CHANGING HABITS: THE PRACTICAL GUIDE
To understand how to change our habits for good, we need to understand how habits work on psychological and neurological levels. Habits are (for the most part) an automated pattern of behavior designed to conserve our brain’s energy. The brain avoids constant analysis of conditions and possible responses when it finds itself in a familiar setting.
On what basis does the brain know which practices are working? The brain always favors behaviors in which results come quicker and that produce the best result (assessed on subconscious level) with the least amount of effort.
That explains why it’s so easy to get hooked on comfort, alcohol, or food. The subconscious part of the brain does not comprehend the concepts of “good” and “bad” in the same way as the conscious part of the brain. For our “lizard brain,” anything that saves energy is a good thing. For example, if we have two options: a) eat ready-made food in the cupboard or b) think about what food we want, where to get the raw materials, how to cook it, and how long we have to wait for it to be ready ... The animal in us always chooses the first simplest option. Why is this important to understand? Because we can gradually modify what the subconscious mind chooses.
If we want to develop a habit that lasts, we have to:
· Figure out the way to make it as easy as possible to start and to lower the energy consumption of the desired behaviour.
· Increase the benefits that come from that behaviour.
The same way, if we want to get rid of something, we should do it backwards:
· Make it as hard to start as possible.
· Lessen the benefits we get from that habit.
There are four important points in the psychology of habits that we are able to influence. If all four are used, it is possible to change almost any habit.
· Stimulus. What I see, hear, perceive, smell, feel. For example, the smell of food.
· Desire. The craving for that thing. For example, hunger.
· Action What kind of behavior is triggered? For example, going to the fridge.
· Prize. How you feel after the act. For example, guilt or full satisfaction.
When we know and have identified those four points for the habit we want to change, we have to make an action plan for every point. How?
Circumstances and routines must be changed so that the desired way is:
· Obvious. A lot and easy stimuli in the right places at the right times, like a water bottle on your desk.
· Attractive. A stimuli that triggers the strongest possible desire. For example, a good-tasting beverage.
· Easy. The habit is as easy to perform as possible. For example, reaching out and drinking from a water bottle on your work table instead of walking into a break room and taking water from a tap in a glass.
· Rewarding. The psychological or physiological benefit should be as great as possible. For example, a refreshed and energetic feeling of being well hydrated.
In the same way with unwanted habits:
As few stimuli as possible. For example, keeping a pack of cigarettes hidden from view at all times.
As unattractive as possible. For example, the lowest quality and worst-tasting tobacco possible.
As difficult as possible. The tobacco is hidden in the car or waiting to be bought in the store, so it must always be retrieved from some distance away.
As little rewarding as possible. For example, the physical malaise that comes from smoking a strong and bad-tasting cigarette or give €5 away for every smoked cigarette as a donation to the political party you don’t support. You get the point — be creative in finding different ways and solutions, not in finding excuses.
Creating new and lasting routines means putting these particular processes into practice. Habits do not change and are not created by willpower or desire, but only through the right systems in everyday practice.
How long does it take to practice a habit in order for it to become permanent and automated? There isn’t a definite answer for this because the time period is affected by so many variables simultaneously. More important than time is the number of repetitions. It is clear that something that is repeated once a year becomes a habit much more slowly than something we do every day.
The takeaway from this chapter is that every habit can be stripped down to simple phases. Be mindful of those, identify them, and make an action plan to affect each one in a desired way. Of course, it also needs a desire to change on your part. But just like every skill, you’ll get better at it the more you practice. Just like one will get better in finding the excuses why he/she can’t ever change a habit up to a point that it actually becomes an impossibility in one’s mind. So however hard it is, just take the first step.