Pop quiz: After flushing the toilet to the bathroom, what do you do next?
If you said wash your hands, congratulations! You’re absolutely right!
If you said anything else … don’t shake anyone’s hand soon.
Okay, seriously. Washing your hands is one of those things that (hopefully) you don’t have to think about after you use the restroom.
Yet, other actions, such as going to the gym on a regular basis, seem to require all of the energy and mental focus we have, and even then we are not guaranteed to follow through.
So what gives?
We like to think that we in control of the things that we do, but actually, though we are operating in the conscious mind, we are actually controlled by the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind holds all of our beliefs, innate reflexes, and perhaps most importantly – our habits.
Habits are defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary “something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way”. This can encompass a lot of things in our lives, when you actually sit down and think about. So much of what we do is unconscious – the way we speak, walk, drive, think, and work are all small patterns we’ve internalized, working together like cogs in a machine.
Our lifestyle is the sum of these habits acted out over years and years. Some of these habits are beneficial for our well-being and efficiency, such as washing our hands. Some, however, such as porn, alcohol, procrastination or cigarettes, damage us in little ways every day. It is the master of self who can not only recognize these habits without bias, but be able to control them, molding them as he or she pleases, and creating a life of better quality.
To understand a habit means to understand a little about the scientific brilliance of the human physiology. It is, of course, more complex than I’ve detailed it below, but for our purposes will suffice.
When an action is taken, it creates a stimulus from the sense organ (hands, eyes, nose, etc.) to the brain. Once in the brain – specifically, the cortex – an excitatory signal sent out to the muscles affected by the stimulus and a particular action triggers. If the action is repeated often enough, a neural pathway will begin to form. The result is what we call habits.
Beginning to drive a car is a prime example. When you were first getting behind the wheel, driving required your entire focus and concentration. However, after a few weeks or months, a neural pathway had been formed. You stopped having to think about how to back out of the driveway, or which turns to take. It all became automatic.
Fortunately, the same process can be used to begin working out, creating a budget, or eating healthier. Provided you have a basic grasp on the psychology behind habits, you can use them as a tool to improve your life immeasurably.
Anatomy of a Habit
In his New-York Times bestselling book The Power of Habits, journalist Charles Duhigg shows us what is referred to as the ‘habit loop’. These are the three elements that psychologists have proven are essential when building a new habit:
- The cue, or ‘trigger’. This can be anything that elicits a reaction in the brain. For instance, the smell of French fries can be a stimulus to your olfactory receptors, which makes you suddenly begin craving that hit of grease and salt.
- The process. This is the habit itself. Eating the French fries would be the process.
- The reward. This is what makes a habit stick – the feelings we get immediately afterward. For the overeater, it’s the feelings of warm pleasure after devouring those tasty fries. For the smoker, it’s that hit of nicotine that seems to calm them down.
If you are looking to build a new habit, you can manipulate these three elements to do so.
Where to Start: Small and Steady Wins The Race
As I read Duhigg’s book, I was fascinated with the idea of using science to manipulate the actions in my life. For months, I’d simply relied on willpower and whatever motivation I could muster to achieve my goals. It was tiring. More than that, it left me feeling disappointed whenever I eventually gave up.
Exhausted with my own way of doing things, I opted to work for myself instead of against myself and decided to commit myself to a different approach.
In my own experiment, I tried to build just one simple habit: making my bed when I woke up in the morning.
The trigger was turning on the light switch, the process was making the bed, and my reward was the aesthetic pleasure in seeing tidiness.
This hardly sounds exciting, I know. Even when I had planned it, a part of me itched to do something bigger or better, such as saving money or going to the gym three days a week. Somehow, I fought the urge.
And you know what? I’m glad I did.
On the first morning, I can’t lie – I had to remind myself to make the bed. After it was done, though, I stepped back and mentally patted myself on the back.
It was a small win, yes, but one small win so early in the morning held surprising benefits for the rest of my day. As I continued this action every morning throughout the week, I realized I felt good about leaving my room in the condition that it was in. When I came back home after a long day of work, I actually felt comforted by the fact my room was relatively in order.
As I’m writing this, I can tell you that it’s been over three weeks since I’ve first started doing this exercise and already it has become automatic to me. I don’t even think about it anymore.
Now that I’m comfortable with this habit, I’m free to work on new habits.
Would my success have been different if I had decided to make a habit of taking a morning jog instead? Or perhaps dropping down and doing 20 pushups after I got out of bed?
Well, perhaps. There has long been a myth that claims it takes 21 days to make or break a habit – unfortunately, there’s no scientific evidence of this. How long it takes for a habit to form depends entirely on the habit itself and you as a person. If you’re desired habit is to do 100 pushups when you get out of bed, it’s going to take a lot longer than if you just want to get out of bed and do one push-up.
If you are new to the idea of proactively forming your own habits, I would recommend you start by abiding by certain principles in order to get the greatest results with the least amount of frustration:
Set an appropriate trigger -- Preferably, one that is already a deeply engraved habit. For instance, doing a few push-ups after you brush your teeth is an ideal habit, because the trigger (brushing your teeth) is a daily event that you have to do. (Or, at least, I hope you feel you have to)
Set an appropriate reward. Do not think that you can bribe yourself to carry out a habit easier if you spoil yourself on big rewards. On the contrary, you will end up only working to get the big reward, and afterward will probably lose interest in the task you’ve set for yourself. Set small rewards for the things you’ve done, such as a sincere compliment to yourself, a stick of gum, a square of chocolate, or a few minutes of television.
Start small. Very small. So small, in fact, that it would be impossible for you to fail. If you want to begin saving money, look to save just one dollar a day. If you want to begin working out, start with a walk around the block, or doing just a few pushups a day. Resist the temptation to dramatically change your life in one day – you may think you’re speeding up the process, but you are only further veering off track. Change is natural in life. Much like a flower cannot be coaxed out of the soil any quicker than nature allows, you must surrender your impatience for true growth to occur.
Start short. Ideally, whatever your habit is, keep it relatively short – no longer than an hour. This will make it easier for you to stay motivated to the task. When you expend all of your energy on the first few days or weeks, you will quickly find your interest in the task dipping. Don’t put yourself in this position. Improving yourself shouldn’t be a painful, torturing process, so there’s no reason to make it one.
Don’t look for results right now. Look for consistency. As you complete what seems like something small, such as making your bed, you gain confidence to do it over again. Your brain reacts to these feelings accordingly. Focus on this process, and achieving results will be a natural outcome.
Focus intently on your task. You want to concentrate your mind on this specific task, so it recognizes its importance. During the time you do this task, resist the temptation to text a friend, check Facebook, or listen to music. Just think about the task.
One more bonus tip (free of charge) – have a little fun with it! Life’s too short to try to take everything so serious.I don’t know why people aren’t more excited about forming habits – I think of it like a little game. I have fun seeing all the habits in my life that I have, and brainstorming for all the habits I wish to have.
On the top of my list so far is:
- Regular meditation
- Going on a walk every morning
- Taking colder showers
- Regular callisthenic exercise routine (M-W-F)
Some of these are harder to accomplish as consistently as I’d like due to certain obligations I hold. For example, on days I’m not working and only go to class, I take a walk every morning, meditate, and do my push-ups. However, on the days that I am working, I have to be at work by six in the morning. Sufficed to say, the only way I’d have time for my usual routine is if I got up at around 4:30am – which I’m just not going to do. I love sleep too much for that. Sorry.
However, certain habits – like stretching for five minutes after making my bed – are perfect, because they are short, easily adaptable, and offer a satisfaction (relaxed, well-stretched muscles) that make the beginning of the day that much better.
Find similar, small moments in your own life that you can improve on, if only to feel better for a few moments. It is ultimately these small tweaks in your day that will reap the biggest rewards.
If you have any habits you’re working on or would like to be working on, I’d love to hear about them! Let me know in the comments!