Your brain is like a supercomputer, but someone forgot to hand you the user manual. Now you’re left trying to figure out this tech on your own. How do you use your supercomputer brain to hack your daily habits?
This blog is your “Quick Guide to Habit Hacking”.
1. WHY DO WE FORM HABITS?
We are creatures of habit. Around 70%-95% of our daily behaviour is habitual.1 That means only 5%-30% of our daily behaviours are conscious choices. Our habits range from the minute (like which side of the bed you roll out of each morning or brushing your teeth before bed) to the substantial (like whether you engage in regular exercise or the communication you maintain with loved ones). “In a nutshell your health, wealth, happiness, fitness, and success depend on your habits” 2
We make about 35,000 decisions a day.3 If your supercomputer brain had to manually step through each of those decisions it would get overwhelmed and crash. Call IT! We need to turn it off and back on again!
Thankfully, your supercomputer is smart (cancel that call to IT!). Your brain automates frequently occurring behaviours to preserve energy and streamline its processes. Think of a time of day when you have such a set routine that you don’t think about the steps, it just flows. Maybe it’s your morning routine. What happens when you get to the kitchen? Do you eat your breakfast while packing lunches? You’re in the zone and you know you need to get through X number of steps in a specific order to get out the door on time.
Each time your brain runs a habit sequence it’s been triggered by a behaviour or stimulus. For example, you wake up Monday morning so your supercomputer runs the “workday morning routine” sequence or the kids are *finally* asleep so the “grab the snacks and hit the couch” sequence launches.
The more you repeat a behaviour the more automatic it becomes until eventually its second nature. That is, something you do frequently without needing to think about it. Like switching on the coffee machine first thing of a morning.
This automation is how your supercomputer allows you to focus on big picture items that need your conscious attention. Like that big project you’re working on (go for it!) or the plans you’re making for the weekend (enjoy!).
2. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO FORM A HABIT?
The “21 days to form a new habit” thing? Total. Myth. It can take anywhere from 3 weeks to a year to form a new habit.4 How long it takes you to form a new habit depends on:
If you’re a person that likes routine then forming a new habit is going to come more naturally.
If you’re introducing a small habit into your routine (like taking 10 deep breaths) you’re going to find this much easier to stick to than something more complex like cutting all dairy, gluten, and caffeine from your diet.
By consistently practicing the new behaviour you’re actually strengthening the neural pathway to form that habit. If you’re trying to oust a bad habit the more you don’t do the old behaviour the more you’re weakening that neural pathway so that overtime it’s no longer habitual.
So how do you use this information to hack your habits?
3. SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
Work out exactly what habit you’re trying to form (or break) and why
Drill down to the specific behaviour you want to form as a habit, or the habitual behaviour you want to break.
Do you want to add 10 deep breaths into your day? Why is this important to you? Are you reducing stress? Why is it important to you to reduce stress? Is it the health risks associated with stress? Are you looking to improve performance? Enjoy your day more? Pinpoint all the reasons why forming the habit is important to you.
Do you want to stop having that afternoon refined sugar hit? Why is this important to you? Do you want to reduce the associated health risks? Why is reducing those health risks important to you? Do you want to live longer? Sleep better? Pinpoint all the reasons why breaking the habit is important to you.
When identifying why forming or breaking a habit is important, be honest with yourself. You’re unlikely to stick with a habit that doesn’t align with your values. How successful are people in quitting a habit because they’ve been nagged about it? How successful are people in quitting a habit because they genuinely want that change? “If your habits don’t line up with your dream, then you need to either change your habits or change your dream” 6
Identify your trigger behaviour
Identify the behaviour that will trigger your new habit, or the behaviour that triggers the existing habit you’re trying to break.
When introducing a new habit you can choose to implement that behaviour at a specific time and day or you can choose to add the new habit onto an existing one. For example:
If choosing to add the habit then choose an appropriate existing habit. 10 deep breaths after opening your curtains is achievable and appropriate. 10 deep breaths in the middle of a client meeting maybe not so much. Find the right habit for your goal.
Commit to either a time and day or habit add. Don’t give yourself the option of one or the other. You must be consistent to strengthen the trigger to form the habit. You want to build a strong and efficient neural pathway.
If you are trying to break an existing habit, like the afternoon sugar hit, pinpoint the behaviour that triggers that habit. Do you automatically eat biscuits with your afternoon coffee? You can choose to swap the existing behaviour with a new one or break the trigger. For example:
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going” 7
Track your progress and adapt as needed
If you are looking to implement large scale behavioural changes look at our Your plan for wellness success: grow what you sow blog. That blog gives you the practical steps and framework to confidently and consistently move forward with achieving your goal.
Give yourself time and be gentle with yourself. Remember it takes anywhere from 3 weeks to a year to form a new habit.8 Forming a new neural pathway or weakening an existing one is not an overnight success story.
If you get a ways down the road and are still struggling, take time to reflect on whether you need to adapt your plan. Do you need to change the time and day you’ve chosen to implement the new behaviour? The habit you’re adding to? Etc
“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good” 9. No need to punish yourself if you’re not hitting 100% with implementing your new behaviour or breaking the old one. All is not lost by missing a day or two. Recommit to yourself. Every time you practice the new behaviour or omit the old one you’re making a deposit in creating or erasing that neural pathway. With enough deposits you will have a healthy habit account.
Each day counts. Don’t wait for Monday, next month, or New Years, start NOW! “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great” 10
4. WANT MORE ABOUT HABITS?
If you don’t believe your brain is capable of big change then read Norman Doidge’s The brain that changes itself about the plasticity of the brain. Truly incredible and awe inspiring.
This blog is not medical or health advice. Medical or health advice must be sought from a health professional. This blog is intended for general educational purposes, to further the discussion on wellness, and to encourage you to find your happy. Be a wellness warrior. You are in control of your life. Make changes today and work towards a future of your design.
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