Habits as agents of deliberate, important change


“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures” — F.M Alexander

We are creatures of habit. In fact, one paper published by a Duke University researcher shows that over 40% of what we do and the decisions we make are habitual. Forming good habits is an art — one that all should master — allowing you to subconsciously make good decisions and build on what you already have.

Through this installment I hope to divulge what I have learned concerning habits and share with you: 1) How creating your own habits can allow you to live a better life; 2) Important things to understand when forming habits and 3) My step-by-step process to forming a new habit (and breaking bad ones)

The power of habits

Subconscious decision making

Habits can be expressed as a subconsciously occurring proclivity towards certain behavior. Forming a habit involves not only doing something every day but rewiring your brain to tend towards certain actions — living well becomes second nature. This is due to the conscious part of your brain participating less and less in the decision-making process — good decisions can become reflex-like.

They shape who you are

Since habits dictate so many of our decisions every day they have a large impact on who we are and our perceived personality. By thinking consciously about our habits, removing detrimental ones and enforcing good ones, we can make the decisions we want to and shape who we are.

“We are what we repeatedly do” — Aristotle

They influence your conscious decisions

Habits can alter even your conscious decisions. A good example of this is: waking up and immediately opening YouTube every morning. This may lead to an hour of conscious procrastination. The habit set you up for failure and dictated the conscious actions you took by making certain, beneficial activities more difficult to engage in.

Freeing up your brain

Habits allow you to forego the actual decision-making process, instead replacing it with an automatic tendency towards a certain action, which your brain does not have to consciously participate in. This frees up energy and willpower which can be devoted to other tasks.

Agents of (deliberate) change

If you want to change your life you need to be intentional in building the right. By building the right habits — ones that align with your dreams and aspirations — you can deliberately further your goals and choose to spend time on certain things. Stop getting caught up in what is urgent and start doing what is important.

Form habits that act as systems to further your ultimate goals. This allows you to take control of your life, steering it in the direction YOU want. In the process you gain a measure of independence from the whims of others.

Planting the seed

The small habit you are building now will shape the direction of your life.. View it as a seed that you plant. With time and diligence it will grow and eventually blossom. By planting the seed you have a rudimentary measure of control over the end product. However, the flower that blooms (your goal achieved) and the new branches that grow (opportunities, contacts, and skills that arise as a result) will still exceed your wildest expectations. Through creating a habit you are deciding to improve your life in the way you want.

Important principles to understand

Ground them in reality

There is a very crucial concept that I have encountered in the last few years called ‘project-oriented action’. This is the idea that all your actions should be project or goal-oriented. This means you are not haphazardly carrying out random tasks, but working deliberately and effectively towards an outcome. This applies to habits. They should be linked to some greater purpose, a project or goal of yours so that you are not aimlessly performing this task — just for the sake of doing something positive.

A tried and tested method for grounding your habits is to write down all the reasons for carrying out the habit. Through this process you solidify, and conceptualize, the benefits of each habit. This provides ample motivation to get you started. Furthermore, it can allow you to assess the worth of individual habits later on.

Analyze your habits

You must learn to scrutinize your habits efficaciously in order to determine which ones you should drop, alter or replace. Here are a few questions that I have found helpful when determining which course of action to pursue:

What is the purpose of this habit (and does this align with what I want to accomplish)? Is it working (how effective is this habit, am I able to maintain it)? And finally: Should I quit it?

Abandon your all or nothing mentality

Many of us have this ‘all or nothing’ mentality. We think that because we miss a few insignificant days we should just give up cause “what’s the point, I have failed already”. This is a toxic mindset which we should seek to abandon. You slacking off for a few days is not cause to give up. It is a learning opportunity. Think about what caused the initial lapse and then get back on track as quickly as possible.

Be consistent

Maybe the most important thing to realize is the notion that we should value consistency over all else. Consistency and compounding is going to get you somewhere — not sporadic bursts of willpower and motivation. Be patient with yourself.

The causality loop

It is essential to understand the ‘habit causality loop’ when trying to make or break habits. The basic premise is that a trigger leads to action leads to reward leads to trigger etc. The loop is strengthened with each cycle performed. This concept will allow us to ‘hack’ the biological system.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Step-by-step process to forming good habits

1. Audit your actions

Observe your life. What do you do on a daily basis? How can this be improved? What are your goals, your ambitions? What habits can allow you to achieve these? Audit your actions and use this knowledge to form habits that important to you. The habits you create should part of a larger life strategy.

2. Start small

The idea here is that you create a habit so tiny that it is impossible, and embarrassing, to say no to. It should not be this enormous, terrifying task that you dread each day. Rather it should be something small that you fully believe you can maintain. Strive for long-term consistency and success — rather than a short-term burst of intense activity.

3. Establish a strong trigger

To form a strong habit you need a strong trigger. It can be a certain time, something in your environment, developing an ‘itch’ for something or a combination of the three. Another useful trick is to associate new habits with already existing ones — for example doing meditation while you are brewing your morning cuppa.

4. Make it obvious and easy

Seek to make the habit as easy as possible to start by altering your environment. Place the relevant items in accessible, highly visible locations. By removing initial friction we remove much of the ‘schlep’ associated with carrying out a task — our brains will be much more willing to perform this action over and over.

5. Establish a reward

When trying to build habits you need to create a strong reward system. It should be something that you derive pleasure from — this pleasure is then associated with performing the action making your subconscious mind more willing to cooperate. This can be something as simple as drinking a smoothie after your morning workout.

6. Build the habit up little by little

The basic premise with this idea is that you build your habit up more or less one percent each day. This allows your habit to progress at a steady pace, one you can cope with and maintain. This allows you to avoid overexerting yourself and still building a sizeable habit over time.

7. Break the habit into chunks

When the habit becomes too difficult break it into smaller, manageable parts. You can’t find time for a forty minutes session of writing? Split it into two or three smaller sessions throughout your day. This allows you to cope with the increased load.

LIfe is a marathon not a sprint. Focus on consistency.

Most importantly you must realize that life is a marathon not a sprint. Patience and consistency are the key to success. It is not about running fast, but consistently running forward.

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