You want it? You can habit.

You know that person who wakes at 4:45 every morning to hit the gym? Even on the weekend. Their house could be a Better Homes and Gardens cover. Their clothes woven from Hogwarts derived wrinkle-proof fabric and styled by Ralph Lauren himself. Their hair falls like Disney cinema and their teeth are whiter than winter’s first snow. They seem to complete monumental tasks effortlessly and their diet is better than an Olympian’s. Easing through life like that is almost sickening. It’s not that they’ve found one skill to dominate, it’s everything. This is not a gift from a higher power or a pre-programmed genetic code. This is the culmination of good habits.

Your brain is a lazy mother.

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There was a study completed by MIT researchers in the early 1990s that illuminates how our brains convert new actions into habits. Habits form by means of something called ‘chunking’. Chunking is a process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic practice. For example, remember when you were learning to drive and had to back out of a driveway. Your mind was focused on a lot of incoming information. Seatbelt on? Check. Is your seat in the right place? Now it is. How about the steering wheel? Yep. Mirrors adjusted? Yep. Is the car on? Just did it. Hold brake and put the car in reverse. Position yourself so you can turn and look out the rear window. Okay, ease off the brake. Ahhh too fast! Slam brake. Okay, try again. Ah, forgot the wheels will kick the front end out in the opposite direction of the steering wheel when backing up. Oops. Okay put the car back in drive, pull up, and try again. Compare this to what backing out feels like after a few years of experience. Over time your brain pre-programs these repeated actions, that is ‘chunking’ within the brain. We’re going to come back to this, so remember, ‘chunking’ is the brain’s way of combining pieces of material into a meaningful whole.

The One-Step Process.

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Imagine if you were a runner, could flambé bananas foster, could quit smoking, or could meditate like a Buddhist monk. No really imagine it! Now wipe that bemused look off your face and know you can achieve that fantasy with the right habits.

This blog was created to help you improve your life by means of expanding mind, body, and spirit. To advance our lives we need to be able to voluntarily shape our habits. Intentional habit forming may feel like circumnavigating Mars…in a cardboard spaceship…with Africanized bees as your companions, but it can be simplified. Changing any habit you’d like is done by breaking down the overall habit into the smallest repeatable action. Think about this like building a habit skyscraper. Spotting and then practicing this repeatable action is like laying the foundation. The magic with habits is that once you lay the foundation, the skyscraper builds itself.

There are a few subtle nuances that will help guide you down the path of laying your own habit foundation. The first is the ‘you’re not getting away with anything’ postulate. Many of our bad habits are propelled by the mentality that we are somehow getting away with something. Remember when you or a friend snuck into your parents’ liquor cabinet and scored some hooch? You drank too much, but the real drunkenness wasn’t from the alcohol it was from doing the forbidden. The same is true for drugs, speeding, and eating that third slice of cake. It’s fun to get away with something bad! But when we’re focused on erasing a harmful habit, it’s better to sidestep the ‘getting away with something’ roadblock.

We also want to dodge the ‘I’m not getting anywhere’ barrier. This can be a little more tricky because the infinitesimal first step, the one that lays the foundation for the habit change skyscraper, can sometimes feel fruitless. If you haven’t seen a skyscraper go up, the foundation takes about 20% of the total build time.  And it looks like nothing is happening for that 20%, but plenty is! Like a physical skyscraper, rushing your habit foundation will only lead to a crumbling structure. So if you feel your actions are pointless, remember this barrier is temporary. And if it’s really wedged in your mind, call a friend. Text your mom. Let your frustration be known because I guarantee you’re not alone.

With any habit change, break the objective into the smallest achievable step that you can consistently commit to. Process the goal from many different angles, analyzing your personality, and determine the best action to drive you forward. There’s no better way to examine habit change than by looking through some examples. We’ll cover an elimination habit and an enhancement habit. An elimination habit is something that is harmful and is better removed from your life. And an enhancement habit is something that could add value if picked up. Even if the elimination or enhancement habits below don’t apply to you, I’d encourage you to walk through both.

Elimination Habit: Remove added sugar.

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        Sugar’s effects on the mind and body are comparable to cigarettes or high powered narcotics. Eliminating this powerful substance is unlikely to happen overnight. So we must break up the habit into small bites The following is an itinerary of someone who might want to remove sugar.

7:00 am: Eyes half shut, stumble into the kitchen and snap on the coffee pot. Morning coffee with 3 tbsp of sugar.

7:30 am: Shovel down a bowl of frosted flakes.

8:37 am: It’s donut day at the office?! Inhale shiny glazed donut with the work family.

11:45 am: Waldorf salad with strawberry vinaigrette dressing.

3:00 pm: Coke always makes a good afternoon pick-me-up.

7:30 pm: Friendnesday night out. Steak and hot, crispy fries. And don’t forget the shared triple chocolate brownie.

This example diet is loaded with added sugar. Literally every meal. Almost like it was planned that way…weird. As mentioned above, habits stick when broken down into momentum producing steps. Let’s look throughout the day’s meals and find the changes that have quick uptake into ‘chunking’ in the brain.

Viewing as an outsider there’s some low hanging fruit that pops out as an easy target. Pitching 2 tbsp of sugar into the morning brew in lieu of 3. This is a ridiculously small step and that’s intentional! We’re looking for the tiny step that can be chased daily. The type of step that feels like it’s not even a step. If this person follows through, they win. That’s it!

Let’s say the person can’t stand coffee without the accustomed sugar dose. Looking back at the schedule, cereal is next on the list. Removing the cereal doesn’t only have the sugar component attached to it. Yes it’s got sugar, but it also serves as this person’s breakfast. When more than one component is at play, in this case the sugar reduction and the breakfast meal, we need to find a suitable substitute. A substitute isolates the habit variable we are trying to alter. Maybe a bowl of plain oatmeal topped with a sliced banana. The person still gets breakfast with this change but reduces the daily added sugar intake. If you need to find a substitute for an elimination habit, do some experimentation to zero in on the best form for the same function.

Next up is the donut. The donut may seem like a good starting point, but it is not. The frequency of a weekly or monthly work provided donut is too intermittent to serve the purpose of habit change. Removing the occasional input doesn’t lend itself to the mental ‘chunking’ we’re looking to exploit.

Moving on down the list we hit the Waldorf salad. The dressing in this type of salad is loaded with added sugar. Maybe even more than the afternoon coke. But it’s literally the day’s only fare that isn’t brown. The benefits from getting greens, nuts, and some real fruit may be the lone nutrient source this person consumes regularly. And they likely feel a sense of pride from eating the salad. I’m a healthy person who eats salad every day and focuses on their well-being. The mental attitude boost dovetailed with the nutritional benefits make the salad a bad starting point.

Like the cereal, the afternoon coke has another feature attached to it. The pick-me-up factor. So let’s find a substitute. A can of coke contains about 39g sugar and their coffee choice has 3 tbsp or about 40g. So a coffee substitution won’t work. Green tea with only one spoonful sugar? Bingo! They still get the pick-me-up and have reduced sugar consumption.

Take a moment to envision the two extra components at play in eliminating the triple chocolate brownie. No seriously, look up from this article and think about the two things other than sugar that make the brownie a bad target. Don’t read on until you come up with two. Got it? Good. Opting out of the communal brownie has heavy social stigma slammed on top. This type of burden does not play well with trying to alter a habit. Imagine this person sitting around the table with a group of friends skipping the warm delicious brownie and their friends enjoying it without them. Not good. The second component at play is akin to that of the donut. This habit change is actionable a handful of times per week at most. If this person consumed a brownie with every dinner, the target would be more favorable. As it stands, the brownie is not a good mark.

We’ve walked through the entire day and shown what to look for and what to avoid. Uncovering the momentum building action is everything. And if the habit needs to be decoupled with something else, isolate and run with it.

Enhancement Habit: Meditate.

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Meditation slows the aging process. A study published in June 2016 found habitual meditators had a reduced inflammatory and anxiety related to psychological stressors compared with a control group. Although simple in concept, meditation has a high ‘I’m not getting anywhere’ hurdle.

When adding a new practice, it’s best to repeat at the same time, same place, and same duration. Think about this like training a child to brush their teeth. It happens just after waking and before bed (same times), in a set bathroom (same place), and applies a fixed brushing technique (taking the same duration).

For someone who’d like to start meditating, the afternoon or evening is a hard road. Many other factors will chip away at that time. Say you’re going to try meditating at 4:00 pm. Work could present an unavoidable meeting or an important phone call. That might be the only time you can schedule a doctors appointment. Or the dentist. A child might have a soccer game. Swimming practice. Football practice. Or need to be picked up from school. Friends may want to grab a happy hour. Or exhaustion may have already set in. There are many barriers that arise later in the day. The best time to start a new enhancement habit is first thing in the morning.

Pick an appropriate enhancement habit sanctuary. For meditation, this is a peaceful place. The city bus or a noisy office cube doesn’t provide a good opportunity to start a meditation routine. If your enhancement habit is an exercise routine, use a consistent gym. Or the same room in your house. The same place ingredient may feel irrelevant, but it’s helpful in employing to the brain’s ‘chunking’ skills.

Last is duration. The span of time focused on the new habit needs to be short. Attempting to take on a new habit and focusing lots of time to it does not follow the ridiculously easy rule mantra. Subjecting yourself to a time duration that is not sustainable won’t get taken up. When in doubt, go shorter.

And just like the elimination and all other habit change, start small. Don’t try to take on too much too soon. If ten minutes feels like too much, do five. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. That five or ten minutes is laying your habit foundation. Don’t rush it. Just focus on the repetition.

Final notes.

There are many habit forming models out there that require multiple steps, long planning, and constant attention. This model is simple. Start with one step and keep it close at hand. What tends to happen is you’ll feel empowered and want to take on more and more to tackle the overall goal. Be cautioned. This type of behavior leads to burnout. If you’re just so keyed up that you can’t stay in the blocks any longer, go for it. But keep that foundational habit in mind and at all costs DO NOT LET IT SLIP!

Set a reminder to circle back to the habit change in about 4-6 weeks. If your tiny step has become so unconscious that you’ve forgotten the overall goal, this is the perfect time to advance a little further. Take another slight step forward and remember the best practices above.

Monumental change like quitting an addiction, losing weight, or becoming a seasoned athlete will take some time, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. The long-term attitude is not an excuse for not starting. Lacking the impetus to take the tiny step we’ve discussed here is unacceptable. Try to put yourself in a long term mindset. Even if it takes years to accomplish the overall goal, you’ll have many more years after to use it. And don’t forget to enjoy the journey! You are reading the Pursuit of Excellence after all, not the I’ve already accomplished everything and am done and bored with life. There’s always more to pursue! And that’s great! Embrace new ways to take on life. You’ll be happier for it! Take action and move the needle.

Further Reading:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior by Richard O’Connor

 

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