Monday, July 22, 2019

How to make or break a new habit - the easy way

New resolutions can be scary: You know you want to change and become healthier, but you are not sure whether you are going to like the change or be able stick to it. Any habit takes time to form, and in a matter of time you will no longer need to force yourself to do a new task - It just becomes a part of your daily routine. The hardest part of creating a new habit is the starting phase. After the first week, it is a lot easier to maintain the habit. The second week gets even easier. After about a month, it starts becoming automatic.

The voices in your head that lead to failure

One of the biggest reasons why we cave in and stop doing what we planned to do is because of the little arguments we have with ourselves before we do a new task. There is a battle between what you want now, and what you want in the future. In most cases, the feeling of deprivation gets the better of you and you end up going back to your old habits. If you feel like you are losing out on the deal in the moment, you will have to fight that feeling until you eventually give up and go back to your old ways.

Think of Sally. She is trying to switch out her daily fast food lunch with a healthier alternative: grilled chicken and veggies. As long as Sally feels like she is deprived of something that she wants, she will have to fight with herself until her new habit becomes a norm. Most people won't last through the first week or two. Ironically, after the first two to three weeks, people forget about what they are giving up and the habit sticks.

Moral of the story: If you feel like you are losing out on something, the battle for change will be a lot harder.

After some time, the voice in your head that tells you that it wants something else will fade away because the craving does not lead to any reward. Our brains are astonishingly capable of adapting to change very quickly.

Eliminate the option to fail

If you have no choice but to change, it actually gets a lot easier because you eliminate the little arguments in your head before you do something. If Sally leaves her lunch money at home and brings the grilled chicken and veggies in a lunch tin, her changes of failure will decrease dramatically.

Look for the ways that you could fail, and eliminate those channels so that you have no choice but to change. If you are trying to stop an addiction, cut off accessibility to that addiction. Tell your friends and family about your proposed change so that you feel the social pressure to keep to your goals. Bring a healthy meal and limit access to money to buy fast food, disable your internet connection for a month of you struggle with internet porn, order a taxi two hours after work so that you have to wait at the gym until they arrive, or make a bet with a friend that you just can't lose.

Stop the argument in your head before it starts

Resistance to change starts in your head and leads to an eternal back-and-forth, weighing out the pros and cons, until you finally give up and resume the negative behavior or quit a positive one. Failure starts way before you finally give up: It starts when you start to question your decision because you don't feel like it anymore. If you can stop this internal argument with yourself, you may end up creating the habit with much less mental resistance.

People who don't exercise regularly, for example, often associate exercise with pain and suffering. This mental association is not as bad as the reality. We imagine that we are going to suffer through exercise until we eventually do it - and then start to realize that it is actually enjoyable. It is what goes on in our minds that stops us from achieving our goals - not what is going on in reality.

The back-and-forth arguments are often much harder that the new habit itself.

Here are great ways to stop the arguments inside your head

1) Distract yourself when the argument starts

You have decided to start exercising at the gym after work from 7-9 pm. It is 12 pm and you are still at work. The idea of exercising later in the day is starting to daunt you. At this moment, you are already experiencing emotional agony over something that hasn't even happened yet. Typically, the arguments would start now until 5 pm when you leave work. At that stage, you have been going back and forth about whether or not you should exercise for 5 hours - much longer than the exercise session itself. For that reason, you probably would have tired yourself out mentally until you have no more will power to keep on fighting, give up, and go straight home instead.

Alternatively, you could tell yourself that you don't have an option at 12 pm when you realize that you don't want to exercise, and quickly shift your focus to something else so that you don't have to mentally wrestle with the idea for the rest of the day.

Cut out the mental argument before it tires you down

As soon as you feel the argument starting to take place in your head, try to shift your focus back on to whatever you are working on. Mentally discard the conversation until later in the day. By postponing the dilemma, you save yourself a lot of mental energy. If you struggle to shift focus back onto your current activity; get up from your desk and pour yourself a glass of water, have a brief conversation with somebody about a completely different topic or decide to think about something else.

The initial thought pops up: "I'm too tired to go to the gym today"
Squash it and move on: "Too bad I don't have a choice. I wonder what Benny in accounts has been up to?"

Depending on your personality type, planning a few ways to distract you in advance might increase the effectiveness of this method.

2) Focus on the task - not whether or not you are going to do it

Changing the 'why' or 'whether', to a 'what' or 'how', is another powerful technique to keep yourself on the right track. This can work because it shifts your focus from escaping a new reality to accepting it as non-negotiable. If you are avoiding a negative habit, think about what you can do in its place. If you are going to exercise at the gym, think about what exercises you are going to do first.

My brain: "I don't feel like going to the gym today"
My response: "But since I'm going, which exercise should I start with first?"

3) Break the task into smaller steps

New resolutions are almost always intimidating. For some reason, we tend to think about the negative impact of healthy habits, while thinking about the positive impact of unhealthy ones. People who struggle to get into the gym horrify themselves with thoughts of pain and exertion. This kind of thinking is very similar to a boy who wants to swim but spends most of his time dipping his toe into the pool and dreading the cold water. All he could think about was how cold he might feel when he was totally wet, but he only needed to focus on jumping - gravity would take care of the rest.

If you struggle to go to the gym, focus on the little steps. Pack your gym bag, then put on your exercise gear, then get into the car, then drive towards the gym one turn at a time. Don't horrify yourself with negative imagery of the future. Just focus on the little steps that it takes to get there. If you are cutting out a bad habit, break it down into weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. Every second is a victory.

Sally (from the example above) might be craving unhealthy food instead of grilled chicken and veggies, but she can focus on the smaller tasks to get through it. She can focus on being seated with the right food in front of her. After that, she only needs to focus on the next few bites before she automatically finishes the entire meal. After that, she will be satisfied and won't desire the fast food anymore. She should also realize that her lunch-time experience was not as bad as her mind made it out to be.

4) Build positive associations with the new change

The reason why healthy habits are hard to establish is purely because of the negative associations that we tie to them. Since healthy food is so good for us, we imagine that there must be some kind of cost - desirability. In the same way, we imagine that since unhealthy habits are bad for us, we must be enjoying them if we continue doing them.

As you repeat a healthy habit, you learn that it is not as unpleasant as you initially thought. As time goes by, the negative associations that you had for a certain activity will disappear as you repeatedly discover that it is not as bad as it is in your head. As this happens, the lifestyle change becomes easier to do.

It usually takes a few weeks for this to happen, but you can speed up the process by manually attaching positive associations to a new habit. Tell yourself how much you enjoy something - even if you know that you don't. After a while, your brain will start to believe what you keep on telling it. Our subconscious minds take repetition as fact. The more you tell yourself how much you don't enjoy something, the less you will enjoy it. 

I know a lady who wanted to quit smoking and decided that she would do it by telling herself how disgusting a cigarette was. Every time she smoked, she made up thoughts about how disgusting it made her feel. She did this for weeks until her brain started to believe her. Her cravings for cigarettes drastically reduced until she completely lost the desire to smoke. On her last few days of smoking, she told me about how she had to force herself to smoke because she started to hate doing it. She never smoked again.

By making the changes that you decide to do non-negotiable, you cut out the self-bargaining and arguments that you will have with yourself along the way - and I have personally found that part to be the hardest when embarking on a new lifestyle change. Stay Strong!

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