7 steps to the habits you want

We are the sum of our habits


Shawn Achor, in the Happiness Advantage describes habits ‘like financial capital – forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come.’

A few less calories each day leads to less pounds and stones in the future. So forming good habits today, whether as a business, team or individual can lead to great returns in the future.

Here’s a 7 step plan to help you:

1. Identify your bad habits and what they are costing you

Habits are extremely powerful for individuals, teams and organisations. Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How To Change describes the habits of successful individuals, organisations and societies. 

The great thing is that we know that habits can be changed.  In his work, Duhigg describes the habit loop. All habits consist of a cue or trigger, followed by a routine and then a reward. The key to breaking a habit is to change the routine whilst keeping the cue and reward the same. 

Another key learning point is that habits can’t be eradicated; they can only be changed. If you think about it a habit is like an impression on your brain. You’ve heard the saying ‘cells that fire together wire together’. Each time you perform an action it becomes more deeply embedded as a pattern on your brain until eventually it becomes a habit. The pattern is so strong that you don’t even need to think about it. Think cleaning your teeth, driving to work and putting on your pants!

Now, if you drive a different way to work one morning your brain has to work harder, but it doesn’t mean the pattern of your usual journey has been wiped away. It’s still there and you’ll pick it up quickly if you go back to your normal routine. 

Duhigg offers the following process for helping to change a habit and this involves identifying the elements of the ‘habit loop’ and replacing the routine.

  • Identify the routine. This is the behaviour we want to change. 
  • Next, identify and experiment with rewards. To identify the reward Duhigg suggests a little experimentation. Rewards satisfy our cravings and can range from physical sensations such as hunger to emotional payoffs like feelings of pride. We’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviours so we need to experiment a little to figure out which cravings are driving our particular habit.
  • Isolate the cue. Duhigg explains that experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people and the immediately preceding action. If we record when we perform the habit, we should start to see patterns that relate to one, or a combination, of these categories. 

As an example you should end up with an understanding of your habit recorded as follows:

The habit loop

Think about the attitudes and emotions associated with your habits. What has stopped you changing until now? How will you make sure this doesn’t stop you going forward? 

2. Now think about and visualise some new successful habits

It’s generally better to think positively as our subconscious brain is wired to support what we want rather than what we don’t. For example, I’m exercising 3 times per week for 20 mins rather than I’m not spending so much time watching the TV.

Following the example outlined above we may end up with something like the following:

Changing a habit

What are the benefits of adopting this new habit? Visualise the specific behaviour change you will achieve. How will you feel? What will you be thinking? How will your behaviour differ? Repeat this visualisation until you can picture the new successful habit really clearly and feel motivated by it.

3. Set a SMARTER plan to change the habit

Sometimes you can get ‘stuck in a rut’. You know your habits and behaviours aren’t moving you in the direction you’d like but you have difficulty changing.  Everything is hard before it becomes easy.

Behaviours and habits are like a well trodden path. Initially they take a while to form. The good news is, you can choose a new path.  It just takes time. Research has shown that the time it takes to change a habit depends on many things including the habit you’re changing, the people involved and your circumstances.

So set a timescale that is realistic, then commit to repeated daily activity. Eventually after repeating actions for a while it gets easier and easier as the path in your brain becomes more well formed.  Eventually you just do things naturally without even thinking. Your new actions become a habit!

B J Fogg, Behavioural Scientist at Stanford University, in his book Tiny Habits, suggests breaking your habit down into tiny steps and starting by doing an action you can perform in just 30 seconds.  If something seems too large or overwhelming to change all in one go how could you break it down into smaller, more achievable steps that start you on your way?

Other recent research supports the benefits of mindfulness for habit and behaviour change. Through its ability to enhace cognitive control processes mindfulness can help us avoid distractions and stay more focused. In addition mindfulness can also help us reframe activities and thoughts to become less judgemental.

Perhaps one of the strongest ways mindfulness can help is disrupting the habit loop mentioned above. Imagine your bad habit. Typically when you do this thing you won’t be thinking about it. That’s why it’s called a habit! Now, next time you do this thing be more mindful. Sense all the things you feel as you do this activity. What are the smells, tastes, sensations? What does it really feel like when you do this? Think about the rewards you assume you’re getting when you do this activity. Are these rewards really rewards? How does doing this thing make the people around you feel?

4. Make things easier, or harder, for yourself

Other research shows willpower weakens the more we use it. So give it a rest and make things easier for yourself.

Psychic entropy” is a term used to describe the listless, apathetic feeling when you take the easy route and just watch TV or ‘play’ on Facebook, for example. It’s just so easy, convenient and, well, habitual isn’t it. The ‘path of least resistance’ is used by marketeers through things like ‘opt outs’, playing on our inertia.

You can use this knowledge to your advantage. For example, if you want to learn to play the guitar put it in a place where you’ll see it often and it’s easy to pick up and play. Set up visual reminders to prompt you in places you’re bound to see them like the fridge or the bathroom mirror.

On the contrary, for bad habits you’d like to let go of, you might want to make things harder for yourself. In Confessions of a shopaholic Isla Fisher freezes her credit cards in blocks of ice to help prevent her from spending more and more.

What tricks or ideas can you think of that make things easier, or harder, to give you the greatest chance of successfully changing your habits?

5. Manage your negative thinking

Everyone has negative thoughts from time to time and these are destructive and unhelpful. A positive affirmation could be one way to counter these negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Remind yourself of your successes to date or when you’ve changed a habit successfully in the past. Visualise your new successful habit and what it brings you.

6. Plan for slip ups

Research also shows that it doesn’t matter if you mess up here and there. If you do make a slip up don’t beat yourself up just get back into your plan as quickly as you can. Having said that forewarned is forearmed. What might get in your way?  How could you overcome this? Whose support could you rely on to help you? Support in changing habits is extremely important and is why organisations, communities and apps like Weight Watchers, NOOM, and Alcoholics Anonymous are so successful. Whatever the habit you’re going to change who could you partner up with to share your journey?

7. Monitor, measure and reward your progress.

Use free tools like Toodledo to record, monitor and measure your progress. It’s also important to reward yourself along the way. To give yourself an added incentive, and extra accountability, you might like to ‘go public’ and let others know that you’re changing your habit. How about using your new habit for the benefit of the community or to raise money for charity? These added incentives will give you greater motivation along the way and help you achieve your goals.

Of course, one of the most important ways to help us change is the support we have around us. Improveon offers the following services to help individuals, teams and organisations thrive and change.

Call or contact David now to find out how Improveon can help  you, your team or your business develop successful habits.