Imagine something that you do almost subconsciously, the same way at the same time without even thinking about it , something so second nature to you that you may not even realize you’re doing it. THAT’s a habit, the human equivalent of being on autopilot.
That autopilot mode is part of the appeal of building a habit, the efficiency of being able to complete tasks without needing extra focus or effort. Whether we like to admit it or not, we humans are creatures of habit, and the ones we choose to adopt add up to play a big part of our lives. James Clear, writer of Atomic habits explains that our lives are essentially the sum of our habits (how happy, successful, in or out of shape we are).
Where do habits come from?
There is a designated part of our brain (our Basal Ganglia) that takes behaviors and basically automates them for us.
Charges Duhigg, explains this in his book the Power of Habit by distinguishing habits and decisions “Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. As soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into sleep mode.”
Habits are formed through repetition. This explains why something that used to be tough to do & required tons of focus, with practice becomes easy and we can practically do it with our eyes closed. Some habits actually establish themselves without us even realizing it.
Pretty awesome right? It is! but I’m sure you can see how this can be a problem when the habit that becomes automatic and ingrained in us is unhealthy or troublesome. Just think of how many times you grab your phone & start scrolling without even thinking about it.
The good news is, our brains are extremely adaptable thanks to a handy little thing called Neuroplasticity! With practice, repeated exposure, and effort we (and our brains) can learn & adapt to change.
Then why do we still struggle to change our habits?
While each person is different, the main culprits arethings like lack of focus, commitment, and perseverance, they are usually combined with:
· Not doing it for the right reasons. Change Is a process and without the right motivation to fuel your efforts, you’re likely to give up. Long lasting changes happen when you’re self motivated.
· Giving up at the first sign of failure. Even though failure is a normal and necessary part of learning,many fall prey to the idea that not being able to do something perfectly right away means they aren’t capable of doing it. This is symptom of a fixed mindset rooted in perfectionism.
· Lack of planning. Trying to accomplish something without looking into how to go bout it & without a plan of action is like flying blind. You might learn through mistakes, but it will be a much longer & more discouraging process.
· Focusing on everything you’re NOT doing. This is a big one, mindset is EVERYTHING. Negative self talk and focusing on the things you’re not doing instead of on the learning process makes all the effort feel worthless. Positive thinking is a game changer for getting through the rough patches.
· Running before you walk. change doesn’t happen overnight. Trying to do it all right away, instead of in steps makes it overwhelming & discouraging.
· Laziness. If you’re not willing to put in the work, you won’t get results, it’s that simple. Laziness is a bad habit on its own that prevents you from taking action because its “too much work”
3 Steps for Building Habits that Stick
Now that you’re aware of these potential obstacles, you’re already one step ahead!
It will take effort and won’t come naturally at first but creating a new habit doesn’t have to be daunting, it should be exciting. The trick is to build new habits in a sustainable, simple way by setting yourself up for success, integrating your new habit(s) into your life and learning to bounce back from obstacles.
STEP 1 — Pick the New Habit and ….
· Self reflect. Explore why you engage in a habit or why you want to start a new one. Think of the cues or triggers associated with it and what you get or don’t get out of it so you can use this information to your advantage.
· Know your WHY & keep it close! Confirm your motivation. Make sure you’re doing it because YOU WANT to make the change and YOU see the value in it. If you don’t want to change badly enough, I promise you it won’t stick. Periodically remind yourself of why you’re making this change and the benefits it will have. Keep your why close as it will be what fuels you to keep going.
· Visualize the PROCESS. Visualize the steps you will need to take to reaching this new habit.This not only helps you plan but it helps you feel less overwhelmed by seeing the process in steps instead of just looking at the finish line.
STEP 2 — Start Small & Create a Game Plan
· Set your goal & milestones. Determine your goal, what you hope to accomplish through this new habit.Determine what the small steps will be that will get you there (those steps are your milestones). Keep It simple and make sure they are specific, realistic, and measurable, so you can see your progress.
· Create a plan & a routine. Confirm which actions you will need to take and when. Create a new routine for yourself surrounding these actions. Repeating actions will help them eventually become automatic. Since we tend to perform our autopilot habits the same way all the time, creating a new routine in such a way to avoid your old cues will make it easier to consciously make the changes & initially remove the automatic responses.
Pro-tip: You can also attach it to an existing habit. For example, if your new habit is to drink more water in your day and you’re a regular coffee drinker, tell yourself that each time your reach for a cup of coffee you should also then drink a glass or 2 of water.
· Schedule the time in your day(s) for these actions, they will take more focus and intention at first so setting time aside for this will be a huge help.
STEP 3 — Stick with it!
· Consistency is key. Find what works for you! Post it notes on the mirror, calendar, or cell phone reminders. Pick something that will remind you each day of your intention, your why and your goal. No matter what method you choose to keep your eye on the prize, make sure you’re CONSISTENT every day with your small steps/actions so that you can build on them continuously until you reach your goal.
· Commit. There is no magic number as to how long it takes to build a habit (everyone is different). The important thing is to remain committed to taking those small steps each day & to realize that they are continuously making you progress. The level of commitment is heavily related to the strength of your “why” and what your motivation is.
Bouncing back from setbacks
· Accept Discomfort. Change feels awkward or uncomfortable at first. Accept discomfort as part of the growth process & know that that is where the magic happens.
· Accountability & forgiveness. At the end of the day we are responsible for our own habits & getting back up when we fail, no one can do this for us. Some failure along the way is inevitable but beating yourself up about it will only breed negativity & discouragement. Quiet the negative self talk, dust yourself off and try again !
It will take practice to get where you want to be but if you keep your WHY at the forefront of your mind & you want it badly enough, you will be better able to push forward!
Meeting me today, you would have no idea that habit building was something I struggled with. I was guilty of almost all of the pitfalls above at one point or another. Especially in the first 2 weeks of a new habit when the most effort was needed, I was a master excuse maker.
Through self reflection, I learned that if I didn’t want something badly enough, I would find excuses to not bother but if the want was there I would move mountains to make it happen. Once I realized this, with LOTS of practice & self discipline & by keeping it simple, realistic, staying consistent with my efforts and reminding myself of my why(s) I’ve been able to overcome this and you can too.