By Tony Olejnicki | Creator of HiACHIEVR Program
How many habits do you have?
It takes more than a minute to identify them all because they are automatic behaviors performed with little or no thoughts, yet they subtly drive our lives.
The smallest action repeated on a daily basis from saving a single dollar to smoking a single cigarette can have a huge accumulative effect to achieve enormous success or lead to a personal disaster. Hence understanding and embracing your habits is a great way to take control of your life and achieve more.
Small habits can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our lives. We don’t notice their impact because the changes are negligible in the short term but the effects can compound to a big success or a disaster in the long term.
A 20-minute jog will not make any difference overnight but repeated every day will make you leaner and fitter in 6-12 months. Conversely eating family size pizza every day will make you obese within 12 months.
Habits are micro changes in your life which don’t involve any upheaval, revolution or reinventing yourself but through repeating it time and again they may lead to a big result.
In order to be successful, it is important to understand how habits are formed.
The mechanics are simple. The brain figures out how to respond to a new situation through the process of trial and error. Like in the Thorndike’s “Cat in the Box” experiment brain responds to a cue, performs the action and is rewarded by the release of dopamine, comfort or feeling of personal safety. If repeated it becomes the habit.
It is like your morning coffee habit. Your waking up becomes a cue, triggering craving and a prospect of staying alert. Your action is to drag yourself out of bed and make a cup of coffee. Your reward is feeling alert and ready to face the day.
The key to success is a strong and obvious cue, difficult to ignore or avoid.
If you have a sweet tooth make your home free of sweet treats. If you decided to jog in the morning, place your running gear close to your bed.
Another way to strengthen the cue is to make it clear, specific and intentional. If you intend to “eat better”, ensure that there is healthy non-processed food in the fridge and plan it in advance to get it ready to eat with the least of fuss.
Don’t just say “I will run more often” but say “on Monday, Wednesday and Friday when the alarm goes off I will put my running gear, which I prepared last night, on and I’ll clock 3km”. This is a clear plan and an obvious cue. These will lead to building positive running habits.
We are motivated by anticipation of reward so making habits attractive will help to stick to it.
The human brain releases dopamine, a hormone that makes us feel good, when we do pleasurable things such as eating, watching a favorite movie or having sex.
So you can use your favorite habits to release dopamine while developing new habits. This is called temptation bundling. So, for example, you can schedule watching your favorite show, you are addicted to, only when you ride your hated exercise bike. Eventually, it will become your favorite exercise.
We often spend a lot of time on behaviors that are easy, like mindless scrolling through social media and avoiding difficult tasks like studying or exercising.
Reducing friction is a well-known trick to create new habits from difficult tasks. Conversely increasing friction helps to kick bad habits. Simply unplugging TV set or logging out from social media after each session, will make it a more cumbersome engaging in bad habits.
Another successful trick to make the new activity more manageable is the 2-minute rule. This means to break your activity to manageable chunks to achieve the final goal.
- If you want to read more, commit to reading two pages per day, rather than to read one book in a week. Reading two pages a day is an easily manageable task.
- If you wish to run a marathon, commit to putting on your running gear every day after work. Once you put your gear on, you will probably go for a run and get rewarded with the dopamine release after the run, nice shower, and well deserved healthy meal.
From the evolutionary aspect, the activity needs to be immediately satisfying to become a habit. Our ancestors focused on immediate concerns like finding food and shelter and stay safe from a predator. This was an environment allowing immediate return and was encoded over 300,000 years of evolution.
In the modern office work environment, our focus is on long-term goals like saving for retirement or sticking to a diet. So the ultimate reward doesn’t happen for months or years making the good habit difficult to sustain. We have been living in a delayed-return environment for less than 200 years, a time too short to effect evolutionary conditioning.
Immediate returns can encourage bad habits. Smoking gives instant stress relief but causes lung cancer in 20 years, so craving for nicotine overrides concerns over long-term effects.
So pursuing habits with a delayed-return needs an attached immediate gratification. Here comes a modern technology to the rescue.
Habit tracking is a simple but effective technique. Using a simple calendar or diary to cross daily activity is effective because habit tracking itself is an attractive and satisfying habit. The anticipation and action of crossing off each day will feel good and keep you motivated. Many Apps such as STRAVA or S-HEALTH make this task even more enjoyable.
Tony Olejnicki – an engineer, motivator and exercise physiologist specializing in high altitude training is the creator of the HiACHIEVR Program, an inspirational program helping professional working in an office environment to improve productivity and life quality by lowering physiological age, improving cognition and optimizing personal health.