“I don’t have bad habits.” It’s what I hear most often from my clients, when I ask them about any unhelpful habits they might have. Let me tell you a secret: It’s never true.
Take a moment to think about your own routines. The more you analyse your daily actions, the more you realise that you do have bad habits. Probably lots of them. If you were an impartial observer, watching yourself from morning to night and taking note of every little thing, what would you see?
Here’s a quick test: do you tend to procrastinate? Do you take on too much self-criticism? Do you repeat the mistakes? In your personal or professional life, do you see happen to see the negative more than the positive?
What this quick snapshot demonstrates is that a bad habit can simply be a behaviour pattern that has negative results. Think about some of the examples above: If you do not learn from your mistakes and then make permanent changes – even if it is just being distracted by your phone too often – you will continue to live like a hamster speeding on a wheel but never actually making it anywhere.
To demonstrate that we are all creatures of habit, the Harvard Business Review recently published a study demonstrating that about 45 percent of the actions we take every day are not of our volition at all.
Things that feel like they’re happening as a result of our own free will, things that we “think” we decided to do, all happen without any input from our conscious minds. In fact, many of the signals that control our actions are generated and sent to our nervous systems, fractions of a second before our conscious minds “decide” to take that action.
It’s scary when you really think about it. For just about half of our lives, we take action before even “deciding” that we want to.
To help understand the extent of our habits and how much they control us, think about what happens when you wake up in the morning. What is the first thing you do? Which side of bed do you roll out of? Do you take a shower? Check your social media? Pour yourself a cup of coffee? If you think about your morning routine, you’ll see that very few of the things you do are actually decisions. You just do them.
One of my favourite quotes about habits comes from the 18th Century English writer Dr Samuel Johnson, who said something to the tune of: “The chains of habit are too light to be felt, until they’re too heavy to be broken.”
Remarkable people have always understood the power of habit. Ignore your habits, and they will bind you and hold you back. But control and recreate them and almost anything is possible. So how can you change an unproductive habit? To build new habits, you first need to understand how they work.
Most have three components: cue, routine and reward. Altogether, these three components are called the habit loop.
To break it down, the cue is what triggers an ingrained behaviour pattern. When a particular event or signal becomes a cue, your subconscious mind notices it and triggers the associated behaviour pattern.
The routine is the actual pattern of the behaviour, or the actions that we take as a response to the cue. It’s when we’re operating on autopilot or, more accurately, like a computer running a programme. The behaviour pattern will be virtually identical each time you come across the cue, because your brain runs the exact same set instructions every time the ‘programme’ is triggered.
Finally, you get the reward. Although you may not realise it, in most cases a habit has only formed because your brain discovered some sort of reward after running through the associated behaviour pattern process.
Let’s assume you have a habit of letting an unpleasant situation develop instead of confronting and dealing with the issue. This could be anything from letting losing trades run in the hopes of a bounce back or avoiding the prospect of dealing with non-performing staff.
When you are distressed, the brain releases endorphins, the same neurochemicals that it releases when you have a pleasant or rewarding experience”
The cue is when you realise that you have an unpleasant situation in your hands. That’s when your brain releases cortisol, the chemical responsible for stress, and when the first signs of stress begin to appear. The routine becomes walking away from the situation and pretending it is not happening, or hoping that if you allow it to run its course things might get better.
In this case, your brain will play some sly games on you, so the reward is very cleverly disguised. When you are distressed, the brain is actually releasing endorphin, the same neurochemical that it releases when you are have a pleasant or rewarding experience.
So your brain is rewarding you for feeling pain, as it would reward you for having a pleasurable experience. This is why certain distressing emotional states such as anxiety, anger and stress can become addictive to certain people.
When most people try to address their habits, they tend to focus on the routine part. In the example above, you might be inclined to change your routine reaction to an underperforming trade and take action.
So you focus on the action. If you focus on the routine other than the reward part of the habit, you may find yourself resisting the action and focusing on being right. This is because reversing your position will signify personal failure and will not give you the endorphin boost you are accustomed to.
The first step to breaking a habit is to diagnose the cue and consequently identify the reward. Then give yourself that reward as a way to reprogramme a new behaviour pattern.
Once you establish a process and repeat it over time, this behaviour moves from the frontal cortex of our brain (where we’re making conscious decisions) into a place called basal ganglia, one of the oldest structures our brain. Once there, the behaviour becomes automatic. This is why a habit doesn’t feel like a thought anymore. The process becomes so routine that we don’t think about it.
This, in fact, is precisely what the brain evolved to achieve; identify behaviours that are considered “good” by our subconscious mind and move them to the old part of the brain. This allows us to perform these actions without taking up precious thinking space and so a habit is born.
Identifying and replacing habits is the single most important thing to do, if you want to see significant changes in your life. You need to be very deliberate in making changes. Small, persistent changes become big cumulative differences faster than you think.
This is how you transform yourself. This is how you transform your life and career. Change your habits, day by day and habit by habit. Replace your bad habits with more productive ones and you’re well on your way to being a Quantum Changer.
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