We are the summation of our habits. Whether it’s how often you work out or the degree to which you treat everyone with respect, your life today is a culmination of your habits you unconsciously execute.
It’s now January 31st. The New Year often comes brimming with opportunity, as its construction is a fresh start and our willpower is heightened. The first month of the new year is coming to an end and I encourage you to look back at the first week of the month. What were your intentions back then? And if you had any New Year’s resolutions, how are they looking now?
If the honest answer isn’t ideal, it’s perfectly okay. I’m the exact same way. Like many people, I went into 2021 with the classic self-improvement resolutions; I’d work out five times a week, eat healthily, fix my sleep schedule, and read every day. However, similar to nearly every year before, I didn’t reach my goals. By mid-January, the progress in the first week that was initiated by the New Year’s excitement had quickly died off and I was failing to build the habits I had aspired to.
Approximately a week ago I had the pleasure of listening to the “A creature of habit” episode of the podcast Hidden Brain by NPR. What was said in the 50-minute episode truly gave me hope as to how to improve myself through habit formation, as it utilized information from psychological studies to detail actionable, proven steps to take towards habit formation. The biggest takeaway is the misconception that “Conscious willpower is not the driving force behind sustained behavior change.”
Read that again:
“Conscious willpower is not the driving force behind sustained behavior change.” – Shankar Vedantam
Sheer willpower alone is often not enough to change behavior. As a society, we are often enveloped in this misconception, believing that if we simply grit our teeth hard enough, we can change our habits. The bad news is that this is often not the case. Willpower is limited in supply and can’t be relied on fully.
But don’t let this discourage you. The actual exciting realization is that habit formation doesn’t occur through using our conscious mind to power through friction, but using our conscious mind to instead, eliminate friction.
The secret to habit formation is through reducing the friction, NOT by relying on willpower.
The difference between those who are successful in achieving their habits is not having greater willpower, but because they approach habit formation in a frictionless way. Take this analogy: When striving for a low-sugar diet, one path to success is resisting the temptation to eat the cake in the refrigerator. However, another path to success is simply not having a cake in the refrigerator in the first place. The first path utilizes the traditional approach of sheer willpower, but the second is far more likely to succeed and approaches success by eliminating the friction that exists between choosing to eat the cake or not. Successful habit formation occurs the same way. For instance, if you are striving to read every day, remove the friction of deciding when to read, by choosing in advance a designated time to read every day. Furthermore, to remove the friction of deciding between watching that TV show you love and reading a good book, set your devices on “downtime” mode or shut them down in advance to your designated time to read.
For any new habits that you are trying to build, try taking a step-by-step approach of first identifying potential areas of friction, and consciously creating solutions to avoid them. By doing so, you will harness your conscious mind to avoid future situations where your unconscious desires would’ve taken over and stopped you from achieving your goals.
“Habit are powerfully shaped by short term rewards.”- Shankar Vedantam
Another takeaway from the episode about the key to habit formation is using short-term rewards. Many of the habits you may be aiming for, myself included, are incredibly beneficial to your health and wellbeing in the long-run, but aren’t very rewarding in the short-term. A salad may not be as delicious as a nutella sandwich and the burn of exercising often doesn’t feel great in the middle of a plank, and it’s hard to keep in mind the long-term benefits in the moment. However, what’s exciting is that actively pairing what we already love to do with the difficult habits we’re trying to form increases chances of success significantly. Some concrete ways to do this are as follows:
- Exercising: allowing yourself to only watch your favorite TV show when you’re on the stationary bike
- Reading consistently: During your designated reading time, always prepare yourself a cup of hot tea/coffee, light a candle, and get into your beloved “comfy” (as a ritual to look forward to!)
- Waking up early: preparing a ready-to-eat breakfast like overnight oats before, time to meditate, or simply, putting on a pair of slippers
The point is, consciously creating enjoyable activities associated with your habits will be greatly beneficial to your success. Try it out sometime!
Taking advantage of chaos through “habit discontinuity:” The pandemic and the New Year/Month is “a profound opportunity for reinvention”
What psychologists have found is that during times of interruption and environmental change, people are much more successful at building their habits. We can harness interruptions to our routines to reinvent ourselves. This is perhaps the most exciting takeaway from the entire episode and is the fact that prompted me to write this article, in hopes of letting more people know this revelation. What’s incredibly exciting is that this quite literally means that the best time is NOW. Literally. Our lives could possibly not be more different from before: We’re in the middle of a pandemic, at the start of a new presidential administration, at the beginning of a new month, still at the beginning of a brand new year. There quite literally isn’t a better time to begin self-improvement. While this entire situation isn’t ideal, this time is ideal for focusing on yourself. Utilize the gift of these new beginnings and the gift of time to make the conscious commitment to become the best version of yourself. You are so much more capable than you think. You got this.
To hear more about this podcast, visit: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5oFaWvlIbomdJh97CSaM5P?si=oxqO3HMFSuqMFxyeGsdEJw