Here is the trick – your life and most of the things you end up doing are a result of your habits. They influence you much more than you realize. You are literally acting on an autopilot almost half the time.
Your patterns of behavior and thinking, created long ago – by observing your parents, your friends, or any social interactions you had – shaped you and made you think this is the way to be and to behave. They are an intrinsic part of you. Science proves that
40%-45% of the decisions we make (at least we think we make them) are actually based purely on our habits and therefore, difficult to control.
3rd Monday of the year is called the Blue Monday. It’s apparently one of the most depressing days in the year. You plan for the new year and decide: this January I’m going to change my life. The most common examples, although the same pattern applies to every single challenge you have, are diet and exercising.
You create an ambitious list, you are all pumped up and you know this time it’s going to be different. You will lose 10 kilos and go to the gym 3 times a week. It doesn’t matter you’ve tried for 3 years in a row. Your ambitious dreams are going to come true… Except they won’t! You need to plan for it and I’ll show you how it can be done by following 3 simple steps.
Einstein knew how to take advantage of your brain so that it works in your favor. He once said that
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
True? Simple? But not easy to change. Changing your behavior is one of the most difficult challenges. The good news is that we can actually rewire our brains to work in our favor rather than against us, and it takes less than a month!
Why less than a month? Scientists proved that to form strong links in our memory and create new habits, we need at least 21 days of repeated action. This could be 21 days of skipping dessert after lunch, changing your morning routine until it becomes the most natural thing in the world, or altering your behavior so that you eliminate things that are counterproductive.
How do you do it? Take three steps and become your own best strategist. It’s really that simple.
How to change your habits
Step 1: Find out what makes you do the same thing over and over again. What triggers your behavior? Is it a certain time of the day, people around you, certain emotions? Do you give up on your diet around 6pm every day when you feel like having something sweet after a difficult day at work?
Step 2: Prepare to have a new habit in place and avoid temptation. Have an alternative when the urge hits you. You need to be ready – meet a friend for a walk or have something nourishing ready for you not to give in to that cookie. After a couple of days, especially if you do it at the same time, it will feel very natural. You will also be strategically prepared as you will expect it to come.
Step 3: Reward yourself. If you managed to do it for 5 days, on the weekend go and get a massage or buy something nice. Whatever makes you feel happy and accomplished.
Back to our new year’s resolutions example. Black Monday is such a phenomenon because your willpower is soon gone and by the end of the month close to 80% of us realize we failed again and decide to give up all together. We are not strategic and we don’t have a plan.
We are trying to act against our habits, and introduce behaviors that our brains screen as scary and difficult – and too many of them at once.
If you haven’t been a regular at the gym and decide to go several times a week to have a good workout plus replace all the junk food with healthy alternatives – as of January 1st – chances are you give up as soon as you have a weaker day.
However, some people (an estimated 10-15% of the population) make it and change their lives. They follow through. I’ve researched those successful handful of you and it’s by using the combination of the 3 steps method that they succeed. They recognize what triggers the bad habits or stops the change (step 1), plan for a good alternative to avoid temptation and surprise (step 2), and reward themselves (step 3). We ask ourselves – how come do they manage to do it? They create something that many of us think of as willpower.
Willpower is the single biggest factor that determines how successful you are going to be. At anything you do.
How do you learn willpower and how do you prepare for the weaker moments, the moments of temptation? You don’t. Once you have determined what triggers your ‘bad’ behaviors what you can do is to choose your reactions ahead of the time (again, step 1 and 2). And repeat for a longer period of time until they become your habits and you do them on the autopilot mode.
In our scenario you could start by making sure you have the replacement for your meals and that you avoid restaurants that will be too tempting in the beginning. While this is already a challenge, you start by going to the gym once or twice a week, instead of trying to be perfect from day one and going every day – and you slowly progress in the direction of you goals. The same could go for starting a business, becoming more assertive or prioritizing your well-being.
Creating new habits (power habits) builds your willpower. The more you do it, the more it becomes a default scenario for your brain. It matters because we are not always thinking rationally, especially when we are tired after a day of work. We want to go back to what we know and to what gives us comfort. Doing something different is what your brain sees as challenging. And you end up having that cookie! However, once you’ve strategically formed a new habit your supports system will kick in.
No one is perfect, nor will be, but we can do things that in the long run will make our lives easier and more successful. Habits that are the reflection of our willpower. These are the power habits.
Power habits are behaviors that will boost your productivity, satisfaction, happiness, in a very natural, almost effortless way. Willpower is simply a collection of those habits.
However, take it easy. It’s important not to over-do them, expecting you can change 5 things at once. I tried that, it never works, and you end up getting frustrated. At the beginning of this year I challenged myself to change 1 habit per month. I listed 3 most important ones and started in January. Think about a couple of things that you usually complain. Do you say: I wish I could be stronger, more assertive, could stop being afraid, could end the relationship that is not working, finally ask for a raise, start your own business?
We tend to overestimate how much can be done in a short period of time, and underestimate the great progress we make by taking small action every day.
In my case it was:
- Quitting coffee – for health reasons I needed to stop drinking coffee. I loved everything about it, from its smell to the way it would make me feel to start my day. It never worked when I told myself: today you are not drinking coffee. I’d go and have one whenever someone suggested it. I then looked for a replacement – it was matcha latte (10 times stronger that tea but without caffeine) on coconut milk. It gave me the energy boost I needed, was way healthier, and tricked my brain.
- Letting go of fear – for a full month I’ve decided to do things that would scare me before, and when in doubt, I’d ask myself: what would you do if you weren’t afraid. Every single day I’d look for one thing. Magical things happened, such as becoming much more assertive and negotiating for myself. It may seem small but they hugely improved my life. More importantly, I now feel that I deserve the things I negotiate while before I’d be afraid that I may be asking for too much.
- Cultivating gratefulness – every day I’d write down 3 things I’m grateful for. In order to stay committed I’d send them to my best friend and sometimes she would write back, but regardless of that I knew I wanted to keep my word. By practicing gratefulness your perception shifts and you start seeing opportunities instead of problems, being more creative and overall, more content.
- Prioritizing sleep – I used to think I can prioritize almost anything over sleep. Isn’t that a waste of time anyway? And coffee – there is a reason it’s so popular. It wasn’t until I started getting irritated, tired, less productive (and read Arianna Huffington’s book The sleep revolution) that I appreciated the value of sleep. I now sleep at least 7 hours every night. By being recharged I get more done as my productivity soars when I’m in a good physical and mental state.
You can really change just about anything. Some of the things I’m working on this year are minimalism (decluttering the space around me), confidence (who doesn’t need some confidence boost), integrity, as well as mindfulness and emotions (to act instead of reacting to whatever happens).
How about you?
Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Arianna Huffington: The Sleep Revolution