If picking up and maintaining new good habits were easy, those habits would already be in our lives. Sometimes it’s really hard to reprogram our auto-pilot systems and replace them with new habits. Willpower alone doesn’t always work, so if you’re scared you’d return to old habits, below are a few tips to consider.
1) Use ‘Loss aversion’ to your advantage. Loss aversion theory suggests that the pain of losing a dollar is more than the pleasure of acquiring one. So let’s say, you make a promise that every time you return to your bad habit, you’re going to give out a dollar. For some people, that might be enough to make them stop.
While the idea is appealing, if the dollar is given away for a good cause, it is easy to mentally ‘win’ in both situations. If you don’t return to your habit, you don’t lose the dollar. If you do return to your old habit, you give the dollar away to charity (which is not so bad). That would render this method useless in controlling your habits. Some popular authors, like Chris Bailey author of “New Year’s Resolutions Guideline” suggest that you give the money to a cause you don’t like so it would feel like a punishment and make you stop.
2) Make plans around inflection points; points where the temptation to quit is strongest. This was mentioned before in this blog but I shall reiterate. In his book, ‘The Power of Habits’ Charles Duhigg writes about a study to find out the type of people who were mostly likely to fail in rehabilitation after undergoing hip or knee surgery. The participants were given a booklet with details of the rehab schedule, and blank spaces after “My goals for this week are….” They found out that patients who recovered more quickly were those who filled their booklets with plans, and their plans focused on how they would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. The idea was also covered in Psyblog, ”Make a very specific ‘if-then’ plan.” Anticipate weak points in the plan where you could fail and make detailed plans around that.
Inflection points could appear when your daily schedule is disrupted like when you travel for holidays. It’s very easy to quit new habits and relapse to old habits since it’s “Just for one month.” So it is imperative that people plan ahead.
3) Peer pressure is a very powerful force that always gets blamed for bad habits. So why don’t we use it to reinforce good habits? Let’s say your resolution is to read one book per month. You could join a monthly book club, and that commitment could push you to read. Alternatively, just have a virtual reading partner you could discuss a particular book with every months.
The most important thing to remember is that breaking out of old habits is difficult. Habits form neural pathways in your brain and restructuring them is no easy feat. So if you ever fall back into your old habits, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, learn to forgive yourself.
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In a previous post, I wrote about how it is necessary to integrate your resolutions within your life’s auto-pilot system. In this context, this system includes all the habits you’ve acquired over the years. The interesting thing is that as we grow older and shoulder more responsibilities, we forget to take a moment to upgrade this auto-pilot system. Let’s take an iphone example from my own phone. All the notifications in the photo below are because I haven’t updated the apps AND the iOS software (the solitary notification on the settings).
Likewise, we tend to walk into new roles with the old habits, and that’s part of the reason why you might find fresh graduates entering the workplace with ‘a student mentality’ (never a compliment, trust me!), or husbands entering a marriage with a ‘bachelor’s mentality’. So in order to upgrade, take note of the following:
1) Write down your current roles and responsibilities, and list down all the habits that are connected to each role. You don’t have to do this on your own. Sometimes you can’t actually, because we tend to be blind to our habits. So it may help to work with a close family member or a friend as they can point out habits ‘we do without consciously thinking about’.
2) Dissect. When it comes to our habits, it helps to understand why some habits exist in the first place. As previously mentioned, many bad habits that are in our lives exist because we get some sort of payoff out of them. Once we assess the payoff and it becomes clear that the payoff is not worth the drawback that comes with the habit, then it would be easier to get rid of it. And sometimes we may realize that we don’t really need to get rid of it, because the payoff is actually important for us, so we can stop being guilty about it.
3) Habit replacement. In Charles Duhigg’s book, ‘The Power of Habit’, he writes about the habit loop shown in the figure below. The habit loop is given in generic terms, and consists of the habit trigger (cue), the habit itself and the reward. So one of the methods to change a habit is to experiment with rewards, understand what drives the habit (what the true payoff is), and replace the habit with something that would result in a similar reward.
4) Repeat the behavior consistently until it becomes a habit. Some people claim it takes 20 to 30 days to make a new habit, but there’s no clear cut rule for that. One thing that could drive you to keep a daily new habit even when you don’t feel motivated is the “Calender method”. A blogger on Lifehacker.com wrote about how Seinfield used it to write jokes everyday. The blogger, Brad Isaac, wrote, “[Seinfield] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. You’ll like seeing that chain. Your only job next is to not break the chain.’”
Having an optimized auto-pilot system helps because it contains habits that move us forward regardless of how motivated (or not) we feel on that day. The thing to remember is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and take a step everyday so in a month we can look back and see that we’re 30 steps ahead (or 28…depends on the month :-P).
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Your life is made of different sections. Some of them are focused around you (your health, your mind, your career, your spirituality). Other sections include other people like your family, friends, work colleagues. Some deal with your contributions to your society. Now imagine each section is represented by a rock of different size. Trying to get the rocks to balance is an art that not many people master.
It’s easy for one rock to fall out of place, and send your life plummeting into ruins. For example, you lose your job. It affects your attitude, and consequently your relationship with people. Maybe you become so upset that you give in to emotional overeating and eat your way slowly to obesity. And before you know it, In other words, all the rocks find themselves on the floor.