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Forming new habits

Updated: Apr 10

We are what we do on a daily basis. Our habits, both good and bad, become a part of us and define our lifestyle. So if there’s something in your life you’re not so happy about, the prime suspects that need to be looked at first of all-are things we do every day. Or things we don’t do.

Habit forming process 1.01:

Habit is a strong neuro connection, a path of some sort, which is like a well lit highway for our brain. When you need to get from point A to point B, that’s the route it takes-familiar, comfortable, easy. With a reward on the finish line.

Everything that happened to become our habit is associated with survival for our brain and releases a good dose of hormones of pleasure. The stronger the connection is, the tighter our brain holds onto it. The problem here is that any nonsense action, that turns into a habit, becomes one of a vital importance, regardless of how useless or even harmful it is.

In this case forming a new habit is like going off-road after cruising on a highway. You’ll have to create a new route, avoid all the bumps and pits, shake going over the uneven parts over and over again until it becomes nice and smooth. Forming a new habit is just as hard as driving over the off road trail until it becomes smooth like a highway.

Even more so it’s true for those habits that go against our brain’s job to keep and accumulate energy, for they don’t stimulate the immediate release of pleasure hormones. That’s why healthy habits are so hard to install - positive results often come with effort and limitations. Including limiting pleasure hormones that we get when we eat candy.

In other words, it’s not so easy.

You have to patiently train your brain to start synthesizing those hormones from performing an action that hadn’t stimulate their production before. And that only comes from repetition. Relentless, stubborn and constant repetition.

Forming new behavioral habits or even lifestyle takes a lot and so very little at the same time: being patient with yourself, with your rate of change and your weaknesses. That’s exactly where so many of us fail, trying to reach the goal as fast as they can and skip the whole process, when the process is what determines the result. Lack of patience is what often causes the failure. Instead of taking it easy and keeping moving forward like nothing happened, people shame themselves, and being caught up in the “all or nothing” game, they just drop everything and give up.

Forming a new habit is a psychological marathon. If you go too fast at the start, you're more likely to get exhausted and not get to the finish line. Practicing a new habit is not supposed to be easy at the beginning. And it won’t be.

Developing a new skill you gradually get used to it. Your mind needs some time to absorb that new part of you. First you collect information. Then over the time that information turns into knowledge, acquires some structure and then finds evidence in your experience.

All. That. Takes. Time.

In some cases months, in some-years. It depends on a complexity of a new habit. The simple ones like “drink a glass of water right after waking up” easily become a part of our routine in a matter of 21 days. Now the more complex ones, the ones that include multiple actions and steps (like working out regularly, studying after work, healthy eating) take months or even years to form.

How can you help the process? Here are couple tips.

1. 10 minute or 10 percent rule.

Trying to adapt too many new habits at once will take you nowhere. When the drastic changes we introduce are not caused by absolute necessity and don't help you survive, they won’t stick. Taking small steps works way better. So how is it done?

Pick one or two new simple habits and make it your priority to stick to those until they become a part of you. You want to build it slowly, laying one brick after another, instead of glueing paper walls together and have them be blown away by the first gust of wind.

  • The 10 minute rule works great when you want to make a new habit. The idea here is to turn it into something you do effortlessly, like it’s not a big deal-working out, studying etc. Start with dedicating 10 minutes daily doing that, and only when you get used to it, increase the time.

  • The 10% rule is perfect for improving the already existing habits. You take small, 10% steps: if your goal is to eat better- start with skipping a dessert, late dinner or just substitute vegetables for unhealthy sides. The rest stays the same until that new 10% change become a norm, something automatic. Then you add something else and something else..

This technique helps seeds of a new habit put their roots down into your life and guarantee that you’ll stick to it.

2. Defining the old habit triggers.

A lot of things we think and do come from our subconscious. So it’s fair to say that once we become aware of it we can control it. Bring the old habit triggers up to the conscious level. What and how do you get the signals that tell you to behave not in the way you want to? That won’t solve the issue per se, but will give you the option to choose differently and control that impulse. You’ll get a chance to change the old habit and start behaving in the way that’s better for you.

How do you do that?

  • Track down the moment when the trigger occurs.

  • Try to figure out the reasons that cause that trigger.

  • Redirect that impulse towards the behavior that you choose.

3. Be proactive.

The more obstacles are there on the way to forming a new habit you can foresee, the higher are the chances that you’ll get around them. We tend to get too optimistic when we decide to “start tomorrow” and we forget about everything that’s been getting in our way. Past obstacles will present themselves slightly different this time, and if you don’t recognize and neutralize them, you’ll get the same outcome again.

What do you do? Define:

  • What stopped you from sticking to your habit in the past?

  • What can get in the way this time?

  • How can you avoid or prevent that?

4. Preparation is the key!

When you form a new habit, you give your brain a hard work to do-to build new neuro connections, your job here is to create perfect conditions for that. It can’t withstand external forces just yet.

How often have you skipped the gym because you didn’t have an outfit ready? How many times have you made yourself a PBJ simply because there weren’t any greens and vegetables in your fridge? How many time you’ve skipped studying because you haven’t eliminated distractions all around you?

At the early stages we do have to babysit our habits. Later on it will become strong enough to overcome conditions far from ideal. And then it will be so natural for you, you won’t be able NOT to do that because it will be a part of you. But you have to get there first.

To make this process easier, you can support your new behavior with positive emotions. I talk about it in the article “NLP technique “Anchoring”. Anchor your happiness”. There I describe how to create resourceful emotional state anchors, and by associating those with your new habit, it’ll get easier to install them.

Photo by Jose Grjalva

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