All animals, including humans, rely on habit to get through their day. The brain is wired in a way that allows us to flow through repetitive activities without conscious thought directing our actions.
When we brush our teeth or drive our car, we rely more on habitual movements than on conscious thought. When the traffic light turns green we naturally remove our foot from the brake and apply it slowly to the gas pedal. When we are driving and the light turns yellow, then red, we naturally and automatically slow down the vehicle to stop prior to the intersection.
These things aren’t by accident. They aren’t some strange phenomenon. In fact, psychologists estimate that 95% of our daily actions are of the habitual variety.
This means that humans have been using the power of habit longer than most people probably realize. While many people point to recent insight from the world of habit in how to reach our goals, the reality is that habit has been at the forefront of life forever.
In Habit by William James, the author says, “In action grown habitual, what instigates each new muscular contraction to take place in its appointed order is not a thought or a perception, but the sensation occasioned by the muscular contraction just finished. A strictly voluntary act has to be guided by idea, perception, and volition, throughout its whole course. In an habitual action, mere sensation is a sufficient guide, and the upper regions of brain and mind are set comparatively free.”
But what is interesting is that habit doesn’t necessarily care what direction we are heading. It is simply the natural flow between various cues or muscular contractions. It could be that we see a green light and instantly remove our foot from the brake, or it could be a long string of behaviors that all tie together, such as getting in the car, turning it on, finding the right volume of the radio, setting the temperature, checking the mirrors and then putting our foot on the brake as we put the vehicle in drive. These actions all follow along in perfect order, without a checklist and without any prompting from our conscious mind.
If someone learns to drive and develops the habit of following the vehicle in front very closely, this is likely to result in a future accident. The habit forms with complete disregard of this. Building of a habit doesn’t seem to care about the future impact, and is mostly concerned with right now.
This means that while we all utilize the power of habit in our lives, it operates differently in each of us. And it helps some people achieve great success and happiness while tearing others apart leading to total collapse.
Therefore, the power of habit helps us through our day but it doesn’t necessarily help us improve unless we take control of those habits and dictate the steps we take to be assured we are moving in the direction that we consciously choose.
It sounds simple and easy but anyone who has decided to lose a couple pounds probably realized that it much easier said than done. Habits are incredibly powerful. They are set up to keep going, not change.
This means that it isn’t as simple as thinking that you want to change something. We have to find a way to reprogram our mind. We have to find a way to break the connection from one action to the next and instead insert a new action in its place.
To do this, we can follow some basic principles regarding how to rebuild our habits. The systems and habits approach to improvement focuses here and provides instruction for how to reprogram these habits.
For example, one of the principles is to start incredibly small. This means that we don’t try to take on a giant change. We make a very small change that is much easier to fit into the current structure. We find a way to break the connection between a cue and an action so that we can insert a new action.
If your current habit after work is to drive home and immediately start cooking dinner and you want to try to form a new routine where you go the gym after work, it is extremely difficult to go the gym and exercise for hours at a time.
Instead as soon as you get in your car you will likely drive straight home without thinking about stopping at the gym. If you do consciously think about going to the gym, you will likely feel tired and hungry and not want to go.
So if you expect to overcome all of that and do a long, grueling workout, you will likely fail. It will be challenging enough to just go there instead of heading home.
So change your goals and expectations. First, just commit to going to the gym, walking in, exercising for 10 minutes and then leaving to go home. Do everything possible to keep doing this over and over and over.
Don’t expect to workout for 2 hours. Do 10 minutes and then head home. It will be enough to break the connection of leaving work and driving straight home to workout.
Once the connection is broken, reinforce the new connection by doing it over and over and over. Don’t deviate from this new routine. Make it automatic by being extremely consistent in the string of actions.
Once you build up that new habit, then you can start to add more to the workout. This will be much easier because you will already find yourself going to the gym, changing into workout closes and working out for 10 minutes. That part will be easy and automatic.
This is how you harness the power of habit but tailor your habits to help you become happier and more successful over time. You will learn how to constantly tweak your habits to make them better and better. In turn they will make you better and better. You will start improving and will realize how much potential there is in all of us to be better.