Have you ever read an article titled something like “successful people do these 5 things” or “5 things to do every day for success”? Maybe you started to read one of those articles, finished the preamble, then told yourself “They make it sound so easy…”?
Maybe you read a little further. Maybe you finished the article. You told yourself that you can do one, two or all those things. Got home from work, set the timer on your coffee pot, and decided to get up early and change your life. But then… snooze button, snooze button, snooze button, and suddenly you’re back to your normal routine. Old habits really do die hard. We can understand why making a particular change to our routine would improve our lives. But why is that so hard, why do we feel not-in-control of our own actions sometimes?
Much of what we do is decided by our minds' process of deliberation vs impulse. We all deliberate, we take time to decide what we do, say, and think. This part of our brain takes effort, knowledge, and intention.
Then there is the other part of our brain that is impulse driven. It acts spontaneously and doesn't take effort or consideration. It operates out of habit, a settled and regular tendency or routine.
The constant decision making you do throughout the day; what shirt you wear or where you set your keys, these types of actions are determined by the relationship of these two processes.
The relative strength of these systems within different environments dictates how we go about our daily activities. The more regular, repetitive, and familiar an action or mindset is, the stronger our impulse system is in that situation. Each time you repeat an action, and each time your mind revisits a thought or feeling, the more automatic that behavior becomes. Forming “habitual behavior” that requires little or no thought and is presented with less and less resistance from the deliberation part of our brain. We all know WHAT habits are, but I say this to explain just how POWERFUL habits are. They can literally take the decision making out of our hands.
Our day is made up of thousands of small decisions.
Think through a part of your day today and try to list out every decision you made:
Did you stretch before getting out of bed or after?
When did you brush your teeth?
What clothes did you wear?
Did you have coffee at home or wait until you got to work?
What about since you started reading this article?
Are you constantly deciding to keep going or stop?
Have you chosen to either check or ignore a notification on your phone?
Did you change your position a little bit?
How long before you looked away from the screen, scratched an itch, took a drink?
You can imagine how long that list will get if you write down every decision you made in a whole day! Some studies suggest that we make around 35,000 decisions each day. Think about that: if you sleep for 6 hours, then divide 35,000 decisions by the 18 remaining hours in a day - break it down by minutes - that theory posits we make over 30 decisions per minute (or 1 decision every 2 seconds!).
Now, not every single decision you make carries the same weight. Many of them may not matter at all. However, most of them do make a difference. The small decisions you make each day compound and build to result in the product you get at the end of the day. This includes the way you feel. We decide how we react/think/feel throughout the day. Did you decide to get annoyed when you hit every red light during your commute? Did you decide to be understanding with that coworker who is always late? Did you feel relaxed when you got home and put your sweats on?
Just like actions, your feelings can be habitual. If you regularly get annoyed by something - or regularly feel energized in a location. That is likely because you have repeated that action over and over and your brain learned to recognize its cue for when it's time to automatically decide to revisit that feeling.
So once again, let me say how powerful habits are. The types of articles I mentioned at the top of this page like “what do successful people do each day” or some variation of that, are accurate.
Imagine if every pre-programmed decision that your brain makes without consulting you first was positive, motivating, healthy decisions? The compound results of that would be massive!
And also like I said at the top of this page, “they make it sound so easy…”. How do we break old habits and reinvent new habits to replace them? Habits that would nudge ourselves in the direction of a healthy choice for lunch or a kind reaction towards others.
Change takes work, and usually a well laid plan to go along with that work. Here are just a few things we can all do to start towards creating positive habits:
Identify where you would like to make a change but keep it small.
You can’t plan without setting some goals. But focus on small things to start; like waking up a little earlier or keeping your desk better organized. Keeping these goals and changes small will help you find success in them, which will motivate you for the next change. Biting off more than you can manage may end in discouragement and mental fatigue.
Try to avoid being over ambitious - this is probably not the time to start a diet and go to the gym twice a day, but it may be the time to start taking a walk every other day!
2. Consider making a change to your environment.
Habits are triggered by cues that tell your brain it's time to make a decision in that moment. These cues can become very regular within a set environment. The more regular our brain receives a cue and follows it up with a repeated action, the more automatic that action becomes.
If you are trying to get up earlier but struggle to hear your alarm clock or struggle staying away from the snooze button - consider getting a new alarm clock that sounds different and place it in a different location of your room. Next time your alarm sounds, your brain will have to slow down for a second and ask you what this new sound is that is coming from a new spot. The decision would become less automatic, and your deliberation system would be asked to check in.
We need to make changes to our environment to slow our brain down from making impulse decisions and give ourselves a chance to adjust the direction of our choices.
3. Be compassionate to yourself.
Developing healthy habits and routines is a journey. It doesn't happen in a day, and it certainly involves struggles. When you do falter and revert to a bad habit, that is okay - that is normal! We need to extend ourselves grace and compassion in order to find the courage to try again. Be proactive in this exercise, regularly recognize the areas you are improving - no matter how small - and share with the people around you, write it in your journal, and reward yourself for those victories.
Change is hard but rewarding! Remind yourself that improvement starts with self-awareness and the transforming of your habits.
The power of stringing together many small choices is huge. Replacing old habits with new, positive habits is where we start to change our lifestyle, build consistency, see results, and ultimately achieve our goals and dreams.