Building Habits

Most of our behaviour is founded on habit. Whether we are morning people, organised people, late people or fit people. It is pretty much owing to the habits we have formed and practise daily.

You will probably have heard of the phrase Practise makes Perfect but in reality it’s Practise makes Permanent. Whatever you do on a daily basis becomes a habit and by that can become a permanent feature of your life, whether that’s eating sugar, sitting with a hunched back or working until the early hours.

We’re going to look at the science of habit formation. Why we do what we do and more interestingly, how we can change our ingrained habits. By the end of you will have a greater understanding of the science of habit formation, you will feel able to alter those habits that are not helping you and you will be able to move forwards in life without being frustrated by the habits that are holding you back.

The Psychology of Habit

The psychological understanding of habit has developed hugely in the last few years. We’re going to look at how habits work and what we can do to understand more clearly why we do what we do and more importantly what we can do to change habits that are getting in the way of our success.

By the end you will have much greater knowledge of why we do what we do. You will feel much more equipped to challenge the habits you want to change and you will be able to switch out the damaging behavioural aspect of a habit and replace it with one that is more beneficial to you and your goals.

How do habits work?

All habits are comprised of 3 factors:

The cue is something that acts as a trigger, so say you enjoy a glass of wine on an evening, the cue could be getting the kids to bed, or closing down your laptop at the end of that day’s work. Or, if you exercise every morning the cue might be getting up. The cue is what makes you desire your habit to play out. The routine is the part where the habit plays out, so the routine is the glass of wine, or the exercise in the earlier examples. The reward is then the emotional reward that you get from the carrying out of the routine. So it might be relaxation at the end of a long day for the glass of wine, or some ‘me’ time where you don’t have to please anyone else for the first time that day. For the exercise habit the reward is the endorphins that you get in your brain following exercise. Endorphins make you feel good so you are experiencing the sensation of a reward by doing the exercise.

I’m going to explain a habit that a client of ours had and then I’d like you to identify what the cue, the routine and the reward are in his habit. So this client, let’s call him Bob, used to get a breakfast bacon sandwich whenever he was travelling anywhere, whether it was from a lay-by greasy spoon cafe, or a service station on the motorway, whenever he was travelling he would get one. It was a habit he was trying to break as he was trying to lose weight and become healthier. So what is the cue, the routine and the reward in this situation?

So what is Bob’s cue? Bob’s cue is setting off early morning on a journey. If he wasn’t setting off early he wouldn’t get a sandwich.

What then is the routine? Well the routine is eating the sandwich - this is what Bob wanted rid of.

What is the reward? Well most people say eating the sandwich is the reward but it’s not. It’s most likely an emotional thing that’s the reward. The reward in this case was that Bob regarded the bacon sandwich as a ‘treat’ when he was up early driving to a site. It was an emotional reward for getting up extra early and setting off on a long journey. It was saying well done, you deserve this for your commitment to your job. Bob felt pleased with himself so was rewarding himself with a treat.

So now that you have a bit more knowledge about the psychology of a habit I’d like you to think of one habit that you have that you’d like to get rid of? I’d like you to identify what your cue is, your routine, and your reward.

In order to change habits that we’re not happy with we first need to identify their constituent parts. We need to do this because what we’re going to do is look to change the routine part of the habit while maintaining the reward. We therefore need to have an idea about what the reward we currently get from our habit is. If it’s relaxation we can replace the routine with something else we find relaxing. So if you have a glass of wine on an evening to signal to your brain that work and childcare etc is over for the day then you could signal this with a nice cup of tea and put your feet up for 15 minutes. Or meditation or a yoga sequence, or a walk, or flicking through a magazine, watching something on TV, scrolling through instagram, whatever it is that you find relaxing. The wine is merely a prop. You think you need it to relax but you don’t, you just need an activity that signals the end of the working day to you.

So, have a think about your habit. Is there something else you could do that could replace the routine and still provide the reward that you would like?

According to research it takes 60 days on average to change a habit. It’s very difficult to get rid of a habit completely, in fact some people think it’s impossible, but it’s easier to change the routine associated with it. The thing is you don’t have to know what it is you can change it to immediately, you might have to try a couple of things. When I decided to get rid of my, almost nightly alcohol, I replaced it with a cup of peppermint tea. At the start of it I didn’t think for a moment that peppermint tea would cut it, but it did. I was surprised. All I really wanted was permission to sit down, to relax and to have a bit of me time. The alcohol supported that because it signalled to others too that I was now off duty but in reality the peppermint tea served just as well.

And the thing is, our beliefs matter greatly. I was happy to give the tea a go but many people won’t bother if they don’t think that it’ll work. But it’s important that we acknowledge the cycle of belief that exists and how this can be detrimental to our trying other behaviours. The cycle of belief goes like this. Your beliefs drive your behaviour and then your behaviour creates your experience, which then reinforces your belief.

A friend of mine once told me that she ‘can’t go on holiday without drinking’, it just wouldn’t be a holiday. This was when I suggested a yoga trip for us. So let’s have a think, How does this feed into our habits? If you think of my friend, let’s call her Jane. Jane believes she can’t go on holiday without having a drink, so she then only goes on holidays where she can drink, this then creates her experience of holidays as a time when you have a drink and enjoy yourself, which reinforces her belief that you can’t have a proper holiday without a drink.

But the reality is that if she had come on the yoga trio with me she would have found that not drinking was also very relaxing and that she came back from a yoga trip much more relaxed than from a normal holiday where she had been drinking every day. Not only that but there was no post holiday blues in the same way, and no holiday weight gain. Yes, it’s a different type of holiday but it’s still relaxing.

Let’s have a think about habits in terms of work now. What kinds of habits do we have in the workplace?

So, habits that we often see in the workplace are that people sit in the same place every day, they have lunch at the same place every day, with the same people, at the same time. We also might work in the same pattern every day, we might drive the same way there, we might listen to the same radio station. We might always ask the same people for their opinions. While some of these habits might be because they’re an effective way of working they might just be habits that have established themselves in a mindless way. By mindless I mean the opposite of mindful. Often when I ask people why they do something the way they do it they don’t know, it’s not been a mindful decision, it’s just been something that they have always done. It’s important that we review what we do regularly so that any behaviours we have just fallen into don’t carry on if they’re not bringing about the results that we want. It’s the same with habits. We need to have a think about the habits we have formed and what they are adding to our lives. Are they what I want to be? Or are they holding me back?

While we’re looking at only one habit in this lesson, what I would like you to do is review all your habits and think whether they are helping you or holding you back. But before you go off and do that I’d like to delve into your subconscious mind.

Our Subconscious mind is the powerhouse of our behaviours. Our conscious mind is responsible for only 5% of our behaviours while our subconscious mind is responsible for the other 95%. If you think of an iceberg, the huge power of the mass underneath the water cannot be ignored, it drives the direction of the visible section while being seemingly invisible. In many ways our subconscious mind can hold us back without us realising it by creating self-limiting beliefs that hold you back. These can be created by experience or by something someone said in the past that might have created a wound of some sort and that has unknowingly been driving your behaviour or stopping you from doing something perhaps without you knowing.

So how can we find out what our self limiting beliefs are? Well we need to listen to our inner voice and to do that we need to listen to what goes on in our mental chatter. So what does your little voice say to you when you are feeling a bit down, or when you haven’t done quite as well as you wanted to. So take a minute or so to have a think, what is it that your own mind beats you up about when you listen to it.

There’s a quote that I love, it sums up how we must take control of the little voice inside our head:

"Every facet, every department of your mind, is to be programmed by you. And unless you assume your rightful responsibility, and begin to programme your own mind, the world will program it for you.” — Jack Kornfield

So, have a think about that. “Every facet, every department of your mind, is to be programmed by you. And unless you assume your rightful responsibility, and begin to programme your own mind, the world will program it for you.” It is completely relevant when we speak about habits because by succumbing to habit and not behaviour that we have actively decided to do we are simply letting the world program our lives.

So, have a think through your whole life, at home and at work and list the habits that you want to change. Then think, What are their constituent parts? How can I change the routine so it’s something that benefits me or benefits me more? When you have done that you need to think about the challenges that are associated with changing those habits, so what self-limiting beliefs might get in the way? It might be "I'm no good at public speaking, or I can't run, or no one would take me seriously". How can you prevent this? And what practical issues might get in the way - try and sort these out too.

So, list the habits that you want to change, at home and at work. Then identify their constituent parts. How can you change the routine so it’s something that benefits you or benefits you more but still gives you the same emotional reward? When you have done that you need to think about the challenges that are associated with changing those habits, so what self-limiting beliefs might get in the way? How can you prevent this?

Then start with one habit straight away. Don’t start them all. That’s setting yourself up for failure. Just start with one and then next week add in the changes to another one and so one, until you have slowly but definitely changed your habits and thus your life. Use the system of Stepping Stone Goals to help you keep it in mind all the time and move forwards every week. Remember it takes on average 60 days to change a habit. Give yourself the best shot. Don’t give up and berate yourself if you fail one day, just start again the next. If you can deliver your new routine 80% of the time you’re well on your way to developing a new better habit.

The Problem with Willpower

I’m going to talk about willpower and the problem with relying on it when delivering behavioural change.

By the end of this section you will have a greater understanding of willpower. You will feel the importance of building good habits that support a healthy and effective life and you will be ready to change out those bad habits for good.

You see the problem with willpower is that it’s finite. There is only a certain amount we can rely on it in any one day. Research shows that this is true, that willpower is a muscle that can be and is depleted throughout the day as we go through our busy lives.

Most people don’t realise but with every decision you make you deplete your willpower. It’s not just about resisting cake and biscuits. You also deplete your willpower when you have to stay at your desk working on a tricky issue, or when you are stopping yourself looking at your phone for some light relief. So many of our activities require us to use our willpower that it makes sense to bypass this when we can. That’s where habits come in. If you create a new habit by replacing an old routine with a new one then you bypass the system of willpower and use the system of association. If your trigger for a bad habit is that you come in from work, and your old routine used to be to have a glass of wine, but your new routine is to have a cup of tea, then you’re not using willpower to abstain from the wine, you are using the psychological make up of a habit to unlearn old behaviour and learn new. Your brain will very soon associate your finishing work with a sit down and a nice cup of tea. The emotional reward of relaxation will be associated with the tea and not the wine.

So, what I want you to do now is to write down a list of things you think, or you know, you use willpower for throughout the day.

When you have your list, what I’d like you to do is have a think about whether you can replace the use of willpower for any of those activities and create good habits instead. For instance when I’m working on something that doesn’t excite me I really have to use willpower to stick at it. For the last year or so I have started using the pomodoro technique with almost every big piece of work I have to do. The pomodoro technique for those of you who don’t know is one where you work for about 45 minutes then have a ten minute or so break and then get straight back to it again. I do this throughout the day when necessary and this means I get through my work without having to use willpower. The ‘burst’ of activity that I use, 45 minutes, is typically the length of my concentration when I’m working at my laptop. So it takes no willpower to keep doing it for 45 minutes, but if I were to stay for an hour or so then the last bit of that time would take willpower, depleting my resource unnecessarily. And then I might find it harder to resist biscuits later on in the day.

Because of this depletion throughout the day it is harder to resist things later in the day. It might explain why you find it so hard not to raid the fridge on an evening, or why going out for a run after work is harder than going out for a run before work. There are various things at play here but willpower is one of the big issues.

Use the psychology of habit in order to bypass willpower depletion and pave your way to a better more effective and happier life.