Building habits that last
“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us”
To create habits that last you must first understand 3 fundamental concepts:
The habit loop, the power of systems, and the psychological warfare involved in creating habits.
How habits work: The habit loop
In Charles Duhigg famous book ‘The Power of Habit’, a fundamental concept about the nature of habits is revealed. The concept is called ‘The habit loop’. The habit loop consists of three main elements:
The Cue: Something that influences us to initiate the habit, sometimes called a ‘trigger’. These cues can come in a number of forms; they generally create an emotional response that compels us to act on the impulse.
The routine: This is when you are performing the habit; generally you will be on autopilot as the habit at this stage is ingrained deeply into your brain. For instance, when you are brushing your teeth, you go through the same motions every night. Your brain does not need to use willpower to consciously think about how you are going to do it. You are sleepwalking.
The Reward: The reward is what fuels the habit, it’s the end game. The reward for brushing your teeth is that fresh feeling you get in your mouth afterwards. The reward for smoking could be the dopamine hit you get or the feeling of relaxation. If there are no rewards, there is no incentive for the brain to commence the habit loop.
The more times you repeat a habit, the deeper the habit becomes ingrained inside your brain, and the harder it becomes to overcome it.
“The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken” – Warren Buffet
Habit Loop Diagram
Now that we know the basic framework of how habits are formed and reinforced, let us get into some practical strategies for creating new habits.
We first need to create an association in our brain between the habit and the reward. Your brain initially does not want to use more energy than necessary; at the early stages, the association between the habit and the reward have not been established.
It’s common knowledge that going to the gym is good for you, but not everyone has gone to the gym long enough to create a clear association between the routine (exercising) and the reward (body transformation & and dopamine rush after workouts). Logical understandings are not enough to overcome the emotional inertia of creating a new habit. You need a real reference point, you need to experience the reward first hand for it to become real.
Develop a strong cue
To begin with, you must consciously create your own cues to remind you to begin the habit. The easiest cue is an alarm on your phone. Set your alarm with a message telling you to begin the habit. Have the alarm cycle every day at the same time. The cue popping up at the same time creates less mental hurdles for you to overcome and makes it easier for your brain to associate that time with the habit.
You could also use objects as cues. Perhaps you have a chair in your house and you want to begin the habit of meditation. Each time you walk past the chair, sit down on it for a couple of minutes and meditate. Once you have consciously associated the object with the routine a couple of times the process becomes automatic.
We create a system to prepare us for the inevitable contingencies that might occur. Systems are best made by taking precautionary measures by manipulating the variables within our control. Let’s say that you want to create the habit of waking up at 5 AM every morning.
Naturally, you would set your alarm next to your bed for 5 AM. However, you run the risk of hitting the snooze button (remember the early stages of habit creation are grueling and willpower is not enough). A simple system to combat this could be to simply have your alarm across your room and out of arms reach. Doing this forces you to get out of bed, helping you overcome the initial inertia of the morning, making it easier to ingrain the habit.
Let’s say that you want to create the habit of eating healthy.
A system to help you with this could be having a simple food prep every Sunday. You could get all your healthy food ready for the week so that you don’t get tempted during the week. If you don’t create this system it will be far too easy to give in to temptations and eat all the delicious bullshit that can be found everywhere in the modern world.
When creating systems consider the following questions:
What actions can I take prior to help make life easier for myself?
What things should I avoid to make success more likely?
How can I make it so that I am forced to do the habit?
What pressure can I put on myself to perform the habit?
Is there a environment that would better facilitate this habit?
Is there a particular time of the day that would help create this habit?
The last war is fought in the mind. You must pledge guerrilla warfare against the voice in your head. The voice that tells you to:
-“just skip it this one time, you have worked hard and deserve it”
-“Missing it one time is okay”
-”I can try again tomorrow”
-“I have been going hard! I can take a break now”
When you hear this voice in your head tell it to shut the fuck up. The slightest ounce of resistance can ruin all your good work. You must be relentless in the first couple days of forming a new habit, don’t give yourself any excuse to skip a day. Each time you want to skip a day envision someone with a gun to your head, it’s that serious.
You need this type of mindset in the beginning if you want to overcome the inertia. It might seem extreme but it’s well worth it, especially when the habit you create rewards you for the rest of your life.
You are literally the sum of your habits and can change your trajectory by strategically building the right habits. See where you want to go and began the habit creation process. Focus on ONE habit at a time until it echoes. I don’t care if it takes you a whole year to make that thing a habit, it’s far better to develop one good habit than to try creating multiple ones that never stick. You will know that you have formed the habit when you can’t sleep without completing it, when the thought of missing out on the activity actually pains you.
Hope that helps!