A Counter-Intuitive Mindset For Habit Change

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When you want to change your life for the better, what are you most likely to do first?

If you are like most people, you think about changing your habits. For example, if you want to get in shape, you think about building a habit of going to the gym regularly.

This makes a lot of sense, because once a healthy behavior becomes a habit you can essentially leave it on autopilot. It’s smooth sailing from there on, right?

While habit change should be a priority, it rarely works out to be as simple and easy as you want.

Even when you decide that habit change is in order, I urge you not to think of it that way. There is an alternative mindset that will help make the process much easier.

But before I get into that, I want to discuss some of the reasons why the traditional view on habit change causes additional challenges.

 

Common Problems And Difficulties With Habit Change

The traditional view on habit change is that it is a long term process. While this is technically true, thinking about it this way leads to some serious problems with both forming a good habit and adhering to it.

Habit Change Seems Like A Daunting Task

Everyone acknowledges the difficulty of changing habits. After all, by definition, habits are ingrained in you, and you need to work against your conditioning to change them.

Plus, a habit is a part of your lifestyle. It becomes a “permanent” part of you (at least ideally if it’s a good habit). Doesn’t it seem like a huge responsibility to maintain it for your entire life?

Before a habit becomes easy, it takes consistent effort for approximately a month. It’s not that a month is a very long time, but it is significant. And a lot of people will struggle to make it that far.

Habit Change Can Be Hard To Maintain

Even after you have established a good habit, you are at risk of losing it if you don’t continue to follow through.

I’ve had to establish and re-establish the habit of working out regularly so many times in the past few years that I can’t even count them. For whatever reason, I’ll fall off the wagon at some point and spend a month or two inactive before getting myself in gear to try it again.

When there is any sudden change in your life, your habits will very often be broken. Consider the obvious example of traveling. How many people can honestly say they keep healthy while traveling, even if they do at home?

This applies to just about any shock to your normal routine, and doesn’t have to be as “major” as traveling or moving to a new city. What if there is a detour on your way back from the gym? Then maybe you eat fast food instead of going to the healthy shakes place you usually go to. More on this in the next section.

But here is the worst part: once you break your habit, you will be inclined to use it as an excuse to drop the habit altogether. If you eat an unhealthy snack in the morning, you are more likely to rationalize eating a big dessert at night. And then the next day you will stop eating healthy foods altogether.

Habits Require Specific Conditions To Work

It’s not just major life changes that can derail habits; mental and environmental variables also come into play.

Habits require conditioning to work. This conditioning may only apply given certain external factors or the mood you are in.

For example, you may build a habit of exercising, but it is dependent on the weather. You may only drive to the gym when it is nice out, so your habit isn’t “robust” because rain would be enough to stop you from going.

Or you might be in the habit of working out, but only when you can change into your usual gym clothes. If you don’t have access to them, your habit is broken.

Similarly, your mood state can play a strong part here. You have a habit of not drinking soda, but you only maintain it when you have energy. If you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, you will break it because you are tired.

 

A Better Mindset For Habit Change

Instead of thinking about habit change as a long term process, you should consider only the more immediate decisions you need to make at any given moment.

Let’s say you want to get in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast every day. When you wake up, you are confronted with a decision: do you eat a donut or cook some veggies and eggs? All you need to do is eat the healthy breakfast today, and you have succeeded. Tomorrow, you can do it all over again.

This mindset solves all the problems described in the previous section. Habit change is reduced to one choice at a time, so it is no longer a daunting task to consider maintaining the habit over a long period of time. Whenever you make the wrong choice, you don’t need to fall off the wagon. It’s behind you and now you just focus on making the right choice the next time it comes up. The environmental factors that affect your conditioning are also less relevant, because this mindset is focused simply on taking the right action no matter what.

Let’s break this mindset down further, shall we? We can think of it as a five step process:

Step 1: Awareness

The first and most important part of this mindset is that you must be aware.

Don’t go through your day on autopilot, because then you will be unable to do anything that follows. Plus, life is just better when you are being present.

Step 2: Recognize That You Have A Choice

When you are more aware in general, it becomes easier to see that in every moment or situation, you have a choice.

You can go to the gym or not go to the gym. You can get angry at someone or you can accept them. You can go to sleep or you can watch another episode of 24 on Netflix.

Of course, this is a huge simplification, and there can be more than two choices in each situation.

The key here is just to see that you do indeed have a choice, and you don’t just have to act on impulse (though sometimes that is the right decision).

Step 3: Make The Right Choice

Once you recognize that you are in control of the situation, you need to make the right choice.

The best choice in a given situation isn’t always obvious, especially when there are many options. But usually there are only a few obvious choices and you have a pretty good feel for which ones are better than others.

So despite whatever discomfort you may feel, you just need to suck it up and do the right thing anyways.

Step 4: Accept Your Decision, Good Or Bad

The reality is, you won’t make the optimal choice 100% of the time. You won’t even always make a half-decent choice. Perhaps you’ll make the completely wrong decision.

But that’s behind you. It’s okay now, and it doesn’t matter. Accept whatever choice you made, because it is too late to change it.

By focusing on things you can’t change (like previous bad decisions), you waste energy that could be used on choices that you actually do have control over.

Even if you made a good choice in the past, it’s still behind you. Don’t use previous good decisions as an excuse to “reward” yourself by making the wrong choice later.

Any previous choices you have made are irrelevant. Your focus should only be on what you can control.

Step 5: Move On To The Next Choice

When one moment is “over”, the next one is beginning.

And since each moment has a choice, you need to be ready to move on immediately and repeat the first four steps.

Over time, you will get better at staying “tuned in” to this mindset more often and for longer periods.

 

Conclusion

There is nothing truly new or mind blowing about this mindset, but it can be a great ally in transforming your life for the better through changing your habits more easily.

Simply pick a habit that you want to adopt (or eliminate), and follow the process above. This mindset can easily juggle several habits at once. This can lead to achieving serious results much more quickly than the traditional mindset for habit change.

What has been your greatest challenge in trying to change your habits?

photo by: gardener41

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Comments

  1. My biggest struggle is when I realize that I’m not seeing the results the habit “promised” me. I suppose that is where your last point comes in to signal the need to move on. :)
    Vincent Nguyen recently posted..On Wind, Superpowers, Growing Up, and a Yellow Fuzzy JournalMy Profile

    • Results are rarely immediate, and unless you are very careful to experiment on yourself and use consistent measurements, you can’t really say whether you’ve gotten results or not.

  2. The idea of taking things just one at a time really helps. I am trying to establish the habit of running. I do not think about running regularly every day. Such a goal is quite daunting and I may not even start my daily run. So, I just focus on going for a single run. If I am successful, I am happy. Then again I just focus on another solo run. And this way, without my knowledge, I have now months of regular running behind me.
    Braja Patnaik recently posted..Stress from ExpectationsMy Profile

    • Mikey D says:

      Exactly! It’s so much easier to just do the right thing once instead of focusing on having to maintain it forever and ever. Sure, every once in a while you will make a mistake, but then it’s easy to recover because you haven’t “ruined everything” by eating an extra large dessert one day or skipping your run.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] my last post, I wrote about an alternative mindset for habit change, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own life for the past two [...]

  2. […] particular moment to get yourself back on track. I’ve written about this mindset before (see here and here), and I highly suggest you read those posts for more details. Sure, you skipped your […]

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