Are your habits working against you?

The difference between a habit and an addiction is desire; an addiction is just an undesired habit. By having a deeper understanding of habits you can change your bad ones into good ones. Optimize the way you live your life and spend your time how you believe is best.

The act of writing this blog is in itself the development of a new habit. One, like all good habits that will require consistent effort and focus on the process rather than the goal.

My interest in habits began when the world started falling apart in 2020, there was this new COVID thing going around, maybe you’ve heard of it. Anyways, at the time I was going through a rough patch in New Zealand. This rough patch gave me a lot of time to learn about habits and how I could use them to improve my situation.

My situation did improve and within a few months, I was in the best shape of my life and met the girl of my dreams. By following some simple strategies you too hone your habits to regain control of your life.

Honing your habits begins by finding the balance that works for you. Unless you are living as a monk in a monastery, odds are your life will be full of interruptions. These interruptions will mess with your hard-earned good habits and let your bad ones creep in. It is up to you to use interruptions as learning opportunities.  

What are habits?

Habits are automated responses to a stimulus in your environment. Most of them you do unconsciously to the point where you don’t remember doing it. 

Examples of these unconscious habits are: locking your door on your way out of the house, making coffee in the morning or scrolling through your phone when you are bored. You do these things automatically. 

Habits are made up of three parts: cue, habit, reward. Breaking down the ones mentioned earlier we get as follows:

Cue – Habit – Reward

See door – Lock door – Feel Safe

Feel tired – Make coffee – Feel awake

Free time – Scroll social media – Be entertained

Not all habits are easier to form than others. The reward in the brain from scrolling through social media is the same as the one from finishing a run. While the reward is the same, it is easier to note a difference in difficulty between pulling your phone out of your pocket and going for a run. 

Changing habits

Habits cannot be eliminated, but they can be changed from bad to good. Rather than habitually drinking coffee, you can wake yourself up with a glass of water, a quick workout or opt for a cold shower. Instead of scrolling social media you can make conversation with those around you or do a mini-meditation to occupy your mind. 

I know. It’s a lot easier to sit on your couch binge-watching the latest series on Netflix while eating a bag of chips in your underwear than it is to get dressed and go for a run, but hear me out. You can do it, all you need is a reason. 

There are many incremental steps that you can take to get you out of your current habit and to the one you want. First off, you need to know what you want.

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

So, be as specific as you can with what your goal is and then work on improving your current habits one at a time until you get there. The easiest way to reach your goal is to make the habit your goal. That is, use your goal not as a target but as a path to the life you want to be living.

I’m not saying you’ll be running a marathon tomorrow, but if you get the 3-piece box of KFC instead of the 4-piece tomorrow, that’s progress. 

Taking the first step: Observation 

Before you change anything, you need to observe what you currently do. It is best to spend a couple of days and record everything that you do on those days. Be specific, what you did, how much time you spent doing it and then after a few days you can mark off some areas that you would like to change. Most importantly, ask yourself why you do those things.

What are you actually getting out of social media? Is it worth the time you are spending on it? Why are you watching another episode? Is it the best way to spend your evening? By asking yourself questions like these you will get a better understanding of your habits and start living your best life.

By knowing what is on the reward end of these habits, you can start looking for healthier alternatives offering the same reward. If you are checking social media because you want to keep tabs on your friends, call your friends. Odds are they are also interested in how your life is going and would be happy to catch up and you will have a much more rewarding experience. 

When you know why you are doing these habits you are in a better position to evaluate which ones are worth keeping and which ones should be changed. 

Four ways to change habits 

Habits can be affected by many different factors. Key things you can change in order to make them more or less appealing are how: obvious, attractive, satisfying, or easy they are.

1. Making it obvious

If the change you want to make is to eat more fruit and fewer cookies then you can put the fruit on the table and hide the cookies at the back of the cupboard. It is even better if you make this decision while shopping and choose to buy more fruit and not cookies. You are much less likely to eat them if they are not in the house. 

If you want to do more exercise you can set yourself reminders. These reminders don’t have to be on your phone, they can simply be putting your workout clothes somewhere obvious and you will know that it is time to work out when you see them.

Doing the new habit with someone can be a very motivating way to get started. The habit becomes unavoidable when there is another person waiting on you. Alternatively, signing up for something that requires your new habit at a future date will ensure that you stay on schedule with it. 

My way of staying in shape is to annually challenge my brother to a race, loser pays for Netflix. There is a financial penalty if I lose so I am very motivated to get out and run, especially as race day approaches. This year we have increased the distance to a full marathon. 

2. Make it attractive 

This is where your reason for developing the habit becomes most important. What do you have to gain from your desired change? Make sure that the answer to this question is sufficiently motivating.

Saving money can be hard, but using your dream is of travelling to a tropical destination can motivate you. You can put a photo of your dream destination somewhere where it will remind you that the hardships you are going through are for a reason.

3. Make it satisfying

Upgrading the reward you get from your habit can increase your drive to do it. In order to motivate himself, my brother’s first step to his workout routine is to make a delicious smoothie. He then puts it in the fridge and knows that it is there waiting for him while he is struggling. 

Conversely, if you are trying to eliminate a habit you can make the reward less satisfying. I have a weakness for chocolate, in order to minimize how much chocolate I eat I have made the choice to only eat chocolate that is at least 85% cacao. 

I don’t know if you have ever had 85% chocolate, but if not it’s a great way to decrease your chocolate consumption. It is very bitter and the only way to enjoy it is to let it slowly melt on your tongue. I now eat less chocolate but enjoy it much more because I am eating it slowly and attentively.

4. Make it easy

When you are trying to start something new, small steps are the best way. There is a Goldilock zone where the task you are trying to accomplish is not too easy as to be boring and not too hard as to be frustrating. 

Playing with this balance is the best way to alter your habits. Shifting good habits towards this zone will make them more satisfying. While shifting your bad habits out of this zone will make them either boring or frustrating. 

Start with something easy, but not too easy. If you are looking to start meditating, start with a couple of minutes and use a guide if you want. Then, gradually increase your sitting time and independence with continued practice. 

If your first meditation is a half-hour long, it will most likely be your only. You will be utterly frustrated by the end of it if you make it there and lose interest long before observing the benefits of the practice.  

Conversely, if you start with two minutes and never increase you probably still won’t obtain the benefits. It will quickly become too easy and boring for you. The best way is to start small and build up your practice until you reach your goal. 

Failure is okay

Developing good habits is not about being perfect, it’s about being consistent. If you miss a day, it is okay, but try not to miss another. If you destroyed an entire tub of ice cream today, that’s okay, but try not to do it again tomorrow. 

My habits fall apart every weekend when I visit my girlfriend. I have learned to use this as a tool to strengthen them rather than as a reason to give up on them. I may not always accomplish everything I set out to do, but I do at least a part of it every time. 

Don’t forget why

My Duolingo habit is a great example of losing sight of the goal. My goal is to learn a language. To reach this goal I have developed the habit of using the app daily. Recently, I have caught myself getting frustrated because I was using it only to continue my streak rather than being interested in the lessons it was offering. 

This digression from my goal has caused the language learning process to get gradually harder as I continued progressing through the levels of the app. Luckily, I caught myself slipping and have now refocused my attention to learn the language. I now either use the app properly or not at all because my goal is to learn the language, not have an endless streak. 

This shift in focus has put my learning back on track. I still have my streak. Now when I use the app I make sure to learn the new words, rather than try to guess my way through. 

Residual habits 

I have recently replaced the habit of scrolling through media on my phone with being attentive to my surroundings. I accomplished this by deleting any entertaining forms of media from my phone and setting aggressive timers for any deemed essential. 

Now I periodically pick up my phone looking for something to avoid the boredom but realizing there is nothing there. The nothing I find is great because it causes me to put my phone back down and be more interactive with my environment. The habit is still there, but because I have made it utterly unrewarding it is now manageable.  

In summary,

I have worked really hard to hone my habits. I am still far from perfect but I am much more aware when I digress than I used to be. By becoming more aware I have been able to take control of how I spend my time and am now much more satisfied with my life. 

There are many things that can be done to change habits. The best way to change them depends on you and the habits you want to change. Everything takes time and it is more important to observe the progress you are making than looking at where you are relative to your goal.

Focusing on your goal can distract you from the present moment and make you feel like you are not accomplishing anything. Pay attention to what you are doing and live your life how you want. You are in control, don’t let your habits drive your life.

You might need a little nudge, but you are almost there. 

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