We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.
About 10 years ago, I moved to the UK to live with my girlfriend. I came in the country with all the bad habits of a single bloke and my European rudeness (British people classify Europeans as “inhabitants of countries outside of the UK, but on the same continent”. They live on an Island, it leaves some marks).
That led to some embarrassing and sometimes difficult situations.
On the living with my girlfriend side, I had the classics to learn: put the toilet seat down for the lady, make the bed, keep the house tidy at all times, give her the best seat on the sofa, etc. A more specific one (anyone else doing that?) was to turn away from her in bed when going to sleep so that she doesn’t hear me breathing. Men and women don’t follow the same rules. No point in arguing, just get on with it.
On the cultural side, I had some interesting times. It turned out I was pretty good at offending people without even noticing. I couldn’t catch the subtle British clues telling me someone was upset or making a joke. In the end, to help me, my partner bought me a book, Watching the English, which was a fascinating and fun read on British culture and taught me a lot. I recommend it if you want to learn more about British culture. It can be useful if you are American and have always wondered why “extravagance” and speaking loud is frowned upon in the UK.
In short, I had to build new habits to “survive” in my new environment. We all build habits, consciously and unconsciously. Habits are the backbone of our lives. I have learned to appreciate habits as a vehicle for change.
What do you consider your most useful habits? Take the survey here.
Bringing lasting change
We all resist change. Tackling new tasks, learning new skills, changing our routine or re-framing our view of the world requires a lot of our energy. It is exhausting. This is why our brain resists novelty. It wants to go back to the old comfy routine.
A constant struggle is not a good recipe to bring lasting change, but a good recipe for exhaustion and burning out. We can only tackle a certain amount of struggle before our daily tank of energy fuel gets depleted.
So how do you bring lasting change then? How do you become a high performer and accomplish amazing feats?
The answer is: By building habits, one step at a time, one building block at a time.
Habits: a little background
Up until recently, I have built habits mostly in an organic way.
In the last few month though, I made the effort to consciously build new useful habits. They are now part of my life and routine and they changed my character. Here is a sample of these habits to illustrate: Read 30 minutes a day, meditate, listen to podcast during my daily commute, write 3 pages a day (the Morning pages), answer questions on Quora and Reddit 3 times a week, do my weekly plan every Sunday.
Through habits we can accomplish a lot in a natural way, almost effortlessly. Everything becomes much easier with habits.
They are also the base of expert skills: simples habits are first formed to imprint in the brain the building blocks of any new skill, then more habits are added to build on top of the existing ones and raise performance. Over time, more and more habits and more and more skills and knowledge are acquired. This is how you can become a high performer in almost any area.
As an example, think about reading. You first start with learning the alphabet, you get into the habit of reading letters. Then you learn grammar, you learn to construct sentences. Then you read progressively more and more complex books. One step at a time, block by block.
When you are reading this sentence, you don’t think about the letters that form it, you just read the words. You don’t think about grammar either, it just makes sense to you. You have an ingrained habit of reading and unless you read a book with complicated and long-winded sentences, you don’t struggle with the task of reading itself. You just focus on the story and the learning. It all feels natural to you.
At the anatomical level, by building habits, you slowly move the processing of the activity or task at hand from the reflective (located in the pre-frontal cortex) to the reflexive (located in the basal ganglia) brain. The reflective brain is slower and requires more energy to work than the the reflexive brain, that is energy efficient, fast and reacts automatically.
This is why it makes sense to create habits and move more tasks to the reflexive brain so you can use your reflective brain for “reflection” and more unusual or expert tasks at any given time.
Think of driving a car. It is very hard at the beginning, you have to focus on many things at once. This is exhausting for your brain. As you learn each basic block of driving a car (taking a curve, shifting gears, moving into traffic,…) and translate your learning into automatisms and habits, driving becomes much easier, more intuitive.
At that point, you can pretty much drive for hours without feeling that tired. Most of the time, you don’t consciously think about what you are doing. Your brain is not working full speed on the driving task. The freed up bandwidth (brain power) allows you to talk to other people in the car.
You can listen to the radio. You can even do silly things that you shouldn’t do, like checking your mobile phone. Also, now that you can drive, you could start rally car driving (expert skills). You wouldn’t start rally driving if you can’t drive a car. You need to build habits and basic skills first.
Jaime Lannister had to re-learn to fight with his wrong hand. It wasn’t easy. He had to get rid of old habits and build new ones. By constant practice and small steps, he managed to build the needed habits. The process was painful, but then it became ingrained in his mind, it reprogrammed his mind (also called brain plasticity).
How do you build new habits then?
5 steps to build new habits
Here is a 5-steps process to build new habits.
1. Areas of improvement
First, look at areas of your life that need improving. For example, you might want to improve your health and loose weight. Or you might want to focus on your personal growth by increasing your knowledge and language skills. Choose one area first.
2. Decide on a goal and list your habits
Once you have chosen your area, decide what result you want to get. And based on the result you want, write down a list of habits that you need to create. For each habit, decide on the frequency (e.g. 3 times a week).
Taking the example of health, you end result will be to loose weight or more accurately get a leaner body (lower body fat percentage). Let’s say you are a man and aim for 13% body fat percentage. That is your goal. Habits to build could be to:
- Eat healthy meals 5 days a week
- Exercise 3 days a week
- Drink 3 litters of water a day
- Get 7 hours of sleep a night or more
Similarly, to increase your knowledge and language skills, you could make it a habit of reading and writing in a notebook ever day.
3. Pick habits and put them on your plan
Pick 1-3 habits on your list. Not more. Put each of these habits in a day-by-day weekly plan or on a checklist if your prefer. If your habit takes place three times a week, pick specific days of the week and write them in your plan or agenda. This way, you will mentally commit to those days and are much more likely to follow through. Set up reminders to make it even more likely for you to follow through.
Habitica is like a role-playing game: when you follow through with your daily and weekly tasks, you get XP and money, which you can then use to purchase items and go on quests. The gaming part makes it entertaining and motivates you to build your habits.
Coach.me will automatically send you prompts to do your tasks by email and give you small motivation boosts when you have followed through with your tasks and ticked the box.
I recommend trying out both of them and selecting the one that works best for you.
4. Take action
As always, to get anything done, you need to take action. A plan is what it is: a piece of paper or a document on your computer. Without action, it just remains a dream.
Taking action means following through on your plan. Start exercising on the days you have planned to. Even if you don’t feel like it.
Just do it, you will feel better afterwards. Action leads to results and to the last step of the process.
5. Track and make adjustments
Keep track of your progress. This is crucial to build confidence and stay motivated. If you use coach.me or Habitica or a to-do list, tick the box every time you have done your new habit building activity. Or cross out the daily activities in your weekly plan.
Every week, review your plan and progress. If you notice one activity that you are consistently falling short on, analyze why this is the case:
- Is it because you can’t find the time (i.e. you think other activities are more important)?
- Is your current schedule too inconvenient for the habit to fit into?
- Are you fully convinced that you need to build this habit?
Whatever the root cause is, make a point of finding it. Then make the necessary adjustments to get your intended results:
- Change your schedule or priorities to make sure you are doing the new activity.
- Sell yourself on the task if you haven’t been sold on it fully.
- If you realize the activity is not that important to you, drop it.
- If you have too many activities to cope with, remove one of them from your plan and postpone this habit building to later.
Follow these 5 steps for long enough and keep following it to build new habits. Over time, your perception of the world will change significantly, you will become a different person. You can follow this process to create the lifestyle you want and become the person you need to be to achieve all your goals.
My girlfriend and I ended up marrying, so I guess I did manage to put some “good habits for couples” in place. I usually don’t think about these habits consciously though. In fact, I had to actively recall them from my mind to write this post. They have been built naturally over the years, without following a process. This is the default to which most people adhere.
In the last few months, though, by following the process above, I have consciously built the habits I need for the life I want to lead. I am still amazed by how much this has changed the person I am and allowed me to raise the bar to what I can accomplish. The return on investment is pretty good, I would say… This is how I can bring lasting change and aim for high performance.
What would you rather do: consciously and consistently build the habits you need to become the person you want to be or stumble upon habits as life forces you into them?
Do you want to bring lasting change in your life and become a high performer?
Share your thought and stories below.