4 Strategies Proven to Help You Form Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
Good habits foster good lives. Yet sticking with a habit we know is good for us, or quitting one that harms us, is difficult. Why is that? And, is there a way to hack your own mind in order to get on the good habits bandwagon once and for all? We’ve got the insight you’re looking for.
A Quick Primer on Habit Formation: Whether good or bad, a formed habit lays down a pathway in our brain to make accomplishing the task associated with that habit easier as time goes by. Ever wonder how you can drive your car with the radio on, kids talking, and tractor trailers zooming by you all at the same time? You can do that because everything associated with driving has become a habit. You do it without having to think about it. In a way, a habit is like a river that has forcibly carved a path in the earth to ease its flow southward. Once it’s found its course, shifting the flow via another tributary requires the presence of an obstacle – a fallen rock-face, for example. Habits adhere to the same principle – they’re difficult to start, are easy flowing once in place, and difficult to change.
There is hope, though, and neuroscience suggests the answer lies in an awareness of the three distinct parts of all habits: the routine, the cue and the reward. Altering any stage can yield positive results. New York Times journalist, Charles Duhigg is at the forefront of bringing this science to the public, and has written a book all about his findings. For example, did you know part of the reason toothpaste includes a minty freshener is because mint triggers the reward centers of our brains? This "reward" cues us to brush regularly. Check out Duhigg's own personal hacking of a daily cookie habit here.
Love the Checklist: Author Atul Gawande is a surgeon. He’s also a fan of checklists. A checklist, it turns out, prevents us from missing/avoiding the little things, and act as a prompt for the completion of a goal. Doctors and airplane pilots use them so they don’t forget the one step in dozens required for a successful surgery or landing. We’ll guess you don’t want them to forget as well! Checklists can help in your own daily life, by allowing you to visualize each step toward completing a task or changing a habit. Want to start a business? Work with the end goal in mind, and work backwards by creating a checklist. Want to remember to floss? Map out the last 15 minutes of your nightly routine, create a checklist, and make sure flossing is on that list. Wonder why you don’t follow through on any checklist you’ve already created? See hack your habit loop!
Mini Habits for the Win: Often, starting small is the key to larger successes. Charles Duhigg refers to a “keystone habit,” which often creates an avalanche of other changes to one’s life; author Stephen Guise calls them “mini habits.” In his wonderful, quick-read tome on mastering habits, Stephen highlights the benefit of starting small – really small. For example, let’s say you want to start an exercise program. Instead of aiming small and working out once a week, start even smaller. Make it ridiculous: aim to just put on your gym outfit. And stop there. The key is to create a habit so small, it’s literally impossible to go without completing. You’re not so lazy that you can’t put on your pants, right? If you can do that one simple thing, you'll experience a "reward," compelling you to do even more ... maybe you'll walk around the block as well. Mini-habits are so small you will do them And, if Duhigg’s keystone theory is to be believed, you’ll be doing far greater things as the year progresses. All you have to do is put on your pants!
Take a lesson from Jerry Seinfeld and buy a calendar: Grandma had one. And at one point, your parents probably did as well. Maybe you had one years ago as well. And, we’re not talking about a calendar app on a phone; we’re talking about a wall calendar. Why a wall calendar? Presence. There’s nothing like a twelve-month wall calendar to chide you into good behavior.
Jerry Seinfeld famously deserves some of the credit for this idea. Years ago, when he felt his joke writing habit sliding, he began placing an “x” through the day space on a large twelve-month calendar he hung in his home. The goal (mini-habit), was simply to check off the date each day he spent time drafting a joke. Did it work? Well, Jerry Seinfeld is still writing jokes and still doing well. Perhaps a wall calendar should be in your future?
The key to switching up your habits and changing your life lies simply in the application of knowledge. Knowledge that you now possess. Go!