In the Habit
Let me ask you a question: Why are you doing? No, that’s not a typo. Why are you doing? While most people focus on what they’re doing, when was the last time you asked why you’re doing? What if told you that 40%-45% of your life has already been determined for you and you may be near powerless to change it? Before you get biblical on me, it’s more of a twisted fate rather than your divine purpose. You see, you determine your habits and then your habits determine you. Ready to take control?
The dirt: I have free will / I’m in control
This is true but are you using it? Does it matter if you have car if you exclusively ride the bus everywhere? Not using what we have isn’t much different than not having it at all. If anything it’s even worse than not having it because it’s a clear waste of what could be a valuable resource. How often have we heard of people “wasting their potential”? If school teachers had a nickel for every time they uttered the phrase, we would have no underfunding of their pensions!
What’s really sneaky is that you believe you’re using it when you’re not. While free will implies the power of choice, habit is how we relinquish that power. If that’s not confusing enough, not only do we struggle to make the best of the task at hand, but it often distracts us from all subsequent good choices. For example, habitually popping open a few beers at the end of each workday may seem like no big deal. It is worth considering, however, that not only must we accept the dreaded beer belly and its associated health effects, but we also lose the choice to do those things that require a reasonable degree of sobriety, rendering us to an evening of TV and Cheetos.
“Are there really that many Nazi supporters in that part of Illinois or do we have people who habitually vote for his party, without even looking to see the person on the ballot?”
This is not a judgement on your life choices, though at some point shouldn’t we judge our own choices? It’s mostly a matter of whether your habits every day serve you or not. If giving up critical thought for the absent-minded habitual helps you to achieve your hopes and dreams, then go for it. However, the habits that don’t serve you, or actually prevent you, from reaching your desired life should be examined and changed.
How can you choose freedom when you don’t even know that you’re not free?
Some habits that seem innocuous do serve us though. Like showering and brushing our teeth, having a routine on which body parts we wash first or whether we put water on our toothbrush before or after the toothpaste can help us focus on higher-level things and keep us from going crazy over the small stuff. Imagine having to concentrate on every twist and turn on the road to make it to work, or what to say each time you answer the phone.
The issue is when we apply the same nonchalance to bigger and more important tasks. It’s all those things we do when we get into the office, when we get home, when the clock strikes noon, etc. If we spend the first hour at the office drinking coffee, saying hello, and checking email and Facebook, is that really adding to our job satisfaction and job security? Or does that put us at risk that one day we get the poor performance review and are shown the door, only to realize then that we had fallen into such a bad routine.
How are habits formed anyways? How do we find ourselves strangely loyal to actions without even realizing it? According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, 45% of what we do every day feels like decisions, but are actually habits. There’s a cue, which is like a trigger for the behavior to start unfolding, A routine, which is the habit itself, the behavior, the automatic sort of doing what you do when you do a habit. And then at the end, there’s a reward. And the reward is how our neurology learns to encode this pattern for the future.
Would you ever give up 45% of your money, health, kids, or house in the same way you give up your time and life to the rote?
Sure sounds a lot like we’ve been trained, doesn’t it? Well, that’s not too far from the truth. LIke the famous Pavlov’s dog (where he trained the dog to salivate by ringing a bell), we act on cue, often without realizing it. Most of the time, they’re not even our habits, just those that were entrained into us as a child. For example, a very common poor habit, often borrowed from parents and marketing, is spending money. Our cue is our paycheck, our routine is to look for something to buy, our reward is a short burst of pleasure or owning yet another thing we’ll use for a few weeks before storing it somewhere. Contrast that to the wealthy habit of saving money that is earned with the long-term reward of financial independence.
It happens in our health, our wealth, and just about every aspect of our lives. Even in politics, where we put our loyalties with a label each election (the irony being that elections are all about choice). Many of us habitually choose a color (red or blue) and not a candidate. Arthur Jones, a self-admitted and proud neo-Nazi, recently won an unopposed primary in Illinois, receiving 20,000 votes. Are there really that many Nazi supporters in that part of Illinois or do we have people who habitually vote for his party, without even looking to see the person on the ballot?
Entraining habits can be good if it helps us get to where we want to go, or they can be the roadblock to improvement, success, and fulfilment. Have you ever asked why you do something? The honest answer might surprise you. Other than knowing the reason for doing something, I’ll submit three categories of answers on each.
It doesn’t matter. Great, keep doing it then. You’ve found a way to make your life simpler and more efficient. Here’s where habits indeed help us handle the less important. From walking a chewing gum to selecting clothes in the morning, do what works for you.
I was told to/that’s the way it’s always been done. What would happen if you did it differently? Would the world come to an end or would it just anger the sheep around you? What if there were a better way and you discovered it, despite the ignorant suggestions of others? Imagine this is the first step to changing the world.
I don’t know. Not knowing why you are doing anything is the kiss of death, the zombification of our society. I’m not suggesting you become an expert, but at least know why you do what you do. Perhaps you can stop doing the useless and find more time to do that which is useful. I challenge you to never accept this answer from yourself. Ask and investigate.
So what can we do about it? Once we recognize the plethora of actions that don’t benefit us, how can we change them? It may not be easy, but then again wasting time and life isn’t exactly a joy ride either, for long. As a curt example, we all know the benefits of exercise, even for 20 minutes per day. Imagine this were to be your new habit
- Envision the benefits. Know why you are doing something, specifically the benefits. Is your why strong enough to keep you going? Can you see the benefits? How would it feel to reap the reward upon successful activity?/
Exercise will improve my mental and physical health, and when I feel better, I do better. Moreover, I wish to see my daughter get married one day – so I must not die young.
- Know the pain. Nothing is free. What are you willing to give up to receive the benefits? Are the benefits worth the work? If you delude yourself into thinking it will be easy, you will quit at the first challenge.
I will have to get up 30 minutes earlier and the workouts will be intense..
- Commit to at least 30 days. It is well understood that it will take time to ingrain a new habit. There is no set time, but hold a minimum standard. It will be painful in the beginning while the habit is forming. After a while, it becomes more routine and you become more conditioned to handle it.
I will get a calendar and circle a day 30 days out. I don’t stop before I reach it.
- Set a simple trigger. What will be your “reminder” to do it? You may want to use the trigger you use now to do the thing you wish to replace. It could be walking in the door at work or hearing a phone ring. Make sure it’s simple and be ready to act when it happens.
When my alarm goes off, I will get out of bed immediately and put on my workout clothes.
- Stay consistent. It must be daily or you may forget. Remember the most powerful habits are done daily, but regardless of schedule, do not allow yourself to vary the timing. If you allow yourself to drift, you will have a difficult time building the habit.
I will do my exercise every morning for a month, regardless of how I feel that morning.
- Get a buddy. A friend or colleague can be a great asset, if you use them. Tell them your plans and ask them to hold you accountable. We will always do more for others than for ourselves, plus the thought of letting someone down is often a great motivator.
I have a friend with a similar goal that I will meet at the gym each morning.
- Give yourself a reward. Beyond just the benefits of the habit itself, have a reward for the disciplined completion of steps 1-6. Have something at the end of your “training” to look forward to getting. It doesn’t have to be anything major, just symbolic and enjoyable.
I will treat my family to a day at the beach.
Imagine how you would feel if you changed the first 30 minutes of your day from sleeping/checking Facebook to exercise as in our example. Obviously, it will improve your overall health long-term. But have you considered the secondary effects? Endorphins (feel good hormone) are released, making you feel good before work so you can do good during work. You have more energy to get things done in your day. You have more confidence in yourself having instilled a worthy habit, thus raising your self-worth and enjoying all the benefits that follow. And let’s not forget the ripple effect of possibly reducing medication, decreased chance of becoming ill, and how much taller you stand while going down a size in the clothing department.
The good news is that with a little bit of investigation, some cognizance of our actions, and a few steps to correcting our own behavior, we can make some rather quick change in our lives at every level. Even the smallest stone makes a ripple in the water. I appreciate everyone one of you. I challenge you to share this with 4 people who seem like they’re banging their heads against the wall.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.”
Meet you at the top, because the bottom’s way too crowded,