Here is the on-line definition of a habit:
a. A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.
b. An established disposition of the mind or character.
We tend to think of habits as things we do and we categorize them as good or bad. Brushing our teeth every morning (good habit) or smoking (bad habit).
In truth a habit is a complicated set of thoughts, emotions AND behaviors that we repeat often enough that it becomes engrained in our brains at a level where conscious thought or choice is no longer really necessary.
All of our habits began as thoughts, even if it was a thought like “Oh, wouldn’t I look cool smoking a cigarette”. When you first started, that thought might have supported your commitment to fitting in with your peers or feeling mature. Over time, your commitments may have shifted and the smoking habit no longer supports you.
It can help to think in terms of habits that support or don’t support your highest goals for yourself when you are thinking of changing a long-held behavior that has become habit.
Instead of Changing a Habit, Create a New One.
If you were to look at an EEG of your brain while you are brushing your teeth, you would see a line of neurons lighting up in a particular pattern. Every time you brush your teeth, or evening imagine brushing your teeth, that same line of neurons lights up.
The same thing happens with your habitual thoughts. When you think “I’m too tired to get out of bed and exercise today”, if that is something that you often think when you imagine getting up to exercise, that thought is habitual and you would be able to see the neuron path of the thought in your brain with an EEG.
So changing habits requires rewiring the brain, retraining the pathway of the neurons to line up with something new.
It can help if you think in terms of starting a new pathway, rather than trying to change an old one. Instituting a new habit can take as little as 30 days of consistent repetitive behavior, whereas breaking an old habit, especially if there are addictive/chemical components involved, can take much longer.
Most people want to get to the end result so quickly that they skip steps or place unrealistic expectations on themselves. Then when the results don’t happen, they walk away defeated and the volume of their inner critic’s voice gets really loud.
Just think about your unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions. For example, if you set a New Year’s resolution to “get healthy” which included things such as eating right, exercising regularly, and quitting cigarettes or alcohol you might have gone full speed ahead for a few weeks and then something happened and you skipped a day of exercise. That led to a lot of negative self-talk about how you “blew it” and it “proved” that you’ll never get healthy - so you gave up on it all and ordered a pizza and drank a beer.
Trying to change too many things at once is a recipe for failure because it’s unrealistic that we can change a habit we’ve had for years overnight – let alone two or three habits at the same time! Human beings are creatures of habit – and making changes doesn’t come easily. This is true not because we’re bad or incapable, but because making changes that last occurs at a very deep level – at the root of our thoughts and beliefs. It takes consistent new action over a period of time to reinforce the new way of thinking.
Perhaps your New Year’s resolution was simply to “exercise regularly.” You bought the cutest workout clothes, new sneakers, and joined a gym. Even though you’d been a couch potato for years, you pushed yourself that first week by running 3 miles and lifting weights that were way too heavy…and you pulled a muscle – which then forced you to recover for a week or two. By the time you recovered, your enthusiasm had waned and you couldn’t seem to get back gym. Sound familiar?
Skipping steps is recipe for failure because changes that last are built upon a solid foundation. Taking small, consistent action every day builds inner strength and the capacity to integrate the natural effects of your new behavior, which also gives you the time to integrate and get comfortable with your new way of thinking.
New beliefs = new actions = new results.
By keeping it simple, choosing one place to start, and making the action doable - you are setting yourself up to win. There is no urgency when it comes to your new habit. You are not in a race - you’re on a journey and choosing the one part of the new habit that most appeals to you is the perfect place to start!
So use the tips we’ve given you to get started on your new habit:
1. Think of the habit as something that will support your highest goals for yourself.
2. Think in terms of creating a new habit instead of breaking an old one.
3. Start small. Think of one new habit you want to instill and begin there.
4. Start at the level of your thought. If you want to start a habit of healthy eating, spend 30 days practicing this thought every day: “I am a healthy eater, and I love choosing foods that support my vitality”. Spend this time before you do ANY action and you will find yourself with a solid foundation from which to shift your actual behavior.
Rory Cohen is known for her expertise on the psychology of success. She is the founder of Entelekey, Inc. a company dedicated to providing simple products and services that support people in fulfilling their potential. She has made her Take 10! system, a powerful and uniquely simple system for achieving extraordinary results, available in the newly released, Take 10! How to Achieve Your Someday Dreams in 10 Minutes a Day. Rory has been a featured guest on various television and radio shows, including The View, CNN, and Public Radio. Their national print media appearances include the September 2006 cover story, “Start a Business in 10 Minutes a Day”, for Entrepreneur Magazine and a spread in People Magazine.
Rory holds a Masters degree in Health Administration from Yale University and a Masters degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica. She has over twenty years of experience in executive leadership, management consulting, training and coaching.