Good habits foster healthier 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 to get on the good habits bandwagon once and for all?
We’ve got the insight you’re looking for.
1. A Quick Primer on Habit Formation: Habits lay down pathways in our brain to make accomplishing a task 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? It’s because everything associated with driving has become a habit. You do it without having to consciously think.
A habit is like a river that has forcibly carved a path in the earth to ease its flow. Once it’s found a course, shifting the flow via another tributary requires the presence of an obstacle. 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.
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.
2. 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 small details, and acts as a prompt for the completion of a goal.
Checklists can help in your own daily life by enabling 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 if you can hack your habit loop!
3. Mini Habits for the Win: Starting small is often the key to larger successes.
Author Stephen Guise refers to mini habits. In his wonderful, quick-read tome on mastering habits, Guise highlights the benefit of starting small – really small.
For example, let’s say you want to begin an exercise program. Instead of aiming small and working out once a week, start even smaller. 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. If you can do that one simple thing, you'll experience a reward that compels you to do even more.
4. Take a lesson from Jerry Seinfeld and buy a calendar: Grandma had one. Your parent did too. 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.