Wrest control of your habits
AND LEARN WHAT IT TAKES TO FORM POSITIVE NEW ONES.
IF THE REWARDS ARE POSITIVE, LIKE A BRIGHT SET OF CHOMPS, CHANCES ARE YOU WILL REPEAT THE ROUTINE THE NEXT TIME THE CUE PRESENTS ITSELF. DO THIS FOR ABOUT 10 WEEKS AND, HEY PRESTO, YOU’VE GOT A HABIT.
OUR LIVES ARE the sum of our habits, both good and bad. These habits determine how healthy we are, how happy (or unhappy) we are, or how successful we are. Our habits define us, forming our personality and rooting deep into the things we believe in.
WHAT IS A HABIT?
If you’re performing a certain behaviour automatically, or subconsciously, because you’ve done it too many times before, that is a habit. The repeated performance creates an association in our brains between the cue (situation) that triggers the behaviour, and the behaviour itself. You floss your teeth because you see the floss beside your toothpaste. After a few iterations of that behaviour, you’ll floss without even having to think about it. Bored? You might automatically drift towards Facebook for some gossip.
But it is important to remember that habits are different from addictions. Smoking, alcoholism and drugs aren’t habits.
HOW HABITS FORM
Behavioural psychologists found that it takes, on average, 66 days to achieve automaticity for performing a new behaviour, and that every habit (good or bad) follows the same threestep pattern called the ‘habit loop’ — reminder or cue (the trigger that initiates the behaviour: spotting the floss), routine (the behaviour itself: the flossing) and reward (the benefit you gain from the behaviour: excellent oral hygiene and a stunning smile).
If the rewards are positive, like a bright set of chomps, chances are you will repeat the routine the next time the cue presents itself. Do this for about 10 weeks and, hey presto, you’ve got a habit.
HOW TO DEVELOP A GOOD HABIT
If you’ve got an annoying habit and want out, you can use the same three-step habit loop to replace your bad habits with some good ones. Sharing your thoughts with friends and family on changing your habits might get you an earful about self-control and willpower, but you don’t necessarily need either. In fact, motivation and focus probably won’t change a thing.
Going by what researchers have found, you need to spend about 66 days to ingrain a new good habit into your subconscious. So take some time and indulge in introspection. Only go after habits that are important to you, as it’s hard to find a reward if you’re doing it for others.
Start by setting a reminder for your new habit, without which you’ll never get started. A good reminder (or ‘cue’) has nothing to do with motivation. It’s got to be something that will instil the behaviour into your regular routine, and the best reminders are visible ones. For example, I take the train to and from work. To get into the habit of adding some exercise into my daily routine, I decided to walk to a station across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 3.5km away, instead of the one 400m away. My visible cue? Walking shoes in my backpack. Want to get into the habit of flossing every day? Keep your floss right beside your brush and toothpaste and you’ll have your reminder.
Next, set realistic expectations. Pick a habit that’s easy to encode into your life. Want to lose weight? Then don’t be unrealistic about it, like wanting to lose 20kg in 4 weeks. After all, y ou want a lasting change, not a once-off transformation. As Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta has said, “Make it so easy that you can’t say no.” Say no to cookies, for example. That could lead to you giving up unhealthy snacking. One American scientist has suggested that if you want to make flossing a habit, start by flossing one tooth every day. You read that right — just the one. You’ll find that flossing one will often make you floss the rest as well.
And tell others about your habit, too. If you slip up, they’ll be the ones setting you straight. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way and just persevere.
Lastly, don’t forget to celebrate the positive changes. Reward yourself if you’ve lost a kilo or two of weight. Done an extra push-up — cheer. Flossed seven days in a row — show off your smile. Give yourself credit every step of the way and enjoy the happiness of success.