Your Habits Determine Your Success
"Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character."
- Stephen Covey
Why do certain things come easily for some people and not for others? Why are some people successful while others are not?
The reasons behind success are complex. But much has to do with a very personal set of behaviors: habits.
Habits (behaviors performed consistently and without much thought) help define us. Over the course of a lifetime we develop rote behaviors that determine how we interact with others, how we face challenges, and how we perceive situations. Habits form in many ways: how we were raised, our local and regional customs, or through deliberate development.
In forming specific habits, we can change our life’s path. Health, career opportunities, and relationships can all be affected positively or adversely by the habits we consciously (or sub-consciously) develop.
Decide What You Want
Identifying a personal goal is the first step in forming a positive habit.
Think about what it is you want from life.
Is it a better job? Or, might it be a better physique? What does it take to do those things?
Getting a better job (or any job) means work! “Work”, as in getting up early, pounding the pavement, calling your contacts, checking on-line, and yes (even today in the Digital Information Age) searching any newspapers’ “Help Wanted” ads.
Maybe you’re a 50 year-old man who wants washboard abs. Maybe you’re a 30 year-old woman who merely wants to tone up a bit after giving birth.
All of this translates into work (or, to make it sound more palatable, “sincere effort”).
Be honest with yourself and be specific about what is desired. The sincerity and specificity are necessary because those are the two factors that will shape future learned behaviors that become habits. [For example, if you want to be more physically fit you may want to develop a habit of exercising regularly on a routine schedule.]
Following the physically fit habit formation, here are some things to think about and do:
- Ask how much exercise counts as enough exercise to reach your goal? [In the parlance of habit-forming, this aspect goes toward “volume”, as in “how much of this activity do I want to do?”] Is 15 minutes’ worth of calisthenics enough? If you have not exercised in a while, this might be sufficient and effective; more, however, may be detrimental to your motivation.
- How often do you want to exercise? [This goes toward “frequency”, as in “how often am I willing to do this?”] Again, if you haven't worked out in years, maybe 3 times a week is a great start; otherwise, lessening the frequency may be warranted (without completely ignoring the routine).
- What types of exercise count for this habit? If you are relatively sedentary, vigorous yard work may count for your exercise. But, if you are more physically active as a matter of course a specific (and pre-defined) level of intensity is what you may wish to reach.
By being specific in what you want you can increase your chances of success because you now know what you have to do to accomplish your tasks each day. Vagaries and ambiguities can diminish motivation. Setting specific goals can cause what is initially a conscious act to become a habit.
Here are some examples of vague habits and how to make them more specific:
- Vague: "Study a new language." Specific: "Study language software at least 15 minutes daily."
- Vague: "Workout more often." Specific: "Either run or lift weights for at least 20 minutes at least 3 times a week."
- Vague: "Be more charitable." Specific: "Donate 10% of my income to charity each month."
Can you see how the more specific behavior is more powerful and motivating?
Identify Your Habit Cues
Charles Duhigg, in an interesting book on the subject, The Power of Habit, claims most habits follow a cycle: Cue, Routine, and Reward (in that order).
“Cues” may be something in the environment, such as a workout bag you use before you go to the gym. Cues stimulate a person to action (whether positive or negative). Cues are stimuli, something in your schedule (like going to a religious service and then donating money). Or they can be physical, such as feeling hungry—do you reach for the carrot sticks or the Big Mac?
When changing a bad habit (replacing it with a better one) the cues are already there, and you need to identify them. When developing a new habit, creating new cues as part of setting up a new routine is essential. For example, an alarm set on certain days you want to work out can be a reminder of what new habit is being formed (e.g., when the alarm sounds, whether you want to or not you go into your workout routine). This sets the pattern for “routine”.
Identifying cues for habits may take work, particularly when supplanting bad habits that are deeply ingrained. Charles Duhigg recommends using a notebook or Post-It notes. Writing down the time of day, your mood (critical—mood affects perception), and other potential cues that are present when the undesirable behavior occurs keeps a record allowing for behavioral changes. By doing this, you can start to consciously change your routine the next time you face “The Cue”.
Understand the Reward
In developing a new habit, it is important to understand what you gain from the new habit. According to business philosopher, Jim Rohn, “If you can see the promise of the future you will pay the price to get there."
Some of these rewards are personal, such as better health or feeling better. Some rewards are social, such as receiving praise or recognition. Others may be tangible, such as earning more money or purchasing something you desire.
When developing a new habit, write down what rewards you may expect to gain. This helps motivate you in the initial stages of developing a new habit. This is particularly important after the initial excitement wears off after starting a new habit (or when life gets busy and your new habits are in danger of being crowded out by the simple act of living).
If you are replacing a bad behavior it is important to identify the “rewards” that the bad behavior generates. Your new behavior will have to provide similar or greater rewards in order to become a habit.
Someone eating junk food may get a feeling of relief or relaxation. To replace this feeling, a new behavior will need to provide that same level of sensation. If eating junk food fulfills a “hunger” then perhaps timing meals and healthy snacks (with the use of an alarm clock, if necessary) to counter this desire may be more effective.
These rewards are identified over time. But for new habits, you can design rewards for yourself as well. If you enjoy watching television, for example, but want to exercise more, you can set up specific times that you can “earn” television time working out for a goal specific length of time (e.g., for every 15 minutes of workout time, you get a half-hour of TV time).
Making Habits Stick
The book Influencers discusses the different types of influence in our lives. Specifically, internal influences, social influences, and environmental influences are noted as major behavior influences. We can use these types to advantage when forming new habits.
Here are some ways we can use internal influences to make our habits stick:
- Write down the personal reasons why you want to develop the new habit.
- Read about how to improve your behavior (e.g. reading about new workout routines)
Here are some ways we can use social influences to improve our habits:
- Tell your friends what you are trying to do (peer influence and peer pressure can be a terrific motivator to stay on track)
- Use social network sites to post your goals and your habits. [An example of one such site is lift.do.]
Here are some ways to structure your environment to increase your chances of success:
- Rearrange furniture to support your new habits (e.g., move exercise equipment to a more prominent place to increase your chances of using it)
- Eliminate clutter in work areas that distract you
- Rearrange your schedule to empower your habits (e.g., schedule specific times to exercise or to write)
Start Making New Habits
So what has been holding you back? Do you need to get to work earlier? Do you need to get in better health? As many of these re-formatting techniques you can use the more likely one is to persist through any challenges one faces. And remember the four keys to forming a new, good habit: Goals, Cues, Routine, and (ultimately) Rewards!
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