Modern life is always becoming more complex, more demanding and increasingly overwhelming. It constantly requires us to live in the now, without much forethought or reflection on lessons from the past. To excel today, what is required of us is an alteration of our perspective that goes beyond now, looks back and leans forward. What has disappeared in our society from the days of our grandparents are the virtues of thrift, self-accomplishment, and personal responsibility. They have been sadly replaced by a never-ending desire for instant gratification, for easy fixes in the moment, and of course those magic pills…
Blame it on society, blame it on TV or the internet or blame it on the way we were raised, in the end it’s the same thing; we face temptation more than we ever have before. We face fast food, fast lives, and fast access but we have lost much of our skill set to patiently make real change on our own. Ironically, modern society has granted us access to more knowledge and better tools for taking control of our own lives than ever before in human existence but we rarely slow down to take advantage. In our modern world, it is through simplicity that personal success is often found. Whatever we define as our ultimate goal in life, whether it’s more money, a better body or just a happy family, remember that change doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be all in, instead the act of changing can simply be a succession of small easy habits that allow you to make the journey to a better version of yourself.
Before starting on any journey, we must decide when and where to start, where we are going, and what we are willing to pay (or avoid or sacrifice) to get there. Having at least a rough idea of these things will have a dramatic impact on our success or failure.
The right order of change?
Gary Keller (The One Thing) is a successful businessman, entrepreneur and author. Keller teaches that no matter how success is measured, no matter what the goal is, only the ability to dismiss distractions and concentrate completely on the most important thing stands between yourself and your goals. There are many proverbs dealing with being spread too thin – being a “Master of None.” Keller suggests instead that you focus solely on that one next thing that matters most – and during this time nothing else matters, there must be no distractions. Ask yourself “Does this get me closer my goal?” If not, then it isn’t deserving of your attention right now. Before you can devote yourself to this one thing, this one change, you must figure out exactly the right order to approach the problem so that you create a sequence of next most important things that lead to your goal.
Humans at their most basic level simply seek to avoid pain and engage in only the activities that will bring pleasure. Because of this, it is often difficult for us to do something that we know is beneficial, but isn’t all that enjoyable. For example, how often do we choose the greens powder over the thick double chocolate protein shake? How many of us do a 60-minute run over watching an episode of Game of Thrones? It’s just in our nature to find the simple pleasures in life. However, the ability to move away from this behaviour and to choose the most important thing to do, no matter if its pleasurable or painful is in fact the first step to the process.
If this is done correctly it can begin a domino effect that will help build momentum towards accomplishing more difficult goals. Scientifically speaking a domino can knock over another domino that is 1.5x its size, taking this metaphor, a very small initial task can very quickly lead to you to overcoming what initially seemed a large, frightening and almost impossible change. In my life as a trainer I often tell my clients that they need to row 2500 meters in 10 minutes as a minimum, for many this may seem daunting, but what if instead I told them they need to row 500 meters in two minutes for a week, then the next week they have to row 750 meters in 3 minutes, slowly adding a minute once per week. This in essence allows them to build up the momentum and confidence to hit the 2500-meter goal.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t often line everything up for us to easily knock over. Successful people know that success requires action, and results require action and thought. The most successful in our society wisely expend time, energy, and focus on the process of breaking down their biggest goals in to smaller more achievable tasks and then place them in the right order. One way approach this task is to use Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 Rule. This states that 80% of your results are achieved through 20% of your actions, or in other words, extraordinary results are disproportionately created by fewer actions. Using this idea, take the time to discover which 20% of your habits that will yield the biggest outcome. Then take 20% of that 20%, then take another 20% and so on until you are left with the one single change that will help you start with greatest effect: this is your first domino. If we want to continue this trend, we need to understand the fundamental processes that form a habit so we can convert our hard work and purpose into momentum.
What is a habit?
A habit is what allows you to minimise the cognitive requirement of a task, it turns on your “autopilot” when you are undertaking an easy task, saving time, energy and focus for more demanding objectives. However, habits are much more than this; habits are what define us as a person, they define our character, our thoughts, our feelings and they define other people’s perceptions of us.
If we truly wish to reach what may seem an unobtainable goal, we must learn to alter our habits. Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the New York Times and best-selling author of the book “The Power of Habit,” which is an analysis of the science of habit formation in our lives, in successful companies, and in modern society. In “The Power of Habit” Duhigg examines the processes that underpin the formation and reinforcement of habit, he believes that knowing the reason a habit forms will allow us to reverse engineer back to the beginning of the habit and use that to reform new habits. Duhigg states that habits contain three critical phases.
The first part of a habit is known as the ‘Cue’, this could be the location, time of day, or emotional state that triggers our brain to go in to this automatic mode. This cue then triggers the second portion of the habit, which is the ‘Routine’ itself. This routine can be emotional, mental, physical or any combination of the three and is the part of the habit that those around us are able to see, for example this could be the act of biting our fingernails when we get nervous. And finally the last part of the habit is the ‘Reward’, this is perhaps the most important part of the habit as this is the fundamental reason habits exist. Our mind constantly craves pleasure and gratification, hence by receiving this reward the mind reinforces and solidifies the link between cue and routine as it recognises that every time this habit occurs it will receive the reward it desires. Now that we know what is a habit, it is not a large leap for one to then comprehend how it is possible to change a habit.
How to change a habit.
By acquiring a basic understanding of the underpinnings of a habit and its formation, we are then able to theorise a formula that will allow us to change a habit into a more reliable, positive, constructive behaviour.
1. Identify the Routine
The first step is to identify the routine of the habit that you wish to change, for example this could be binge eating, biting your fingernails, drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking or just thinking negatively about yourself. It is important to clearly identify the right habit to change first in order to reach your goal, as discussed above, and to be clear about the routine you are changing.
2. Isolate the Cue
The second step is to isolate the cue, or in other terms, find out what exactly causes you to absentmindedly perform the routine. It is important to recognise that a cue could be more than just a location or time of day, it could be an emotional state such as anxiety, boredom, depression, it could be other people who appear in your immediate environment or any number of other categories. Whatever the cue it is important to discover exactly what it is, this can be done by maintaining a log of your thoughts and circumstances immediately preceding the routine, after a few days this record will show a theme of recurring events that precede the routine that should offer a clue to your cue.
3. Experiment with Reward
The third and probably most difficult part of changing a habit is discovering what exactly the reward that the mind is searching for when it performs the routine. Even habits we dislike and want to break will have a reward that will cause you to do it and often it’s probably a reward you haven’t even considered. In “The Power of Habit” Duhigg describes how every afternoon he would travel to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while talking to colleagues in the cafeteria. Many people would assume the reward is the satisfaction of eating the cookie, however in order to be sure it is important to alter the routine, Duhigg changed the routine and then waited a short time to note if the urge for the habit is still present. This can be repeated over a number of days with a number of different routines. In Duhigg’s example he spent several days altering the routine, he took a walk, went to the cafeteria bought a candy bar and ate it at his desk, and on yet another day he went to cafeteria and didn’t buy anything instead just spending the time talking to his work colleagues. Eventually by testing enough hypothesis Duhiggs identified in fact that the reward was socialising with his co-workers, not the cookie.
4. Have a plan
Once you have identified the routine, the cue and the reward you are craving it is simply one more small step forward to begin to change habits. The golden rule of habit reformatting is to change the routine and leave everything else intact. Let me repeat this because it’s critical: the GOLDEN RULE of changing your habits is to substitute the routine that you have decided is negative for a more positive, constructive routine that you have noted is suitable for satisfying your hunger for reward. In order to ensure that you are most successful at this final step it is essential that you design what some call an if/then strategy. This basically is a way of mitigating the impact of decision fatigue on your habit change. This strategy is plan that says if you feel the urge to do X, you will do Y instead. If you are in Situation A and you feel the need to then do B, you will do C instead. You should appreciate the fact that this final stage requires practice, you may fail several times, you may revert back to your old habits, but eventually the strength of the connection between the old cue and reward and the new routine will strengthen and a new habit will have formed.
This methodology may seem difficult or even time consuming, but the below example shows that changing a habit can be simple and not demanding on your willpower. Meet Ernest, Ernest drinks coffee every day, Ernest knows that this is a bad habit and wants to change. In order to change, Ernest first must identify the cue for this habit. He does this by simply maintaining a log of his thoughts, feelings, location, etc. every time he gets the urge to drink coffee. After several days Ernest realises that the log shows that every time he sits down to read the paper at his breakfast table he gets the sudden urge to drink coffee. Ernest has just identified the cue. The next step is to identify the reward that Ernest craves, after several days of experimentation Ernest realises that it is drinking a hot drink he craves and this allows him to come up with a plan. When he sits at the table he will replace the coffee with herbal tea, this still provides the reward of drinking something hot without the caffeine. Ernest is following the golden rule and finds that this is not a huge change and as such it is not hard to maintain his willpower. Finally, after a period of several weeks, Ernest no longer has the desire to drink coffee at all and has instead developed a desire for tea.
Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister (Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength) states that willpower is what gives people the strength to persevere; it is the source of self-control and allows individuals to fight the urge to make unhealthy and/or unproductive choices. Willpower is very much like a muscle in that it can be strengthened with practice and fatigued by overuse. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades throughout the day as you make more decisions. One of the most critical components to maintaining willpower is therefore avoiding decisions about unimportant things, as the more decisions you make, the less likely you are to make a favourable decision. One of the simplest ways to reduce the number of decisions is to make common daily decisions the night before, this can include what to wear to work, or what to have for breakfast.
All these minor decisions when removed can then allow you to focus your available willpower and energy on forming a new healthier routine.
I can honestly say in my life as a professional trainer, if one of my clients is willing to put in the effort, to follow the proper process and do the right thing, anything is possible. I often tell clients that if they don’t believe me then simply try something easy first, you don’t have to slay the dragon and capture the princess straight away, you don’t have to run before you walk. For example, if one of my clients wants to perform 100 push-ups, then I tell them to start with 5 per day, then in a few days do 6, then 7, and so on and so forth, eventually they are able to conquer their greatest goal of performing 100 push-ups. Finally, I will say this: habits are strange beasts, many say that willpower is all you need. Often it is those who simply try to will themselves to break a bad habit without any plan who not only fail but actually see the habit/behaviour return with greater intensity. Just think food binging after a week of clean eating. It is these people who cry to the world that it is not possible to change your habits and that there is no hope of every achieving their goals. Few choose to first understand the process of change, because they simply want the quick fix, don’t be one of those people. Instead, do your research, make your plan, pay attention, and keep your eyes and effort on the next most important domino.
Ryan Abbott is a Gym Jones® Certified Instructor and contributing writer.
Contact him at email@example.com
Ryan’s Website: www.ryanabbottfitness.com