What is a Habit?
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Habits are an essential part of our life, habits are small decisions you make and daily actions you perform every day, habits account for about 40% of our behaviours on any given day.
Habits let us perform or initiate our daily tasks, without making any conscious efforts, and that’s why habits are so important for us when it comes to our mental health and quality in life.
What you repeatedly do, what you spend time thinking about and doing each day ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.
Habits become hard to break because they are deeply wired in our brains by our beliefs system and constant repetition, habits are patterns of behaviour, and it is the breaking of these patterns that is the key to breaking the habits themselves.
Usually there is a clear trigger to start the pattern, sometimes the triggers are emotional, other times the trigger is more situational and environmental, more often it is a combination of both.
When your habits become a routine behaviour, they keep us from having to reinvent the wheel of our daily lives by making an infinite number of decisions all day long, which in turn provides us with more brain-space to think about other things, the downside of these routine patterns comes when those patterns land more in the bad column than the good one.
“All bad habits start slowly and gradually and before you know you have the habit, the habit has you.”
Developing new habits can be frustrating because we often see only tiny improvements in the beginning, however, if you persist there will be a tipping point, after which you will experience a breakthrough, it is essential to push past the valley of disappointment, embrace the power of marginal improvements as habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
When it comes to forming good habits, too many people stop making efforts towards what they want, as they do not see any visible results quickly after they perform their part, we often underestimate making small changes because they do not seem to matter much now, which is also the reason for getting into bad habits.
Habits are peculiar, and success is the direct result of our habits, the more consistently we perform a task, the better we get in it, and the less effort it takes to sustain the growth.
The secret to permanently breaking any bad habit is to love something greater than the habit.
How does our Habits work?
Our habit follows a certain path also known as a habit-loop.
- The Cue
The cue triggers our brain to initiate a stored behaviour, it is a bit of information that predicts a reward, our mind continuously analyses our internal and external environment for hints of where rewards are located, which naturally leads us to crave.
(For instance, the bus stop you use which is close to a charity or bargain shop acts as a strong cue, that reminds you to check out the discounts every time.)
- The Craving
Craving is the motivating force behind every habit because without any desire or without craving a change, we have no reason to act, what we crave is not the habit itself, but the state it delivers.
(For instance, we do not crave the buying of loads of bargain items, what we crave is the feeling of relief and satisfaction it provides.)
- The Behaviour
The action that we perform because of craving is the response, and that is the actual habit, the response to craving depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behaviour.
If a particular action requires a more physical and mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you will not do it.
(i.e., If you have items you need to recycle, donate, or throw away, the energy and effort required to decide on each item is next to impossible, especially when you add in factors like your belief system, stress, and anxiety.)
- The Reward
Finally, our response to the craving delivers a reward, which is the end goal of every habit, rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.
So, to summarise, we can say that the cue is about noticing the reward, the craving is about wanting the reward, the response is about obtaining the reward.
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
The Power of Building Systems not Goals
Focus on building systems instead of setting goals, how many new year’s resolutions fail? A system is a set of habits that will work towards your goal, these habits will compound over time and will keep working indefinitely.
Our results are very little to do with the goals we set, but it is more about making continuous improvement, each day that counts, you should set goals just to get a direction to put all your efforts, but it is important to understand that all that matters is continuous improvement, as mere setting goals can take you nowhere unless you are constantly improving and moving forward.
For instance, the goal might be to organise and declutter the kitchen area, and the system is how often you commit to organising and decluttering each day, how you approach, break down and tackle difficult measures, and the methods you choose in receiving support and feedback from anyone, will determine how effective your systems really is.
(i.e., The purpose of goal setting generally is to organise and declutter the kitchen area, and that of a system is to continue organising and decluttering the kitchen area, true long-term thinking is always goal-less thinking.)
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
― Jim Rohn
Identify the triggers
By identifying your triggers, you have a way of pushing back and not having that autopilot kick in, but some people have a difficult time doing this, if this is true for you, that you have a difficult time knowing what emotionally triggers you, you can work backwards, notice, for example, when you have made a decision to donate or throwing away an item in your home, slow down and use your awareness of these behaviours as signals to ask yourself, What is going on emotionally or what got you to that point to make that decision?
Deal with the triggers
Because we are wanting to break patterns, you now want to do something about the triggers themselves.
“Forget about perfection; focus on progression and compound the improvements.”
Develop a substitute plan
Breaking habits is not about stopping but substituting, the key here is mapping this out before that trigger has a chance to kick in.
Change the larger pattern
Here we are widening the context that surrounds the habit-pattern, by looking at and changing the larger pattern you are not only making it easier to tackle the core habit, but are practicing exercising your willpower on smaller, easier pattern-breaking behaviours, this can add to your sense of empowerment.
These are reminders to help you break the pattern by creating positive triggers and alerts to keep you on track or checking in with yourself and gauging your stress level whilst you are completing task before it gets too high and out of your control.
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”
― Leo Tolstoy
Get Support and reward yourself
Get a buddy, or someone you can call, or support group you can tap into when those challenging moments kick in and you are struggling.
At some point in your efforts to break a habit, you reach a point where you go, why am I bothering to struggle with this? you feel discouraged, you feel you are emotionally making your life seemingly harder and that there is little payoff.
This is normal, the low point in the process, and you need to keep your eyes on the positive small daily steps you have been making, but you also need to make sure you build in some self-compassion, self-love, and mindfulness.
Here you deliberately pat yourself on the back for having dinner at the table rather than the corner of the couch, even though you will not immediately feel better, you must realise that you are making progress and are on the right path.
Be persistent and patient
Realising that it will take time for the new brain connections to kick in, for the old brain-firings to calm down (neuroplasticity), for new patterns to replace the old, do not beat yourself up for slip-ups or use them as rationales for quitting. Take it one day at the time like the (Kaizen approach for progress).
If you have done the best, you can and you are still struggling, consider seeking professional support. While all habits are not created equally, the overarching goal is the same, namely you are taking more charge of your life, being proactive rather than reactive, deliberate rather than routinised.
“A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”
Your habit becomes part of your identity, every time you perform your habits, you are casting vote in favour of those habits subconsciously and a time comes when your habits get congruent with your identity.
Focus on positive identity change rather than goals, look to be the kind of person who performs a particular habit, by embodying this new identity, you will be more likely to make nonconscious and conscious decisions, that work towards your goal.
Habits and identity create a feedback loop, habits create identity and identity reinforces habits, ditch old identities that do not serve you, when you repeat something in your mind, about yourself, it is easy to accept it as a fact.
Challenge your identity and the negative conversations you have with yourself, as negative conversations repeated enough times, forms an identity that stops you from making real progress, you might have felt internal pressure when doing something new or in a different way, as it is a way of our brain to maintain our current identity and behave in a way that is consistent with our existing beliefs.
That is the reason why we feel uncomfortable whenever we try to do something which is different than our current identity, for instance, a person who has been social isolating find themselves uncomfortable around people in a peer support group or a person is asked to throw away items which has been in the family for years.
The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it, repeating behaviour reinforces identity i.e., if you want to start engaging in the community, just decide in your mind why you want that and the benefits, and then start meeting new people to reinforce a different identity.
In closing, we can say the process of building habits is the process of becoming yourself, we change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit, we are continually undergoing microevolution of the self.
“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day. It is the accumulative weight of our disciplines and our judgments that leads us to either fortune or failure.”
— Jim Rohn
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