Define Your Character Through Your Habits
“Habits are cobwebs at first, cables at last.” ~Chinese proverb
I know, I know…resolutions and habits are a bit cliché for me to blog about on the second of January. But I’m not proposing you instantly apply this to your New Year’s resolution. I feel like the time after the holidays is a really difficult time to implement a resolution, which is essentially a habit we’re trying to get in to or out of. We’re exhausted and hungover from the madness and it’s almost a cop-out to convince yourself that now is the time in your life for a change. Of course you can’t go like you did last month all year long!
I like to use these first few weeks of the New Year to just kind of mentally rest and catch up on sleep and decide what is important in my life. Which is why I took a couple more days off from work and am writing this post from a coffee shop 😀 I like to decide which direction I’m steering my ship and more importantly, WHY am I steering it there? Do you feel fat and decide your resolution is to go to the gym? Maybe re-frame and ask what you are seeking…is it health, confidence, pride, energy?
After I’ve had some time to reflect on whether I need to change course, I try and implement it at Chinese New Year. It just seems to be an easier transition period. If you’re reading this at a later date, also consider anything random that gives you a preparation period like a birthday, an anniversary, a full or new moon, a solstice or equinox or anything that seems of consequence. So read this slowly and digest it and don’t feel too compelled to put it in to action immediately if anything strikes you.
The reason that I say to reflect on it is because of something interesting that I’ve learned about habits recently. I read a book that really helped me reconsider how I think about them. The book is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. So much of what he says in there is intuitively obvious but things we might not necessarily think about. He discusses how habits are basically things we do on auto-pilot or subconsciously. We do them because they introduce efficiency in to our life. The less we have to think about something, the more we can use our brainpower to perform more important tasks.
He discusses that habits are actually a process that has a three-step loop. The three steps consist of 1) a cue. The cue triggers 2) the habit. Once the habit is performed, there is 3) a reward. If the reward is received, it entrenches in your brain that this is a habit worth repeating in the future. This can apply to both good habits and to bad habits. For example, you automatically brush your teeth because it feels good to have a clean mouth. Your trigger might be running your tongue over your teeth. Once the habit of brushing is completed, you have the reward of ungritty teeth and fresh breath.
Alternatively, if you have a bad habit of smoking when you drink, it might be because you see the cue of other people smoking or the smell of your drink has your brain associate it with smoking. Once you have the cigarette, you will be rewarded with a range of potential rewards, one of which might be a nicotine rush. It’s my personal opinion that people also will smoke simply for a social reward. It introduces the chance to have a conversation with a new person over a lighter or borrowing a cigarette or it might provide the opportunity to chat huddled up outside with your buddies.
This process is important for understanding how to implement a good habit or quit a bad habit. Try and figure out what your cues are and what reward you are trying to receive. For people that have “good” habits of exercising or eating well, they are probably doing it because they associate a reward with it. For example, instead of calling yourself fat and grumbling in to your running shoes, try and associate the reward with it. The reward can be as shallow as wearing a particular outfit or as genuine as coming to crave that rush of endorphins, or some combination. The reward can also be as simple as allowing yourself a smoothie or a beer after you workout. Hey…if you’re going to do it anyway you may as well associate it with something healthy! And I don’t know about you, but I never feel more sexy or alive than after I finish a good, hard workout. These effects make it easier for it to become an actual craving and something that is a lifelong habit.
If it’s a bad habit, try and recognize the cue and then try another process or habit to get the same reward. In his book, Duhigg uses the example of getting a cookie at the office every day at 3 pm. The cue might simply be the time or tiredness or boredom. Once this cue hits, is it a boost in energy, a change of scenery, or the chance to talk to co-workers and get out of your office that you’re seeking as your reward? Is there a way you can get this same reward but by doing a different habit such as a walk around the block, or going to get an apple as you chat to people?
It helps to keep the reason in mind too. As I discussed in my post on values, is there an end goal in sight? Can implementing these habits (or quitting them) give you the reward of being true to yourself and your physical, mental, and emotional needs?
One really cool app I have found to help with habits is called Lift. I’m embarrassed of myself that I just said “really cool app” but it is. It’s available free in iTunes and it allows you to enter all of your habits. Once you have completed your habit for the day, you click a little circle with a check mark in it. For me this act of “crossing something off the list” is deeply satisfying and is a reward in of itself. You can make comments about it. Others can give you “props” or comment on you completing your habit. This is another way to receive the reward component of the habit loop. You can then track your frequency and adherence over the weeks, months. A nice way to build momentum is to put in a few habits that are already almost automatic.
Habits don’t change overnight. There are lots of ideas out there about how many days it takes for a habit to form. They range between 3 weeks and 3 months. I don’t know the answer but I do know that if the habit is deeply entrenched, it will probably take longer to alter it. Buddhist teachings have made an analogy (related to meditation in this case) that water dripping slowly on a jagged rock will eventually erode it. Habits are that way with the brain. The more entrenched habits become, the more easily the neurons get to travel the easy, carved pathway. It then becomes harder to convince those neurons to stay out of the worn and familiar lane and try a similar path in a parallel lane that takes us to the exact same spot. I like the idea of slowly changing one habit at a time until eventually as Ovid said and what inspired the title of this post is, “Habits change in to character.”