how to build habits that stick
Most people when they hear the word ‘habits’ associate it with negative behaviour traits. Mainstream media is very good at telling us what we do wrong, hence we are well conditioned to understand some of our habits deep down are not in our best interests. As a real world example, if I had £1 for every person who came to me, asking to become fitter, cut down drinking or stop smoking, well, I would no longer need to work for a living.
Whilst it is true that many of these negative actions are habitual or learned behaviour, it is also important to understand habits form the basis of much more positive behaviour. Behaviours that will make you a better person over time. The power of habit is so strong that it has helped professional sports teams to elite success and grown many a small business into global behemoths through small, daily compounded actions. Good habits, if you will, that over time generate huge growth.
Now, using an example of a few positive behaviours that we know are good for us: getting up early before work to train; turning down the pub to stay in the office to get ahead of your schedule; not taking the extra slice of cake you don’t need etc., the problem is these take will power and sacrifice. This just isn’t sexy enough to our comfort driven primitive brain when compared to the short-term IMMEDIATE gratification you are contemplating forgoing (extra 30 mins in a snug bed, a few drinks to de-stress after a hard week or the sweet taste of icing on your lips). This is where habit forming comes into its own. Quite simply, it is the ability to take away the thought-process over a given action meaning you no longer have to exercise will power to prevent said negative action. Or alternatively, to get started on a long-term positive, but short term painful action. By removing the famously weak link, will power, you stand a far greater chance of success than before.
Why do we fail to stick to good habits?
Good habits are hard, doing things that benefit us long-term at the expense of our short term pleasure are also hard. This is why so many people seemingly coast through life without really experiencing what their full potential could have been. This to me at least, is a huge shame. The hardest battles, the most gruelling times of your life often turn out to be the most enjoyable and certainly most memorable. Personally, the hardest things in my life turned out to be the things that defined me and made me proud of who I am. My accomplishments set me apart from others. I have no doubt forgotten most of the story lines from box sets I’ve been excited to watch, but I can still remember like yesterday the feelings, pride and sense of awe at some of the difficult things I have achieved, in terms of fitness, professionally and in a personal capacity.
So, if doing difficult things makes us feel happy long-term, why do so few of us do them? The answer lies with lack of will power and failure to develop new habits or correctly habit form.
In order to start reaping these benefits it is important to understand how to create a habit. A habit is really only a cognitive loop. It is a response to a cue, and if you can break the loop for a few days, you can potentially get rid of the habit, or build a more positive one in its place. The loop consists of cue-action-reward.
A good example of this loop can be seen in the large scale use of, wait for it, Febreeze! The Febreeze team eventually made a world beating product that made them very rich off the back of an initial failure back in the late 90s. This failure was because it didn’t fall neatly into the feedback loop. People bought the product, used it a few times then left it at the back of the cupboard. Net result, no repeat buys.
The marketers were puzzled, after all, it was a good product. Why wasn’t it selling? It took someone to understand and exploit the habit loop for them to succeed. As it transpired, the problem was the fact that it had a neutral smell. It removed bad smells but didn’t give a reward. Cue-bad smell, action-spray Febreeze, reward-none. It was hence forgotten about, it didn’t allow a habit to form as it didn’t follow the loop.
Armed with this information they put a perfume into the product. Now the habit loop was complete: Cue-bad smell, action-spray Febreeze, reward-lovely clean smelling house. People started forming habits and buying additional bottles. It was even said that people used to spray it in the air to give that clean smell prior to visitors. It was this small change, closing the habit loop that eventually netted them billions.
The power of habit, if done correctly, is so strong that neurologist research into how to form a habit proved the brain undergoes fundamental pattern changes. It is literally doing the work for you.
How to develop good habits you'll stick to
When deciding what new habits to create you should always start backwards. Is it a fitness/physical goal? Perhaps it is a work promotion or own business aspiration? Whatever it is, brainstorm some of the small daily actions that will take you from A-B. They won’t all be ‘fun’ but that’s okay, anything worth achieving requires hardship to at least some level. Ensuring you choose the habits relevant to your long-term aspiration /core beliefs is critical to ensure they stand the test of time.
As positive habits are a very personal thing it is hard to advise on specifics. Mine are currently health based. As an example, some good habits to adopt involves daily exercise, 20 mins gratitude/relaxation and drinking 2 litres of water. These good habits to have, for me provide a framework and ensure other areas of my life remain on track. It centres me.
Start developing better habits today
We often associate habits with negative behaviour but in fact they can also be used to develop long-term positive outcomes for a better life. Good habits allow us to fundamentally alter our brain patterns meaning we no longer have to rely on easily fatigued will power. Focus on the full cognitive loop of cue-action-reward to correctly break or form habits. This done repeatedly on enough behaviours will achieve small changes. These small changes compounded, will lead to huge improvements in your quality of life, happiness and achievements.