“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~Aristotle
In the quest for happiness and balance in life, it’s easy to find yourself going down the rabbit hole more than once.
A new book, a new idea, a new trend… all of these can pull us in different directions.
Yet, even as we are trying to do something different with our lives, a considerable force is shaping our thoughts and behaviors throughout the day.
We may want to exercise more, but we spend our evenings sitting out of habit. We may want to meditate in the morning but we go about our daily routine out of habit. We may want to eat healthier, but we reach for the white chocolate and macadamia nut Pepperidge Farm cookies out of habit (I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this, right?).
Habits shape our days, and our days shape our lives. This is important for everyone, but especially for busy entrepreneurs who need to make progress on goals while also taking good care of ourselves.
The Power of Habit
Lest you underestimate The Power of Habit, NY Times reporter Charles Duhigg has written a fascinating book with that title. The premise of the book is simple: individual, organizational, and societal behavior is driven by habits.
The interesting thing about the book is that Duhigg explains that the brain actually uses habits in order to save brain power. Basically, it recognizes when it is safe to go into auto-pilot, thereby conserving brain power for when it’s needed.
Habits are so fundamental to how we operate that Duhigg suggests that up to 40-45% of our day is spent engaged in habitual behaviors.
Think about that for a moment: almost half of our day is spent not on things that we consciously choose to do, but on things that we do automatically, without thinking about them.
This is good for some things. We don’t want to spend too much brain power on mundane actions such as brushing our teeth in the morning or grabbing our keys before we head out the door. Many of our daily activities can and should be done on auto-pilot so that we can conserve our energy and effort for those things that require it, such as doing good work or helping others.
The problems occur when we do things out of habit that don’t serve us well, such as when we don’t exercise, eat healthy, or meditate.
This becomes even more important when we realize that our willpower is actually limited. We can’t just will and motivate ourselves to do something all the time. We might be able to for a while, but eventually we’ll go back to our habitual behaviors. A USC study found that even during times of stress, we’ll fall back on our good habits. This is actually good news because we can focus on developing good habits, knowing that we’ll fall back on them when we need them most.
To make changes to our lives, then, we need to focus on changing our habits. We can do this by identifying the results that we want, and then creating habits that support us in achieving those results. This is quite similar to what is done in business, where systems are implemented that support the goals of the organization. We can apply this same principle to our lives.
Developing Good Habits
It helps to understand how habits work. Habits can be broken down into three components: cue, routine, reward. For example, our stomach rumbles to let us know that we’re hungry (cue), we eat something tasty (routine), we feel better afterwards (reward).
If we want to change our habits, we can look at the cues or triggers that initiate the habit, change the routine, and then be conscious about our rewards. Part of the process for effective habit change is also to create a craving, a strong desire or motivation to experience the reward. Duhigg’s website offers a great flowchart that explains how to make a habit.
Here are three tips that I’ve found helpful for implementing new habits, based on the work of Duhigg and others:
- Reflect on the results that you want. This step is important because it will clarify your motivation, your reasons for wanting to make a change. This will be particularly important at the beginning, when you need to apply conscious effort to changing your behavior.
- Be mindful about your habitual behaviors. The problem with habits is that they occur on auto-pilot, so that we don’t need to think about them. Being mindful and paying attention to what we’re doing is important to help us break out of the automatic behaviors. Daily meditation is a great way to develop a mindfulness practice that can help with this.
- Track your efforts. Keeping track of when you do your new habit can help you to monitor your behavior and see your progress. The Lift app is great for keeping track of how often you perform your new habit, adding notes, and getting support from a community. I highly recommend using this app to help you in developing your habits.
If you’re finding that it’s a challenge to meet your goals or to take care of yourself by getting plenty of exercises, etc., then take a close look at your habits. What is one habit that, if implemented, would have the greatest impact on your well-being and productivity? It could be getting enough sleep, working on your most important task first thing in the morning, checking email only twice a day, or going for a walk every day. Whatever it is, commit to implementing it as a habit for the next two months using the tips above. After 60 days, you’ll find that the habit has been integrated into your routine. You should begin to see the benefits of your new habit, which will help your motivation even more!
What’s one habit that you’ve implemented that has helped you the most?