“Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconcious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.” – Steven Covey
Unlike other creatures, man wasn’t designed with instinct. Instead we got some heavy mental machinery and the extremely important ability to learn and adapt. Our brains like to create associations, subconsciously linking events to each other and developing narratives to free up conscious thinking power. The links it creates get stronger with repetition, and when enough reps of the events are performed, the link solidifies until the many events can be considered one. As a simple example, suppose you smoke sheesha once after work. Then you do it again, and again. The leave-work-and-smoke-sheesha link strengthens. Keep it up and eventually it becomes automatic, and you are now a daily sheesha smoker with no idea of how it all began.
That’s basically what a habit is: an action which has been performed so many times that it now happens on auto-pilot.
In his bestselling book, Charles Duhigg breaks a habit down into three parts: there is a cue, followed by a routine, followed by a reward. The cue is the trigger which launches the habit, the routine is the action which the habit entails, and the reward is the event which lets your brain know the habit routine has ended. This tripartite definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors. Example: you see a pretty girl (cue), you get very nervous and your heart starts beating really fast (routine), and you run away (reward). Do this enough times and you automate the habit, and you are now officially socially awkward around the opposite sex.
The moral of the story is this: we aren’t all that autonomous. Human beings are much like Pavlov’s dog, being driven by habitual, automated behavior more often than we’d care to admit. This can be a good and a bad thing.
It’s bad when you start identifying with your habits. I simply have to eat that chocolate, or smoke that cigarette, or watch Desperate Housewives, or be awkward in public, or curse too much, or lie too much. I have to. This is false. Habits may be strong, bolstered by repetitions which began as far back as childhood, but they are always reversible.
Habits are powerful when you understand them and start using them to your advantage. Your life becomes simpler, more fulfilling, more awesome. You start turning things on their head and doing stuff that is actually beneficial.
So armed with that superficial knowledge, this is how you can put it all into practice:
How to Replace your Shitty Habits with Awesome Habits in 3 Steps
Step 1: Identify the bad habit. This could be anything from having too much Pepsi to logging too many Facebook hours to saying ‘like’ too much.
Step 2: Identify the cue which triggers this habit. Find the source of which the habit was born. For example, sugar craving or basic thirst could be the triggers that make you reach for one more Pepsi. Or you say ‘like’ as a filler word while you try to articulate your thoughts. These are almost subconscious cues, and shining light on them is critical to killing the habit.
Step 3: Replace the routine with a better one. Each time the cue happens, perform a new routine instead of the shitty one. Replace Pepsi with water, for example. Or an apple. Log into Coursera instead of Facebook. You are essentially forcing your brain to substitute the default behavior with one that is more useful to you. This will require will power on your part because you have to repeat the new routine several times until it sticks, which is why it’s better to tackle one habit at a time rather than going for a full life transformation. The process could take anywhere from a month to half a year depending on the size of the habit and the strength of the previous association. But keep at it, and eventually you’ll make the change.
Once this process is understood and practiced, it can really be life changing. And I’m not using hyperbole. Little loser things which I long thought were ingrained parts of my being, I’ve now come to realize were just silly habits waiting to be transformed.
Now I read more than I watch TV, I exercise every morning, meditate every morning, am far too comfortable in social situations, actually work sometimes instead of just lazing around, and have a generally positive outlook on life (yes, that is a habit too). If you had met me a few years back, you would have met a completely different person. All because I switched a few daily habits around and persisted for long enough until they stuck.
It takes time, it takes persistence, but the rewards are great. Habits are little lifehacks that can really improve the quality of one’s life. And if a goofy slacker dude like me can turn it around, no further evidence is needed of their awesomeness.