Habits: Creating Systems for a Successful Existence

healthy habits

Do you have successful habits and routines or are you winging each day as it comes?

If you have a vision for your life, it’s tempting to sit back and imagine yourself fulfilling that personal prophecy…

Without doing the hard work required to make it a reality. 

This is where taking responsibility and implementing repeatable behaviours is essential to make progress.

In this article, we’ll explore what’s required. 

What are habits?

Habits are actions or behaviours we repeat so often as to become automatic.

And if we don’t consciously choose them, they tend to choose us.

The healthy habits to which you commit move you closer to your goals and vice versa.

Wanna lose weight?

A conducive habit might be drinking a vegetable smoothie each day for lunch instead of stuffing your face with fast food. 

Why they’re important

Embracing discomfort

Any goal is an attempt to transition from our current state to a more desirable state, a process accompanied by inevitable growth pains. 

Changing well-worn habits, implementing new routines and adopting necessary behaviours is uncomfortable. 

And while embracing discomfort is necessary to achieve any goal, we often seek to retreat from suffering to the safety of what we know.
 
Adopting better habits allows us to ignore our transient, ego-driven feelings and engage in the painful actions needed to make progress.

So when you hear that soft little voice in your head telling you to skip your workout because you deserve a rest, you (metaphorically) punch yourself in the face and do it anyway. 

Automaticity

Whenever we try to achieve a new goal, we’re our own worst enemy, psychologically tripping over our own feet.

If you’ve ever gone to bed determined to implement a new routine the next day, just to have it fall apart as soon as you wake up, you’ll know what I mean. 

We overthink the next step, playing devil’s advocate in a compelling inner monologue as we talk ourselves out of starting.

Habits undermine this tendency. 

As creatures of routine, we like to maintain consistency, regardless of whether that behaviour is productive or harmful. 

The more we do of one thing, the less activation energy is required to start and the more automatic it becomes.

Self-image

No goals are achieved in isolation. 

Rather, they’re preceded by the forging a new identity which allows you to instil the new habits needed for true behaviour change. 

New identities are created by building personal credibility, allowing you to see yourself in a new light. 

For example, I have a daily cold shower, which I hate. 

But by gritting my teeth and doing it, I reinforce the feeling that I’m the type of person who can deal with discomfort, giving me a small win for the day and making other annoying tasks more manageable. 

The benefit of good habits

Goals

You conquer more goals.

If you’re the type of person who retreats every time the going gets tough, you won’t achieve much.

Accomplishment, if that’s important to you, is contingent on stepping outside your comfort zone and expanding your sphere of competence.

Growth hurts, but those willing to endure the process and stick with their habits are provided with external rewards and internal satisfaction.

Satisfaction

Bad habits, although they might provide a temporary buzz, are quickly followed by guilt and possible self-loathing. 

Good habits, in contrast, feel pretty erm…good.

Every time you complete one, you get a warm inner glow like an amber bourbon on a cold winters night.

You know you’re slowly improving and making progress.

Even if that progress is imperceptible, you’re casting a vote for type of person you want to become.

Origins

Environment

Our environment has a significant bearing on our behaviour.

For example, if I have a juicy looking chocolate cookie on my desk wooing me with its sweet promises, I’m likely to pick it up and place it in my mouth, unthinking.

If I have a TV playing incredibly irritating Netflix teasers all day long, I’ll probably succumb to another episode.

In short, we’re constantly taking cues from our environment, which is subconsciously guiding our behaviour…

Either towards healthy or not-so-healthy habits.

Association 

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ― Jim Rohn

Like our environment, we’re also majorly influenced by those around us.

As an evolutionary response, social mimicry has proven extremely useful, allowing us to operate in ever-larger groups and develop friendly and sexy relationships to guarantee our safety and reproductive needs respectively.

However, our tendency to imitate those around us via mirror neurons backfires somewhat outside a survival context, especially if we’re associating with ne’er-do-wells. 

bad habit man eating cookie

Programming 

As we’ve just mentioned, the human animal is designed for two things; survival and reproduction.

At least according to our genes, which, having achieved those goals and ensured survival of our offspring, couldn’t care less about our fate.

However, in achieving those aims, we’ve been programmed with certain mental heuristics, or psychological rules of thumb.

Whenever we see a nice sugary treat, we want it, because this means we secure essential calories for survival.

Every time to see a voluptuous member of the opposite sex, we experience desire of the baby-making variety.

Each time we see a comfortable-looking sofa, we want to sit down and conserve energy.

These genetic stimuli are rather potent, and therefore, can easily perpetuate a string of bad habits that we must undercut using higher cognitive functioning.

Resistance

Like water, humans tend to follow the path of least resistance.

Again, much of this might be genetic, as we heed our fears and conserve energy for our survival and reproductive responsibilities.

As we’ve said, changing our behaviours in favour of growth-related habits is uncomfortable and scary.

The first time I wrote and published an article I experienced fear, my ego creating unfounded doubts and concerns.

Publishing an article wasn’t directly linked to my mortal survival, so it would have been easier not to do it.

Many people shy away from productive, beneficial habits for this very reason.

Motivation to change

From the above, you might get the impression that habits are sticky little devils, and you’d be right.

So, how do you change them?

Life shock

If we can guarantee anything in life, it’s that we’ll be blindsided at some point.

Perhaps you’re suddenly told by a doctor that you’ll die if you don’t exercise more and eat better. Or you suddenly discover you’re having a baby.

Such moments are often turning points, markers in the road that force us to lift our eyes from the asphalt, scan the horizon and question our most fundamental, cherished assumptions.

Such events are akin to resetting your system and applying a software update, before rebooting with a new set of habits and behaviours.

Non-negotiables 

Non-negotiables are essentially a mind hack for installing habits.

We all know that good habits lead to good outcomes, while the converse also holds true.

So why do so many people create grand new years resolutions, such as joining the gym, only to capitulate two weeks later?

Because we’re weak little snowflakes and change is hard.

Unless we experience the epiphany of a life shock to scare us into submission, it’s unlikely we’ll magic the motivation required to usurp entrenched behaviours without some tough love.

This is where non-negotiables come in.

They’re for people who are so sick of their current behaviour and so determined to make a change that they’ve drawn a line in the sand, marking their territory.

There’s no quibbling, no second-guessing and no going back.

They’re all-in and committed.

Choosing worthy rituals

Many of us struggle to make progress on our goals not because of weakness but uncertainty. 

We simply haven’t broken our plans down into manageable, repeatable actions according to order of importance. 

This is where you need a life plan which contains some sort of purpose.

Now, here’s the important thing…
 
We want to form the habits which move the needle the most.

That way we get a tangible reward from our hard work and are more likely to stick with the process. 

This might require constant monitoring to chart our progress and testing or installing new behaviours as needed. 

Of course, there are other perpetual habit-worthy activities that are grounded in first principles and human truths.
 
For me, a constant example is meditation. Not only does science support its use, but thousands of years of human practice demonstrate its place in sound mental hygiene.
 
Combined with my own experiences, this non-negotiable is a permanent feature on my daily to-do’s. 

yoga practice

How to stick to your habits

Muchos techniques exist for adopting better habits. Here are some examples:

Values

I’ve talked a length about the importance of values and ensuring that you act congruently with your worldview.

Choosing habits which align with the person you want to become is an essential part of making your new habits stickier than the old ones.

Identifying a purpose you want to pursue is invaluable in this process.

Planning

It’s all very well deciding you’re going to be the fittest 40-something around, but unless you reverse engineer your goal, nothing changes.

Work backwards from your ideal result and plan the steps required to get there. Follow up with scheduling.

Unless you know what you’ll do and when, transitory weakness will undoubtedly creep back in.

Research shows that we’re much more likely to follow through with a desired activity by scheduling its exact time and place.

Writing 

It helps to write this down exactly what you’re signing up for.

This could take the shape of a mission statement or granular goals, systems and daily actions.

Writing is a process of externalising what you want to achieve to hold yourself accountable.

Accountability

Seeking help from others is a surefire method to keep you on track.

Joining groups with common goals distributes the burden of behaviour change and provides added inspiration and input when you need it the most.

Environment

We’ve already talked about how our environment influences habits.

Therefore, we must examine our surroundings with a critical eye, making bad behaviours more difficult and good behaviours easier to implement.

This might include chucking the sugary treats in your house and replacing them with healthy snacks.

The effect?

We leverage my very own laziness law, which states that we can’t be bothered to make a special shopping trip to satisfy our sweet tooth.

Habit tracking

There are plenty of shiny little apps that provide a nice dopamine hit when we complete a daily habit.

By keeping track of your progress, you slowly build tangible evidence of your progress.

Most of these apps provide data for self-analysis along with your success rate for showing up and sticking to your system.

A popular one seems to be Streaks. I’ve also used Nomie, which is pretty cool (and open source).

Start small

Habit change can seem daunting, if not impossible, for lifelong behaviours.

So to make them seem more manageable, it’s essential to start ridiculously small.

If you have a deep loathing toward exercise, this might mean simply walking to the end of your street and back for the first few weeks.

Once you start to feel good about accomplishing this new habit, you can build from there.

Use cues

We humans are habit machines, partly because we associate one action with the next in one extended ritual.

Your morning routine might contain various associations, whereby the cue to dispense toothpaste for teeth cleaning was provided by your deliciously crunchy cereal.

You can use this tendency to your benefit with other habits.

For example, if you’re an office dweller, can you use getting up from your desk as a reminder to do a few squats?

Reward

We’re not robots (yet!) When you implement your new routine, pamper yourself with a healthy reward.

This sets up a nice little psychological feedback loop, and like Pavlov’s dog, we start salivating upon implementing our new routine.

I use a mid-morning coffee with satisfyingly frothy oat milk as my incentive to meditate and hit the gym, and it works a treat.

Ideal frequency

Personally, I get the most bang for my buck by following a daily practice.

It helps to grease the wheel religiously and become intimately familiar with your desired behaviour.

Every time you perform the activity it gets slightly easier as you re-trace the outline of a new identity.

This initiates a psychological phenomenon called consistency theory, whereby when we act in a certain way, we seek to maintain that self-image through continued repetition of the same behaviour.

Friends and family

New habits frequently require lifestyle re-design. 

While this might feel great for you, such enthusiasm might not be shared by your loved ones. 

This is especially true if your new behaviour threatens their own lifestyle choices and identity.

Habit formation requires minimal friction and exposure to old behaviours, such as seeing your partner supping on an impossibly hoppy craft beer, can result in pre-emptively falling off the wagon. 

So powwow with loved ones ahead of time, discuss your intentions and seek their support as you make your transition.

journaling ritual

Recommended routines

Obviously, everyone is different and what’s right for me isn’t identical for you.

There are, however, some fundamental areas of existence in which habits should play a primary role. 

Get them right and not only will you make progress on your goals, but also encourage wholesome feels of happiness. 

Health and wellbeing

Pretty obvious. Good health is the foundation of human flourishing, and like everything else, may only be fully appreciated once swallowed by the mists of time.

Investing in healthy habits like a nutritious diet and regular exercise are clearly beneficial, while mental hygiene, in the form of meditation, should also be considered.

Relationships

Humans are social animals and plenty of research extols the benefits of regular social connection.

Incorporating habits which bring you into contact with your fellow man counteracts loneliness and social isolation, the silent killers.

Purpose

Hopefully, you’ve uncovered an element of life which drives you.

Maybe it’s playing board games or making fistfuls of money.

Either way, implementing habits to fuel purposeful progress toward this end feels good.

Such routines should be easier to instil in areas you find genuinely rewarding, aiding the application of habits in more challenging domains.

Cornerstone rituals

The above recommendations are broad by design.

They focus on the fundamentals, and as such, when you nail a habit in a domain such as health, it inevitably cross-pollinates other areas, making habit change that much easier across the spectrum.

You’ve probably already experienced this.

When you perform a productive activity, like attending the gym, you might feel motivated to go shopping and clean the house.

What happened?

You temporarily embrace a productive identity and proceed to act consistently with that persona. 

Use this effect to your advantage and focus on the core components of happiness and wellbeing first.

What if you break the routine?

Then you have to bow down to the habit demon and make a suitable sacrifice.

It’s life…things crop up and inevitably we not flawless with our new routines. 

A missed day here and there doesn’t reverse the consistency principle of our developing identity. 

However, if you let one day become two and then slide into three and four, you risk slipping into unwanted habits.

Rather than becoming despondent, if you miss your habit for the day, there’s a simple rule; never miss twice.

In this way, we’re liberated from the pressure of perfectionism.

Rather than aiming for a perfect score, we know that even after temporary blips, we can get back on track.

It’s not about results

It might sound surprising, but to me, results are somewhat secondary. 

As I mentioned earlier, it’s about becoming the type of person who does what they say they will. 

There is power in your commitment and although drawing a line in the sand doesn’t always guarantee success, you’ll evolve into the type of person who feels capable of setting targets and adopting the necessary behaviours to work towards them.

Summary

Habits make or break a life.

You can either procrastinate on your biggest goals or become a productivity machine.
 
Where we end up isn’t down to chance, but ultimately decisions made and actions taken.

The habits we instil are a declaration of who we are and where we want to go.

And by investing in the right ones today, we ensure a better tomorrow.

atomic habits summary

Recommended reading

If you want to read a book on the topic, check out the habit bible in all its sciencey goodness; Atomic Habits by James Clear.



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