over time the meals you order, the exercise you take, what you say to your loved ones and the work habits you cultivate all add up.
Building a new habit in essence is all about forming new pathways in your brain and reinforcing those new brain connections, over and over and over again until you rewire your brain; because cells that wire together fire together.
Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology have linked habit formation to a primitive lump of brain tissue near the centre of the skull called the basal ganglia. The job of the basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them.
This process of turning a habit into a ritual using the basal ganglia is the key to habit formation.
When this happens the basal ganglia takes over a series of actions automatically just like brushing your teeth in the morning. So you no longer have to actively make a decision to do it, it’s done automatically. The key benefit is that this process saves the brain valuable energy and willpower.
Building a new habit is not about willpower (essentially willpower is a muscle in the brain that becomes depleted each day with usage). So the key learning point is that the more habits you are able to automate by turning them into a ritual the more energy and willpower you will have to devote to other tasks at work or at home.
Transforming a habit isn’t easy or quick or necessarily painless but it is possible. And it can be so worth it. Here are some success strategies to support you on your ‘new habit’ journey.
#. Know your why ?
Whats motivating you to build this new habit? As they say if you know your why the how gets easier. Changing a habit starts with you deciding to change, having an inner tipping point for action.
#. Frame it positively.
I believe you are far more likely to persist with a habit that you frame positively (becoming healthier, eating more veg, taking more exercise) rather than framing it negatively ( watching less TV, eating less junk food, giving up chocolate). Remember if you are running away from something then that means something is chasing you!
What I mean by this is if, for example, you say to yourself I’m not eating chocolate anymore, the logical sensible part of your brain is focusing on ‘not any more’ while another more primitive part hears the word ‘chocolate’. If you’re having a good day, and willpower and focus are strong then the ‘ not anymore ‘ part wins out. However when you are tired, stressed or distracted, your willpower muscle becomes depleted. Now the brain will simply gravitate towards ‘give me chocolate’!
#Watch your associations.
The people you spend time with have a big influence on your habits. So if you spend time with people who eat healthily and exercise regularly , chances are you’re going to eat healthily and exercise regularly as well. On the other hand if your friends are couch potatoes, then the chances are you’ll be a couch potato too!
#Find your tribe.
Having people around you that are going to strengthen, encourage and support your efforts is really important. And of course to hold you accountable!
#No needless negativity.
Remember that emotion is highly contagious; spreading outwards to three degrees of separation impacting your work colleagues and their connections, affecting not only your friends but their friends and their friends too. In fact, every happy friend you have is likely to boost your happiness by 9% while every grumpy friend you have will tend to decrease your happiness by 7%.
#One habit at a time
Changing a habit isn’t easy and consumes a lot of mental energy. A common mistake I come across is someone who tries to change too much too quickly. As a result your brain becomes overloaded, willpower depleted and you give up. Better to focus on one habit at a time. Once that habit is hardwired as a ritual, then you will have more willpower and mental energy to successfully tackle another.
#Keep a journal
Tracking progress in a written journal is a great way to get to know yourself better. To be able to learn from your experiences and to reframe the inevitable slips and setbacks as opportunities to learn. Setbacks are an inevitable part of change. Roll with the punches, don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. It’s about progress, who you become along the way.
#Design your environment.
I also believe it’s very helpful to design your environment to support your habits. This might be a case of getting to bed earlier or bringing healthy snacks to work with you ( walnuts can be a terrific mid afternoon snack); maybe you even need to sleep in your gym gear!
Finally it’s important to celebrate the small successes along the way. Reward yourself often and remember that small positive changes can lead to big results over time. Many people overestimate what they can achieve in one year but underestimate what they can achieve in five!
What’s the habit you’d like to build or break starting today in 2018 that can open up new possibilities for you in your life one year from now? One day or day 1, it’s up to you!
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