How To Master Good Habits

Your life is essentially a sum of your habits.  Which is why you’ll probably never fulfill your New Year’s resolutions.

Let me explain.

A habit is something you do without thinking.  It’s deep in your subconscious mind, and when you’re presented with a specific “cue”, your brain automatically triggers a habit tied to that cue.  Sometimes you’re aware of this reaction, but many times not.

That habit is also connected to some kind of reward:  a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of relief, a desire for comfort, or even a bowl of ice cream.

But a resolution is only an intention or decision to do or not do something.  It’s not yet tied to a trigger or a reward in your brain.  So, when you “resolve” to save more money, you’re basically relying on pure willpower (which, can be a habit, but most people haven’t developed it).

In other words, it’s not enough just to decide you’re going to save more.  You must ultimately address the negative habit that is the barrier to that new behavior.

This is because old habits cannot be eradicated – they can only be changed.


How To Change A Habit

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that self-awareness is key.  Once you understand the trigger and reward of a specific habit, you’re already halfway to changing it.

After you’ve identified the “barrier” habit that’s keeping you from a new behavior, determine what causes that habit to activate.

For example, saving money is a good financial habit to master.  But the habit of spending money can be a barrier.  What triggers you to spend money?

Maybe it’s TV commercials, or having cash in your wallet, or getting a coupon in the mail.  Any (or all) of these could send a cue to your brain that it’s time to spend money.

Once you receive this cue, you automatically want to go online or to the store and buy something.  Why is that?

Because your brain has gotten used to the reward you receive when you carry out this routine.  In fact, as soon as you experience a trigger, your brain automatically starts craving that reward.

The tricky thing can be figuring out exactly what reward you’re craving.  In this example, the reward is not actually the item you’re buying.  Instead, it could be the feeling you get when you buy something new.  A rush of dopamine, a surge of excitement, a sense of anticipation, etc.

It’s the craving that drives the behavior between the cue and the reward.  And if you can swap out a different behavior, but keep the same cue and reward, then you’ve essentially “rebuilt” your habit.

For example, every time you’re triggered to spend money, you could transfer a certain dollar amount into your savings account instead.  Over time, you’ll see your balance go up, and your brain will crave the “excitement” that comes with seeing your savings grow and the “anticipation” of paying cash for your dream vacation.

This strategy can be used for any habit you want to change.  By learning to recognize the cues, cravings and rewards of your current habits, you can transform them into ones that are more productive.

And more productive habits means a more productive life.


How To Develop New Habits

Most of us don’t lose weight because we eat too much.  Or we don’t read more because we watch too much television.  We want to have better habits but old habits get in the way.

But what if you want to do something completely new?  What if there is no barrier and you just want to develop a new habit?

Maybe you get enough sleep every night, are an early riser, but you’re just not very productive in the mornings.  You decide you want to start jogging before you eat breakfast.

To develop this new habit, you first need to create a trigger.  That could be as simple as lacing up your sneakers, or putting your earbuds in.

Next, identify a reward.  At first, it might be something tangible, like a fruit smoothie or logging your miles.  But over time the reward might change to the high you get after a 30-minute run.

These two things are enough to get you started, but not enough to sustain the new behavior.  In order to make this new routine a strong habit, your brain needs to crave the reward.  Remember, it’s the craving that drives the behavior.

To build this craving, think about and anticipate the reward.  Visualize yourself experiencing the reward, and build a sense of anticipation.  In this way, you’re developing a craving that will become so strong, willpower isn’t even needed.

Anyone can use this formula to develop new habits.  Once your brain is programmed to crave a certain reward, the behavior to get that reward will be automatic.

And that’s when those New Year’s resolutions will be like second nature.


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