New year’s resolutions check in.
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions to change some habits this year? How are they tracking? If you are like most people, by now the resolution has either been thrown out all together or you have given up on them, at least to some extent. Have you traded in your initial enthusiasm for resignation? Why is it that the case? You didn’t set out to fail or produce less than stellar results and yet this is so often the case that many of us don’t even bother.
“I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden. I will push you onward or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command.”
The above quote is an excerpt from what is known as The Habit Poem. (You can download the full version below). Such is the power of our habits. If we don’t take charge of and wire our habits to support us we will end up with all manner of unsupportive practices and routines that will take us in the opposite direction to where we say we want to go.
It’s all about efficiency
Our brain is about 2% of our total body weight and yet it consumes about 20% of our energy. Over time our brain has come up with short cuts to make life “easier” for our brains and more efficient for us. This has certain implications on how we operate. A habit is defined as a usual way of behaving : something that a person does often in regular and repeated ways in certain contexts and situations, often unconsciously. The goal of a habit is to become unconscious to certain repeated tasks and actions.
Once a habit is formed it is not dissimilar to initiating a program that is run on auto-pilot, making our actions streamlined. Think of driving for example. When you are first learning to drive intense focus is required on each individual action and task required to drive the car. Neural pathways are formed through repeated action and less and less conscious attention and focus is required as a result. Eventually, you literally can drive without thinking about it. You can think of it as “chunking” just like the chunking we all do by remembering the alphabet for example. If you get interrupted you usually have to go back to the beginning. Forty per cent of our daily behaviour is “being habitual”. This has the effect of freeing up the mind to do other things which is very useful.
Good habits versus bad habits
Once a habit is hard wired it becomes difficult to shift. Habits are also tied up with environmental and situational triggers that set off our habits. This applies equally to good habits as it does to bad habits. The environment and people around you have a significant impact on habits. Those influences are real. It takes a level of awareness to identify what triggers exist in the environment and where the cues are that initiate your habit sequences. The best time to start a new habit or break an old one is when change is a foot. For example, when you change jobs, move house or go on a well deserved holiday. This is when the link between environment and habit is at its weakest.
So what about will power?
Will power will not get you through. It is finite and gets used up during the day. Will power is at its highest level first thing in the day (for most that will be morning) and the more you use it the less there is left. Every time you resist that piece of chocolate or whatever your indulgence is some of your will power has just evaporated. So, relying on will power to get you through is tantamount to dooming yourself to failure.
So what’s the plan?
- Schedule it! When are you going to do this new habit or routine? Is there an activity that you already do that you can tie it to?
- Be clear on the what you are out to achieve. What is your game plan and what are the rules of engagement for your new habit? Consider building in wiggle room so that you don’t make it too easy to fail.
- Be kind to yourself. Habits are hard to break or create so give yourself the space and grace to screw it up without invalidating yourself.
- Start now. Rather than kidding yourself that Monday is a good day or the beginning of the month is a good time to start resolve to start right away. After all there is no time like the present.
- Patience is a virtue. Habits are hard to make or break. Some habits take longer than others to make or break. You are in for the long hall so be patient with yourself. (see no 3)