Habits are like an autopilot and are the key to achieving your goals.
Habits are not resolutions: these are the commitments you make on January 1st, your birthday, or after a wake-up call. Habits are not behaviors either.
Instead, habits are impulses that push you to do certain things with little to no conscious thought. They are a learning mechanism that connects what you did in the past to the context in which you did it.
Take typing for example. Your fingers move smoothly across the keyboard, forming words and sentences. Is this how you think about every stroke when you first learned to type? Of course not. Do you even know where the letters are?
“If I ask you to list the keys in the second row, you probably can’t,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor of psychology and economics at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Last. “It’s not muscle memory. It’s habit.”
Your habits determine what you do more than you might think. Wood estimates that 43% of our behavior is out of habit. “We repeat what we’ve done in the past and don’t think about it,” she says. “You can act out of habit without understanding what you are doing.”
If you don’t understand what you are doing, can you change it? Absolutely. Whether you’re starting a new habit or want to break a bad one, what matters most is how you go about it. And anyone who thinks they simply need a lot more willpower is wrong.
Most people give willpower more credit than it deserves.
It would be wonderful if you were made to resist the temptations that keep you from forming a habit or breaking it. But it just doesn’t work that way.
You do things a certain way because you’ve always done them a certain way – and it worked for you. Habits keep us from always having to think everything through. This also makes them very difficult to break.
Habit memories are ingrained, incredibly persistent, and “linger on long after you’ve forgotten why you started anything in the first place,” says Wood. “Habits are not something we intuitively understand and understand. It’s not like we change our beliefs or have feelings about anything. Motivation and willpower dwindle, but habits remain. Most of us don’t have the willpower long enough to change a habit.”
What are your favorite behaviors that you almost don’t realize you’re doing?
For example, do you do:
This is mindfulness in your everyday life. You need to see your habits before you can change them.
We all know what we need to do, whether it’s exercising, eating healthier, doing better at our jobs, quitting smoking, or overspending, or cutting back on alcohol consumption. Why don’t we?
There could be several reasons: We’ve tried it before and it didn’t work. We didn’t have good advice. Our lives or communities are not designed to support that goal, and the resources we need are inconvenient or inaccessible.
But sometimes it’s because the goal takes us too far out of our comfort zone.
Being uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable. So we’re looking for a way to escape this feeling. That leaves us open to distraction.
Let’s say this morning you decided to go for a run this afternoon. But now that it’s time to head out, you’re feeling less motivated.
Instead of this:
How can you stop this cycle and focus on the habit you want to create or break?
Wood recommends keeping things simple. For example, if you want to eat better, buy some pre-chopped, prepared healthy foods. Prepare for success by making it easier to do what you want to do.
Before he wrote Undistractable: How to control your attention and choose yours Life, Nir Eyal studied how products change our behavior and helped develop health and ed-tech apps to inspire people to adopt healthy behaviors.
Ironically, he became increasingly distracted by technology.
One day while doing some father-daughter bonding activities in a book, his phone buzzed with an email just as they got to the question, “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?”
“I can’t tell you what my daughter said because I was looking at my phone at that moment and she left the room to play with a toy,” says Eyal. “I thought the problem was technology, but distraction has always been with us. Plato complained about this centuries before the internet. If I could have a superpower, I just want to do the things I know I want to do…without getting distracted.”
Eyal finds that people tend to withdraw into distraction when they are uncomfortable. He decided to lean in instead.
“When I was writing a book, I always said, ‘Why can’t I get into the habit of writing? If I were a real writer I wouldn’t have to work so hard.’ Now I’m like, ‘This is what it feels like to get better at something.’”
Use your discomfort as a motivation to propel yourself into action, says Eyal.
Your entire day can be consumed by distractions if you don’t plan carefully what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. Eyal calls this process timeboxing.
Admittedly, your plans are not always implemented to the letter. Things come up that legitimately knock other things out of your schedule. But you can avoid unnecessary detours if you have a plan.
If something is a distraction that you consciously want to continue, like scrolling social media, schedule a time for it. Don’t let him run wild.
There are many habit trackers and magazines dedicated to habit. Eyal offers a free scheduler on its website.
There is an overwhelming amount of information about habits. Which app, book or system should you buy?
“Start with how you want to spend your time: time to read. time for movement. Time to sleep. Should you set aside family time or just give them whatever time you have left in a day? says Eyal. “Once you know the difference between … what you plan ahead of time and everything else (distraction), the habits will fall into place.”