Best Improvements For A Better Life
By Alaina Stratton
You’re probably doing just fine in most areas of your life. After all, with 50 and better years of experience, you’ve developed the knowledge, wisdom and confidence to tackle most goals successfully. But we all change year to year, and sometimes new goals require new tools. Or sometimes, no matter what we’ve learned and applied in other areas of life, there’s still those behaviors, cravings or areas of resistance we can’t overcome.
Often, we rely on motivation or making really great goals to make change. But motivation can wax and wane. And great goals are definitely necessary, but if we’re not paying attention to the tiny habits of our every day lives, we’re not understanding why progress is slow or how to get there more quickly.
Why focus on habits
We often depend on the end goal to motivate us to keep up with our goals. And where visualizing the dream and reflecting on why it’s important will help us move forward, sometimes it’s not enough in the nitty gritty of it. Sometimes when it’s 5 a.m. and you have a choice to get up early enough to start that new activity you’ve been wanting to try, it’s going to take a lot more than a pretty, hypothetical image to get you out of bed.
This is why habits can be very helpful. Establishing habits means we have reminders, triggers and rewards that set us up for success. As humans, we only have so much will power and decision-making power in a day. “Decision fatigue” is a real thing. So are mood swings, unexpected circumstantial changes and the fickle nature of motivation. Anything we can do to offload effort will help us to make change with greater ease.
Habits create structure, and once they’re instilled, they guide your actions automatically. Way less effort. Way less decision fatigue. Way less will power. For most of us, our dreams and goals already carry enough emotional weight, insecurity or shame. Triggered habits allow us to spend less time trying to make a choice and more time getting on with our lives, because we’ve pre-decided a structure and easy steps. Ultimately, those big goals or life changes are the product of those tiny, daily choices - and creating yourself a roadmap from the start will make sure you can get to where you’re going.
Have a plan, or plan to fail. Without understanding the mechanics of the habits we already have, we can’t make change or live in alignment with those big goals.
How to build habits the right way
One framework for building better habits and making lasting change comes from Charles Duhigg, which he explains in greater detail in his book “The Power of Habit.” As he explains it, the framework contains four parts: identify the routine, experiment with rewards, isolate the cue and have a plan.
In order to do this, we have to first understand that all of our habits are informed by a simple “neurological loop.” According to Duhigg, MIT researchers determined three parts to the loop: a cue, a routine and a reward.
“To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops,” writes Duhigg. “Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.”
Without understanding the triggers for our habits, we won’t be able to build better or healthier ones. We will think we simply have no willpower or are weak or our goal isn’t good enough. None of this is true - it’s just a matter of understanding how our brain works and changing the script we’ve been following.
Keeping with Duhigg’s steps, our first task is to identify the routine. The routine is simply the behavior you want to change. What is the cue for this routine, and what’s the reward? This could look like a lot of different things depending on the behavior you’re wanting to change.
Second, according to Duhigg, is to experiment with rewards. He explains, “This might take a few days, or a week, or longer. During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change - think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.” The idea here is to play around with other alternatives to the behavior to see what you’re actually craving - when you feel the temptation to blow off your work out, avoid working on the manuscript you’ve been dreaming of, or eat a late afternoon snack of treats, try something else. Go for a walk instead. Take a break and read a book. Drink a glass of water. Experimenting helps you to figure out what you’re actually wanting in that moment.
Third, you figure out the cue. Duhigg reccomends taking quick notes every day when the routine urge hits to help identify a pattern. For example he used the categories of location, time, emotional state, other people and immediately preceding action. After a few days, a pattern will emerge. Maybe it’s the specific time of day or a specific emotion that causes you to then seek the reward.
Once you’ve identified the reward motivating you, the cue that causes it to happen, and the behavior or routine itself, you’ve figured out your habit loop. Understanding your habits in this way will allow you to then make a plan to change it.
“A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day,” writes Duhigg. “Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see cue, I will do routine in order to get a reward.”
Creating a plan helps us to flip off those automations and begin making new and better choices. Making that new choice often enough and it too will become an automatic habit. It’s a way to intercept the auto-pilot many of us operate in and re-write our reactions. Rather than telling ourselves, “STOP THAT” or “DO THIS,” we can give ourselves a little grace and work within our biological tendencies to behave differently.
How to keep momentum going
Again, don’t depend on will power or motivation to keep you going, because both of those things wax and wane. But once you do build a framework to make change easier, it doesn’t hurt to add in some momentum-building measures for those tougher days or the motivation heads for the hills.
First, build in accountability - whether with yourself using a smart phone app for habit tracking or with a friend.
Second, stay positive - focus on your progress no matter how small. Celebrate your victories and share about it with others. What you focus on you become, so you might as well focus on the positive.
And third, keep that long-term vision in mind. Spend a few minutes every day envisioning life on the other side of you mastering this skill or meeting your goal. Really consider what it will look and feel like to live that life. Create a vision board and put it on your wall. Write out your goals and say them out loud every day. Let it remind you that where you’re going is wonderful and worth the daily effort.
Stay consistent in your efforts, and your new habit will soon be in place.