Have you ever experienced, after a whole day of daydreaming and watching TV series, the moment you thought: “I definitely have to do something with my life”?
If yes, you may have crafted a to-do list to start that change the very next day, but to-do lists are like 1 dates – nice to plan but too often a failure. At least we often make a new comrade to share our “unsatisfactory” days with: “Mr. at least I have tried feeling.” Does it have to be that way? Why is it so hard to break our old habits? Let´s have a look at people who seem to manage it.
When we comparing ourselves to those people, it may be tempting to believe they have some kind of superpower or at least natural talent. Might be the case, but often (unfortunately for our every time self-justifying self) it’s bullshit. The people who crush their duties, engage in their hobbies, and have healthy lifestyles are like us. There is almost no difference between you and the person you want to be. All else, there is probably one thing. One thing that makes all the difference. Before introducing it let´s have a look at what´s willpower and why the hell I mention it.
Willpower is a fuel that we use to make us do “right” things during the day. Choosing fruit for breakfast instead quarter of pig or going to the gym instead of Netflix those are “e-hard” choices; it is easy to spot the better option, but it´s hard to live according to it. You can use your fuel (willpower) to act on behalf of those better choices, but it disappears as the day flows 2. That’s why it is usually much easier to get mentally hard tasks done in the morning than in the evening.
There is also a link between the willpower and self-control. Low self-control predicts, among others, worse health status, income and substance dependence (Moffitt et al., 2011). This points to the fact that you should be wise when considering the use of your willpower. Your ideal self is. That is the first part of the difference between you.
How much willpower do you need to watch the television, go to a club, or get dressed in the morning? For you do these not much. You don’t have to think about these, as they are your habits. The habits are the second and most important part of the difference between you and your ideal self. Why did I mention willpower first? The secret is in investing your willpower towards forming of long-lasting habits. Not in investing it into whatever task needs to be solved at the moment. That’ the magic powder. But how does one establish a habit?
We form habits in the loop which consists of three stages: 1. cue (or trigger) 2. behavior 3. reward (Duhigg, 2012).
Consider you eating junk food. They cue may be: hunger, opening the fridge full of chicken strips, or experiencing some stressful event. Behavior then is eating junk. The reward could be: feeling full, dulling your senses, or disappearing of craving. When you eat junk in the evening, it may also be the awareness of no duties left (start of your free time).
Identifying all parts of the loop may sometimes be tricky. But still, we can deconstruct almost all our behavior this way. And when you are able to do that on a regular base, it could ultimately change your life for the better (Duhigg, 2012). Knowledge of the loop is in the heart of every change.
I can almost hear you saying: Habits themselves don’t require willpower. But how could you cook, exercise, or even write! without willpower? How could you do these things on autopilot? 3 Actually, you can´t. You don’t even want to; the goal is not doing these activities effortlessly, the goal is starting them that way (Verplanken & Melkevik, 2008).
We should focus on cues. Make a habit of setting off to the gym, opening your book before falling asleep, or making a morning coffee and opening your text editor… Time cues, like right after waking up/lunch/coming home, are especially useful because they will happen for sure. Take advantage of it!
If you have a cue, you usually have the behavior as well. So, you need to identify the last part: the reward. The feeling afterward itself may be enough. If not, be creative and make something up. As with cue, be as specific as possible at all stages. Plan when, where and how you will follow your habit and make space for it in your schedule. Then you are ready and can start thriving for your better future self.
Unfortunately, humans are not blank slates, and we usually need to establish a new habit to replace the bad, old one. For this case, bear on mind the Charles Duhiggs´s (2012, p. 62) Golden Rule of habit change: “To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” In a combination of your knowledge of willpower and importance of cues, you become buoyant. Let´s look at a concrete example of the whole process.
Let´s say you, tired of all-night cramming sessions, want to start studying on a regular base.
First, let´s depict your current loop of studying. As you believed being too cool to care your usual cue was deadline drawing near. Behavior was borrowing X books, buying X*2 red bulls and spend a few sleepless nights in the library. The reward then was somehow passing the subject.
Second, let´s set a new loop. You want to study on a regular base, but you know that study every day is unreal for you. You are ok with studying three times per week when you aren´t having morning lectures. Studying in the morning is an excellent choice as you have still enough willpower and energy to push yourself towards your goals. You also know that if you stay and try studying at home, there is a too big chance of ending up doing something different.
1) So, you would go right to the school library on those days; buy coffee there and start studying. You can also set a reminder of all your deadlines, to make some use of your previous studying cue (the near deadlines), on those days.
2) You should study in 45 minutes blocks with 10 minutes pauses. In the beginning, one block is reasonable.
3) The reward may be the feeling afterward, guilty free evening or much less stressful exam period.
Note : 1= cue, 2= behaviour, 3=reward
Here you are. It´s that simple.
Establishing habits is “ehard” 4. Increase your chances by planning to go to bed at a reasonable time the days before. Also, make sure you always have the appropriate study material. Expect difficulty, especially at the beginning. Don’t be too hard on yourself and be patient. No one says that challenge will disappear but when the habit is established it should be much easier.
How long does it take to form a habit?
Phillippa Lally and colleagues (2010) followed 96 students for 12 weeks to see how they are able to form a new habit such as ‘eating a piece of fruit with lunch,’ or ‘running for 15 minutes before dinner’. The general process of forming a habit, looked as follows:
The picture is retrieved from the study of Phillippa Lally and Benjamin Gardner (2013). You can see that as repetition increases (X) the automaticity (Y) increases as well, but the process is getting slower with time.
On average it took students 66 days to form a habit, but the range was from 18 to 254 days. So, there is no general rule. Type of behavior, circumstances, motivation – all those factors matter. Don’t be bothered if it takes longer than expected. Be indulgent on yourself. Sometimes it may seem like a long time but remember you try to make habits which will serve you for the rest of your life!
Last tips for your Journey.
- Start small
“How do you eat an elephant?” – “One bite at a time,” a saying goes. Start small. I mean REALLY small. There is no point in rushing. Don’t force yourself to run 10 km for your first try. As you know cue is the key, so putting on running clothes and go for 10 minutes walk may be a good start. At first, you want to experience small wins to build momentum. Starting small is the way.
- Start with one thing
The more specific we are about implementing our new goals, the bigger the chance we will meet them. However, as research showed, this is true for one goal at the time but not for many (Dalton & Spiller, 2012). When we have specific intentions about achieving many goals at once, it may bring our attention to the difficulty of doing so. That may discourage us. Start with one goal at the time and give it your full focus. It pays off.
- Keystone habits
Some habits will have a more significant impact on our lives than others. Keystone habits are those with the greatest impact (Duhigg, 2012). Regular overeating is a straight example of a negative keystone habit. It influences you badly in numerous ways. You are in bad physical shape, which may affect your mood, confidence, and other aspects of life. On the other hand, getting up at 6 may be the right opposite – the positive keystone habit. You have more energy, start a day on the right foot, or may feel having more time. When picking a habit focus on keystone one. Let your effort pay off!
- Commit publicly
“Committing publicly change the game (Duhigg, 2012, p. 85)”. It will improve the chances of your success rapidly. Go public with your goals. Commit to change as part of the group even if that community is only as large as two people and see what happens.
That´s it, folks. Now you have the solid basis of establishing the habits. When applying correctly, it may change your life. But wouldn’t lie. This article is like a cookbook. Reading itself won’t make you a better cook. You will have to take some action out of your comfort zone. But believe me, it worths it.
So, if you really want the change, take a paper now and choose one habit. Depict the loop. Make sure it is real. Start small and be realistic. Your future self will thank you. And remember, it doesn’t matter if you fail sometimes, you are human which means you will, what does matter is what you will do the very next day.
Podcast episode: https://heathbrothers.com/member-content/switch-for-personal-change/
wish you best luck!
Dalton, A. N., & Spiller, S. A. (2012). Too Much of a Good Thing: The Benefits of Implementation Intentions Depend on the Number of Goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(3), 600–614. https://doi.org/10.1086/664500
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. United States: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup1), S137–S158. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2011.603640
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., … Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 2693–2698. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1010076108
Verplanken, B., & Melkevik, O. (2008). Predicting habit: The case of physical exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(1), 15–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.PSYCHSPORT.2007.01.002