We all know what bad habits are. They are smoking, drinking, eating too much, biting our nails etc.
But these aren’t the habits that we use in the systems and habits approach to improvement. The habits that are important to leverage in order to improve are often much more subtle.
The strange thing is that we can usually see this pretty easily in others. We know our friend’s money problems are due to the fact that he or she is impulsive. We can see why Joe never gets promoted since he always gets overly defensive whenever someone tries to give him important feedback.
But if we ask these people why, they are likely clueless. They will tell you they have money problems because taxes are too high or their boss didn’t give them the raise they deserve. They say they don’t get promoted because the company can’t see who is actually doing all the work or they say the company overvalues education/age/experience etc., which they don’t possess.
This leads directly to disconnect in how we all try to improve. Because we are blind to these important aspects and don’t see them as long-standing habits, we shift the focus to external elements that are usually beyond our control. We remove our self as a controlling part of the overall system and instead feel we are simply victims of some larger system outside our control.
In Change Anything – The New Science of Personal Success, the authors explain why we tend to think we fail at going after our goals because of motivation, when in fact, there are usually numerous other influences that we ignore.
They say, “Our primary problem isn’t that we’re weak; it’s that we’re blind – and when it comes to long-standing habits, what you can’t see is usually what’s controlling you.”
It seems like there should be a simple fix to this problem. All we need to do, then, is to see these areas that we currently ignore. We can ask our friends or simply think about our weaknesses and then can fix them.
But it isn’t nearly this simple. In addition to the fact that we are talking about ingrained habits, we have built up our defenses so that we can quickly and easily find someone or something external to blame.
We can find someone or something else that is responsible. But this means that we ignore the things that we have control over and that have great impact over our success.
The reason I recommend the systems and habits approach to improvement so much is because it doesn’t force us to suddenly fix all these areas that are wrong. It allows us to slowly start shifting the direction these long-standing habits and subconscious ways of thinking direct us.
We start to fix problems slowly. Over time what I have found was that we start to fix problems that we never even knew we had. By taking on an improvement mindset and being open to criticism, we start to form the foundation for getting better.
Here is one example. I never knew that I had a really bad approach to (habit) looking at a menu at a restaurant. If you would have asked me about this problem I would have said you are crazy and there isn’t a problem. If you told me that restaurants were manipulating me I would not have believed you.
But it is true. Did you know that most restaurant chains spend a lot of money and research on how to orient the menu to drive the most profit to the company? They don’t do it to try and get you to order healthy, they do it to try and get you to order the items with the largest margins. And guess what, these tend to be unhealthy options.
So if you have never sat down and thought about how you order food from a menu you have probably been manipulated. If you never thought this even existed you probably fell victim to the restaurants trying to get you to do certain things.
We are constantly being influenced and manipulated. Did you server ask you what you had planned for later that night just after desert? He wasn’t making small talk. He knows that, statistically, asking you that question at that time would get you to leave faster.
Because of these ways that others can get us act in certain ways, we have to be even keener on what we are doing. Just going through the motions and expecting the best results means that we think these restaurants, servers, companies, marketing experts, etc. care more about our well being than theirs. The truth is that they absolutely are thinking this way and looking for ways to improve their situation, not yours.
The great news is that all of their marketing tactics and research studies do not mean that you have to follow what they want. You are free to decide. You are free to choose. You are free to take the bait or not. You are free to deny that they can manipulate you or say it is not ethical for them to do this. All of it is up to you and within your control.
But we have to step away from thinking that habits are simply smoking, biting our fingers etc. Habits can be our way to make sure we are moving in the direction that we choose, not the direction someone else wants us to travel.
Once I started to realize that whenever I went out to eat I ordered certain unhealthy items I started to finally explore how to change.
Here are some ways I started to gain control over the habits I developed when ordering off a menu.
- I stopped looking at price first and trying to find a low cost item that sounded good. Now I look at a menu first by finding their healthy options to see if anything sounds good. I keep looking and finding less healthy options until something jumps out at me. Once I decide I stop looking and don’t think about all of the unhealthy items available.
- I changed from ordering burgers with bacon and blue cheese to ordering burgers with blue cheese. Then I ordered burgers with other types of cheese. Then I ordered chicken sandwiches instead of burgers. Then I ordered grilled chicken instead of breaded and fried chicken. Then I started to order fish sandwiches. Then I started to order fish dinners.
- I stopped getting fries with everything. I go to Wendy’s and order a baked potato instead of fries. I order other sides at restaurants whenever I can.
These are just some basic habits that I have developed using the systems and habits approach to improvement. None of them by themselves are really that great. But by doing this over and over and focusing on small, easy improvements and then working iteratively to fine-tune all of the habits, I was able to develop a process that makes me significantly more likely to order healthy options now than I was in the past.
Because habits such as these are powerful, they help counter all of the bad habits I’m not even aware of. They also help counter all of the ways others are trying to influence or manipulate me to choose something that benefits them over me.
If we take on an improvement mindset and look to the systems and habits techniques, we can significantly improve our lives. We can succeed where we want to succeed and avoid many of the common traps that move us towards a place of unhappiness.
All of this is within our control and within our grasp. But if we ignore it, or we hear about it and do nothing, we will continue to make choices that are largely impacted by what others want for us or how our long-standing habits direct us. This may be good and maybe we all developed great habits early on and those in our lives move us towards happiness, but if not we have to find ways to take back control of our lives and our future success. Then the pull of these other areas of influence get weaker and our own free will becomes stronger.