We humans are creatures of habit. We have evolved over thousands of years to like routine, to like predictability and to become ingrained in a certain series of events. Most of us, therefore, have a routine that we pretty much follow every single day. Maybe you start your day by waking up, making breakfast, having a shower, getting dressed and then watching the news for 10 minutes with a cup of coffee before running for the bus.
You probably have a similar routine in the evening, which might involve making dinner, watching some TV, having a shower and then reading a book or browsing social media in bed. You probably go to bed at roughly the same time every day. This is no coincidence. This comes down to the entire way we are hardwired. The way our brains work and the way our biology operates.
Repeating the same actions or thoughts over and over again essentially means that we are repeatedly using the same neuronal pathways and causing the same connections to light up and fire. As we do this, those connections become ‘myelinated’. That means that they are insulated by myelin sheaths, thereby becoming stronger and stronger. If you repeat one action followed by another often enough, then often they will become so ingrained as to become automatic and beyond our conscious control.
This was demonstrated perfectly by the psychologist Ivan Pavlov who managed to condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell.
This is also why severely brain-damaged individuals who can’t remember their own name might still be able to play incredible piano concertos. Some can do this despite even not knowing that they can play the piano! The simple fact is that the motor neurons are hardwired over years of practice.
The groove has been greased over and over again to leave a final impression. As for our biology, this is based entirely on rhythms and patterns. The sun rises at a certain time and this triggers the release of cortisol and nitric oxide. These neurotransmitters trigger a cascade of activity throughout the brain which makes us more awake and active. Then we eat and this slows us down slightly again and gets us ready for work.
After 4 pm, our lunch settles in and we start to become slower and more sluggish thanks to a dose of melatonin and serotonin. By the time the sun starts to go down, we are producing more melatonin and the build-up of adenosine in our brain is making it harder and harder to think. If you get up at a different time, if the sun rises at a different time, or if you eat a bigger meal, then this can throw that whole routine out of whack and as a result, you’ll feel out of sorts.
This is what causes jet lag and it’s why one solution to jet lag involves altering your meal timings. In short, the more we repeat the same behavior over and over, the harder it is for us to change that behavior. If the behavior in question involves smoking, then this is bad news. But if the behavior involves going to the gym, then it’s great news. I have been working out at least three days a week since my last baby was 6 months old.
That means that I’ve been doing something consistently for 5 years. As you might expect, I now find it almost impossible to stop. I love working out, it’s a part of who I am and it’s no effort for me to begin a workout. In other words, harnessing the power of habit can be a powerful tool in helping you to get whatever you want from life: whether that’s a better body or a richer bank account.
The question is how you go about forming those habits…
How to Create New Habits
The 30 Day Rule
Often you will read that the best way to create a new habit is to repeat that action for thirty days. If you can do that, then eventually you will have ingrained the behavior deeply enough that you won’t be able to stop. Is this true? Thirty days would theoretically be long enough for you to rehearse an action long enough for it to become ingrained at least somewhat, but that ‘magic number’ is actually very much arbitrary. There is no reason that doing something for thirty days should be any better than doing something for 29 days or 31 days.
What this idea does have going for it is anecdotal evidence: according to research, this indeed seems to be accurate and if you can stick to a new behavior for that long, you’ll at least be on the right track. This makes it a little easier setting out too. If you know that you have to exercise first thing in the morning for thirty days only, then that can be easier to stomach than thinking you have to do it permanently.
Struggling to floss your teeth every day, even just for those 30 days? Then, in that case, you might want to try using something called ‘micro habits’. The idea of a micro habit is essentially to hack the 30-day trial by finding a way to stick to your habit for that long much easier and then extrapolating the results. To explain, a micro habit means breaking down your new intended habit into something that is extremely easy and simple to stick to. So, for example, your goal might now be to floss just one tooth and to floss a different tooth each night.
This is a two-second job so there should be no difficulty in sticking to it. But as with a ‘full-sized’ habit, you should find that this micro habit becomes deeply ingrained after a while and that eventually, you find it easy to stick to. Now all you have to do is to extend that habit so that you’re flossing all your teeth! A more realistic version of this might be if you wanted to write a novel, in which case you could aim to write just one line per night. Likewise, if you wanted to get into shape, then you could aim to do just 20 push-ups every day.
This works best if what you’re doing is still useful in its own right. If you only ever did 20 push-ups, then you would still notice some improvement for example. Likewise, one sentence per night would still eventually lead to an entire book! Try to avoid a scenario where you might look at your micro habit and feel that it is ‘pointless’ so you can just ignore it. The great thing about micro habits is that right from the start, you are going to find you sometimes end up doing more.
For instance, if you have set the goal of doing 20 push-ups, you’ll often find that you end up doing a whole workout anyway – the hardest part is just getting started! What’s most important though is that you have the option to default to the micro habit. The important thing is that you are keeping this as a part of your routine – not so much that the habit itself (for now!).
Another tip for creating a new habit is to try attaching it to your old habits and your surroundings. In other words, if you want to create a habit of flossing your teeth, then a good option is to attach this onto a habit you already stick to: such as brushing your teeth!
Likewise, if you want to get into the habit of meditation, pick a specific point in the day for it to come after – such as making your morning tea. This works because it connects the new behavior to old ones inside your brain. You have a network of neurons that fires whenever you make your morning tea.
Now, when that network of neurons fire, they should also cause the new network – the ironing shirts network – to light up. The two are connected. This also works on a practical level: you need to find a convenient time for your new habit to take place and you need to find a convenient time and place in which to do it. And you need to know that said time and place is always going to be convenient. You need to always be able to workout at this time, in this place.
I wanted to take up meditation a while back for example as a regular part of my routine. I struggled at first because there always seemed to be more important things to be doing and I could never find the right opportunity. So, what I did was to attach my meditation session to my workout session. I already worked out 3-4 times a week, so all I did was to say that straight after a workout, I would meditate for just 5 (yes 5!) minutes. That’s a micro habit that would never take up too much time and I’d always be in the right place to practice it (the gym).
Keeping your environment and your surroundings consistent is also important as all the things in your periphery can help to encourage your habit. This is why when trying to break a habit, the advice is always to change your surroundings immediately. If you’re trying to give up alcohol for instance, or drugs, one of the first things you’re told to do is to stop hanging out in the same places and with the same people. These have become associated with the habit – these are now ‘triggers’.
But if it’s a good habit, then triggers are a good thing!
The Power of Routine
One action is a habit but if you string these together, then you have a routine. I touched recently on the practical aspect of stringing habits together and knowing where you will be and what time it will be when you do that thing. This is incredibly important for accomplishing goals and if you can build a routine for yourself that contains multiple good habits, then you’ll find that you massively enhance your likelihood of success in all areas.
For example, if you are going to start a new training program then you must know precisely when you will workout and where you will work out. And you should ‘hang’ this new habit off of your existing routine and actions. If you simply say you are going to train ‘five days a week’ then this is not good enough: you’ll find yourself putting it off, forgetting or feeling too tired.
Instead, find a slot in your routine where you can always make space. For me, the best time to train is after I’ve put the kids down for a nap. I do this every afternoon and the gym is in my basement.
Creating a routine is a powerful way to accomplish your goals then. BUT don’t forget that the value in life comes from mixing things up and trying new things. Don’t let yourself move backward, or you will start to atrophy and stop growing. Habits help you get to where you’re going but don’t forget to enjoy the view along the way.