Executive Summary: Habitual Mastery is a very efficacious and delicate process. It is a process that requires self-discipline and a strategic mindset. Only a few have managed to pursue it consistently, but those are the ones that enjoy a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle.
I want you to consider the following parable for a second.
A woodcutter strained to saw down a tree. A young man who was watching asked “What are you doing?”
“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”
The young man was unabashed. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”
The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.
The young man pushed back… “If you sharpen the saw, you would cut down the tree much faster.”
The woodcutter said “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”
I first came across this parable in the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey. Covey uses it in order to showcase the message of the 7th habit – Sharpen the Saw. In his words:
“Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle.”
Covey was a really smart guy. He understood from a very young age that one can never experience an effective lifestyle if one doesn’t familiarize himself with a simple yet powerful idea – The idea of habits.
Habits are present throughout our everyday lives. They are the reason we fail but also the reason we succeed. They are the reason we are effective but also the reason we are ineffective. They are the reason we are happy but also the reason we are extremely dissatisfied with our lives.
Covey could have easily used the word trait instead of habit for the title of his book. He chose not to do it. He did so because he knew that trait is quite a general world; a word that cannot be related to effectiveness.
He knew that effectiveness can only be achieved by adopting a concrete and established mindset; a mindset that one can adopt only by understanding the powerful idea of habit.
And that’s what we are going to scrutinize in this article.
We are going to talk about good habits and bad habits.
We are going to discuss how you can make effective behaviors last and how to gradually eliminate bad habits that suck the life out of you.
We are going to challenge your beliefs and your creativity.
And finally we are going to employ, science, storytelling, and humor, all to serve one important goal – Make the power of habit a tool for a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle.
THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE
Last week I tried to convince my flatmates to adopt a more conscious mindset with regards to our recycling habits. I live in Austria at the moment and for Austrians, recycling is a big deal.
I was raised in Greece and later on I moved to the UK and none of the two countries cultivate a recycling-conscious mindset to their citizens. After moving to Austria however, I became accustomed to the Austrian approach and decided to adopt this environmental-friendly mindset.
I discussed the matter with my flatmates and all of us agreed to start recycling. We divided the waste into 4 categories – paper, plastic, aluminum and general waste. The paper and the general waste bins were placed in front of the sink and the plastic and aluminum bins were placed inside the cabinet underneath the sink.
Everything seemed perfectly organized and I was extremely pleased that our recycling habit would start to take effect.
A couple of days after our agreement, however I started noticing that someone was throwing beverage cans and plastic packages in the general waste bin. I asked one of my flatmates and he admitted that he did it.
When I asked him to explain the reason behind this he said that although he is willing to adopt our new mindset, whenever he wants to throw away a beverage can or something made out of plastic, he becomes lazy and decides to follow the path of least resistance.
Throwing the waste inside the bin that is in front of him seems way more effortless than opening the cabin door and throwing it in the right bin.
I can’t blame him. I actually felt the same every time I was about to throw away a beverage can or something made out of plastic.
But why is that? Why is it that every time we decide to start a new habit our mind raises a mental fence between us and the new habit, thus making us more resistant to it.
Thomas B. Ward is a professor of psychology at the university of Alabama and his research focuses on the nature of concepts, including how they are acquired, structured, combined, and used in creative and noncreative endeavors. In his paper called “The Role of Specificity and Abstraction in Creative Idea Generation Specificity and Abstraction in Creative Generation,” he points out that when we think about anything, we follow the path of least resistance.
Former experience is a guide for us to automatically categorize every situation. Even if we are excited about starting something new, our memory drives us back to previously adopted methods. Especially when it comes to creativity, our efforts are thwarted before we even decide to take action.
In an experiment conducted back in 2004, Ward and his assistants asked a group of participants to perform creative tasks like drawing aliens. Often without realizing it, most people start with a familiar animal and then modify it to create the new one. As a result, almost all of the drawings have key properties of animals on Earth such as symmetry, eyes, and legs.
Everything we do in life is governed by past experience. Events of our past and specific things we have learned, act as mental guides in order for us to solve mental problems. Therefore, whenever we are faced with a new task and especially if this task requires some novelty to be deployed, our mind fails to recognize this process as familiar and decides to follow the path of least resistance.
The path of least resistance can be a huge hurdle in one’s pursuit of a more effective and purposeful lifestyle. In some situations, it can actually be so big that past experiences won’t allow us to move on in fundamental areas our lives like starting new relationships or testing new ideas.
In such events, therapy is usually the most commonly suggested method because through therapy you can access part of your subconscious where a specific memory is stored and eventually identify the problem before deciding to tackle it.
In simpler events, however, like the one with my flatmates and our recycling habit, therapy might sound like an extreme measure.
Nevertheless, the main principles that apply in therapy can be used in tackling simpler problems we encounter every day and are leading us to the path of least resistance.
Every new idea you have is rooted in one or more old ideas you have encountered in the past. So, when you find yourself in a creative rut, you need to start thinking about which of your memories is influencing your creativity. Why are you interpreting the creative problem you are solving in the way you are? What aspects of your experience are driving you in that direction?
Then, you have to change the memories you are using.
But we will get to that in a second. First, we need to understand what habits actually are and the science behind them.
HABITS AND YOUR BRAIN
Habits are the brain’s own internal productivity drivers. Due to its efficiency-driven nature, the brain constantly looks to transform tasks and behaviors to habits so we can do them automatically, thus freeing more memory and brainpower.
The part of the brain responsible for this operation is a golf ball–sized lump of tissue toward the center of the skull called basal ganglia.
Basel ganglia work as a hard drive for the brain where habits are encoded once they are learned and never really disappear.
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter at The New York Times where he writes for the business section. Back in 2012 Duhigg published his New York Times bestseller “The Power of Habit” where he deals extensively with the science of habit and habit transformation. With regards to the operation of basel ganglia Duhigg notes:
“Conserving mental effort is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, such as a predator hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as we pull onto the street. So our basal ganglia have devised a clever system to determine when to let habits take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends.”
THE HABIT LOOP
“Habits aren’t destiny. Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth:
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
However, simply understanding how habits work—learning the structure of the habit loop—makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears,” Duhigg suggests.
So what exactly is this infamous habit loop and how does it actually work?
According to Duhigg, it is sort of like a computer program consisting of three parts:
- Cue. A cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. This trigger can be anything from a physical location and a person, to a smell, a taste or an emotional state.
- Routine. The routine is the activity you are about to perform when you are triggered by a cue. It can be physical, mental or emotional.
- Reward. Duhigg refers to the reward as something that helps our brain figure out if a particular loop is worth rememberingin the future. The reward is mainly achieved mentally after a connection with something physical like a chocolate or a cigarette.
The more we encounter this loop, the more automatic the habitual process becomes. However, the real moving force behind the habit loop is what Duhigg refers to as cravings.
Image Courtesy: Charles Duhigg
As we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.
Image Courtesy: Charles Duhigg
Whenever we crave something, our brain somehow urges us to feel the same feeling we will experience when we actually reach the reward stage of the loop.
The stronger the craving, the stronger our desire to perform that particular habit. And whether we like it or not all of us associate ourselves with specific cravings throughout our daily lives. Some of them are extremely beneficial for our well-being, but some of them can be extremely toxic.
Understanding how habits work is the first step to empowering the good ones and also working towards reducing to the toxic ones.
Hacking the Habit Loop. Achieving Habitual Mastery in 6 Simple Steps.
After reading “The Power of Habit,” I encountered the following realization.
To change a habit, you must simply follow the Golden Rule of Habit Change: Keep the Cue and Reward; Change the Routine.
As Duhigg mentions in his book:
“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”
Well, although this idea is quite compelling, from inception to fruition is a long way.
Yes, there are habits that can be changed simply by finding a substitute, like chewing a nicotine gum for instance if you want to quit smoking or eating a banana instead of a cookie every time you crave a cookie after a coffee break, but for more advanced level habits these things start to get more complicated. And they get more complicated simply because for advanced level habits you need to employ a tremendous amount of willpower in order to “habitualize” a process.
After doing some research on the topic I stumbled upon a really interesting self-improvement blogger called Scott Young. Scott suggests that “with the right conditioning, you could automatically do what you normally need willpower for.”
What does he mean by that? Well, he wants to point out that because some habits in order to change they require a lot of effort and willpower – and because most of us lack the required amount of willpower – it is wiser to let the habit happen by automating it. And by automation, he means to create the right conditions for the habit to change gradually and eventually become automatic.
Inspired by his approach I put together a six-step process that if followed methodically can reframe your understanding of habits and eventually put you in the path of habitual mastery.
Step 1. Set a Conditioning Period.
Brain Pickings in their article called “How long it takes to form a new habit” mention the following study:
“In a study carried out at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an everyday behavior that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something they didn’t already do that could be repeated every day; many were health-related: people chose things like “eating a piece of fruit with lunch” and “running for 15 minutes after dinner.” Each of the 84 days of the study, they logged into a website and reported whether or not they’d carried out the behavior, as well as how automatic the behavior had felt.
This notion of acting without thinking — known in science as “automaticity” — turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a central driver of habits. And it helps illuminate the real question at the heart of this inquiry: How long did it actually take for people to form a habit?
The simple answer is that, on average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took 66 days until a habit was formed. As you might imagine, there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit. The exercise habit proved most tricky with “50 sit-ups after morning coffee,” still not a habit after 84 days for one participant. “Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast,” though, was turned into a habit after 50 days for another participant.”
Although 66 is a good number to use as a rule of thumb, after experimenting with different habit-building processes, I can argue that 30 days of complete focus on this habit is usually enough.
Step 2. Make the Habit Daily.
The idea of doing something every day might sound kind of overwhelming. The reality, however, is that the smaller the time-chunks you decide to use in order to reach a goal, the less effort you need to put in the process.
It is strongly associated with the least resistance theory as described above and apparently all it takes is a mentality shift. Steven Convey in the “7 habits of highly effective people” puts it really nice:
“Most of us think we don’t have enough time to exercise. What a distorted paradigm! We don’t have time not to. We’re talking about three to six hours a week — or a minimum of thirty minutes a day, every other day. That hardly seems an inordinate amount of time considering the tremendous benefits in terms of the impact on the other 162-165 hours of the week.”
Step 3. Strategically Replace the Most Important Lost Needs
This step is where Duhigg’s suggestion for substitution of the routine comes in. No matter how hard you will try to forget the need of the habit you want to change, the need will always be there and this is a huge distraction to your goal.
I will make this step clearer with a personal example from my diet. I wanted to quit sugar. Not because I was eating too much of it but because I wanted to adopt a healthier lifestyle in general. I told myself: “You will stop eating sugar for a week and then you will forget about it. Everything is in your head.”
First day in my attempt and everything went great. No cravings at all. The second day my sugar craving started to kick in. The third day I was suffering. In the fourth day, I went to the bakery and bought a triple layer chocolate cake with vanilla frosting.
What I realized was that quitting wasn’t the answer. The answer was substituting. And that’s what I did. I substituted sugar with other sweeteners, which are not considered harming, like xylitol and stevia. And it worked.
Obviously, it was impossible to find bakeries that use those sweeteners but I became creative and starting baking my own sweets.
I love chocolate pudding for instance. Do you know how easy it is to make chocolate pudding? Check out this recipe and replace sugar with xylitol or stevia (just be careful with the conversion because 1 cup Sugar = 1/8 cup Stevia). Simple as that.
This is just one of the numerous examples where substitution of the craving makes the habit easier to break and create new ones. Eventually the new habit not only will replace the last one but it will also stop the craving in general because the new substances are not as addictive as the last ones.
Step 4. Employ the 2-minute rule
This is an amazing idea suggested by James clear in his article”How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the ‘2-Minute Rule.’”
When it comes to habit-building tasks, the most difficult part is the take-off. That small timeframe in the beginning of the task until you get immersed in it and enter a state of flow.
The idea behind this small but effective rule is that, whatever the situation you find yourself into, force yourself to stay in the task for at least two minutes, even if you find it extremely difficult to do so.
Want to write 1000 words every day? Start writing for two minutes and you will often find yourself writing without even thinking.
Want to practice coding for an hour every day? Start coding for two minutes and you will often find yourself coding for more than an hour.
Want to work out every day? Do a warm-up with push-ups for two minutes and you will get fired up for the rest of the training session.
You get the general idea. The reason the two-minute rule is so powerful, is that these two minutes are enough to get your mind from a passive state to an active state.
Once it gets into that state, anything is possible.
Step 5. Monitor Your Progress.
“What gets measured, gets managed.” –Peter Drucker
If you want to improve on something, you need to monitor your progress and the behaviors that cause progress. Researchers call this “self-monitoring” — the process of tracking and analyzing your thoughts and actions to become more aware of how they impact your goals.
If you’re not willing to do so, then you’re likely suffering from “The Ostrich Problem,” a phenomenon described by psychologists in England as the widespread tendency for people to avoid information about progress towards their goals. After all, it feels good to keep moving, and who wants the frustration of discovering that they’ve actually been driving in the wrong direction?
Well in order to understand the importance of progress monitoring you need to understand the importance of small victories in our daily lives and the effect they have in your self-motivation.
This is a very commonly discussed principle in business and leadership. It is suggested that the best way for managers to motivate employees to do creative work is to help them to take a step forward every day.
As mentioned in HBR’s article “The Power of Small Wins:”
“In an analysis of knowledge workers’ diaries, the authors found that nothing contributed more to a positive inner work life (the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that is critical to performance) than making progress in meaningful work. If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she achieved something, however small.”
In habit-building, understanding the connection between progress monitoring and small victories is paramount. Even the smallest thing like having a calendar where you tick each day you make progress can have an immediate impact on your self-motivation.
Step 6. Change the Memories. Change the Habit.
As we discussed above, the main problem with the path of least resistance is the memories that our brain brings forward in order to help us cope with a new task. Especially when it comes to habits that require a bit more creativity from our side, wrong memories that might thwart our creativity are big hurdles. There are 3 useful ways to change that:
Reframe the creative problem.
When a creative problem is encountered we usually pull things from our memory to handle it. When you are aware of the conditions of the creative challenge that are affecting your memory, try and move your attention to other parts of the challenge. Use other words to reframe it and also try and constrain your brainstorming by focusing on smaller details that affect the problem as a whole.
Expand the information you have in memory.
In simple words, this means to break out of your comfort zone. Being captive of a specific way of thinking that doesn’t allow you to progress, can be a big constraint. Read a self-help or psychology book. Join an art or philosophy class. Watch a movie that doesn’t fall under the usual “Hollywood-style framework.” All these activities can help you expand your horizons and consequently the amount of information your memory is trying to access every time you face a creative challenge.
Change your collaborators.
The people in your surroundings have a huge impact in the way you see the world and face challenges. Most of the time, however, these people might have run out of value to offer. Open up your mind and start interacting with people outside your behavioral and informational framework. People who can challenge you and can help you discover new areas of yourself. Have always in mind that knowledge never ends and that you really don’t know what the person sitting next to you in a social gathering is capable of offering to your world. You don’t know unless you try.
Hope that after this article you have a more concrete idea of how habits work and of their huge impact in one’s life.
It is interesting however to see the force of habit in little things. In this way, one can most easily get an idea of its real power.
Notice the way you put on your clothes, the way you look at yourself in the mirror or the way you shake other people’s hands. Now try and think of how all these little habits of yours have played a major role in shaping your life and also shaping who you really are.
Some of them are good and some of them not so much. Regardless of their effect, their impact is visible in every aspect of your reality and it is up to you whether you want to change them, keep them or evolve them.
I will leave you with some inspiring words from Aristotle, and a gentle reminder that success and real change don’t come overnight. On the contrary, it’s discipline that gets you from Point A to the often elusive Point B.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
If you are interested in refining your habitual practices “30 Challenges | 30 Days | Zero Excuses” is a great place to start. In this project, I have gathered some of the most beneficial everyday habits that aim to improve every aspect of your day-to-day life. If you want to immerse yourself in the power of habit, I would strongly advise you to attempt some of the challenges. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.
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