How do I establish good habits over bad habits?
It's that time of year where everyone is focused, there are people getting up at ungodly hours, donning ridiculously loud and boisterious fluorescent active wear, tying their hair up in the top pony tail and bouncing out the door with a smile, big breath and a cheery disposition for the morning run and workout regime. The people behind the counters at the gym are extra perky and smiley and the world seems to have a case of the 'the Truman Show' as everyone is focused on those resolutions and goals that are fresh after holidays.
This is all well and good until that first morning when you wake up and find that it's raining cats and dogs, your favourite workout towel is still in the wash and the lycra has begun to fade to peuce yellow. This is the test of our resolve and usually when we find the pressure all too much and take that first nap that turns into month-long sleeps ins and the dreams of that bouncy, bubbly fitness freak have been consigned to the back of the sock drawer..
Any good outcome needs a good plan. A series of events in place that determines step by step how we are going to approach a task. Part of those plans are being able to create 'good habits' that help make something routine. Achieving goals requires consistency. Achieving consistency requires creating reinforcing, positive behaviour that works towards the final goal. Creating good habits means creating something we do that may not even require a conscious decision. Good habits make conquering goals easier for ourselves.
Now for some lucky few, we already have some good habits in place. Our lifestyle choices are, on average - fairly good. Some of us have to try and turn bad habits into good habits. This is perhaps a most important step that has to come before we make that decision to follow up on goals and begin new programs or behaviours. Getting the system correct and in place before we try to overlay something more challenging on top is perhaps the most prudent step to take. Clean out the cupboard before layering more stuff inside.
Behavioural Psychologists talk about the 3 'R's of habit formation.
Reminder - The cue to perform an action (or trigger)
Routine - The action performed
Reward - the positive (or negative) response you receive from the action.
The 'reminder' is the key point in this process. If you can set up good reminders and identify which reminders create positive/negative behaviour, one can begin to manipulate the process to bring about the desired outcome. ie repeat or restrict the action.
Finding reminders in actions you already do and do 'from habit' are a great way of triggering other new habits. For example, so many people find it hard to give up smoking when they have a drink in a bar. This is often linked to the fact that when having a drink, a cigarette is a natural accompaniment. It's 'habit' to smoke when you drink. Imagine changing this habit by saying every time I have a drink - I do 25 push ups. Now this may be ridiculous and impractical, but imagine how much stronger and more behemoth you would become if this was your natural 'habit' of having a drink?
Reminders and actions also have to be reinforced but not being mountainous tasks that seem like an Everest Peak waiting to be climbed. As Leo Babauta says 'make it so easy you just can't say no'. Don't promise to do 45min of gruelling exercise. Build it up in stages. Commit to 10mins of work or stretching or exercise and find yourself celebrating those smaller achievements before you try to tackle the bigger obstacles. Rome wasn't built in a day. And the creation of 'routine' has to come from consistency, not massive efforts in singular doses.
Another factor to creating healthy habits is positive reinforcement- a reward. This is especially valid for fitness habits you may want to create. You have to keep doing fitness actions to achieve goals. ie - you have to 'do' the work. So getting that consistency requires effort and you need to make that a positive experience. Humans are pleasure junkies! The reaction that you receive from an action determines whether or not you want to repeat the behaviour or reinforce it.
Celebrating your smallest achievements is a great way to give that little hit of positivity that makes you feel good. It can be as small as a little self high five or telling your coach in a text message "great workout". Especially when you have nearly slept in and not got up, but then did and went for 15min run instead of a 30min run - congratulate yourself! You got up and did it. Having a daily list of achievements and being able to sit down at the end of the day and go 'tick tick tick' makes me feel positive about what I have achieved for the day - it can be as simple as that.
Reward also has to come from you. It's no good trying to stick to something or find a reward because someone else says it is important. Thats a temporary reward - it doesn't get to the core of the reward complex. Reward has to be important to you and mean something to you for it to be a driving factor to complete the Reminder/Routine steps.
Self talk is a powerful tool if you are able to recognise and manipulate it.
"The words you speak become the house you live in" - Hafiz
If you keep reinforcing yourself when you start your new regime - 'oh this is so hard, why am I doing this? Can I stop now?'. You are simply reinforcing all the negative connotations of the action. Self talk can be amazingly powerful if you monitor and believe in what you are doing. With every step of a jog, if you can say 'good/excellent/bravo/once more' - even on a 10min jog, the amount of positivity you are reinforcing for yourself is going to be massive. Don't begrudge your new habit - embrace it. Feel good about doing something that is going to see you enjoy your life more. Not letting your internal dialogue pull you down whilst you are doing an action is vital to creating a good reinforcing habit.
SO what does happen when you hit the snooze button on the alarm on that first rainy morning? We know it's going to happen. The best response is to have a plan in place when you fail. You are going to slip up. No-one is perfect. Recognising when you have not achieved or even failed to create your new habit and being able to 'pick back up' is vital to creating the consistency you need to reinforce and commit. So you fell off the bandwagon - I see this so many times with injury rehabilitation. Recognise that you aren't doing the best you could, but pick it back up straight away. Use that recognition to reinforce your commitment to achieving the task. Create a lever.
Some people need to create 'accountability' for their actions. So that if they do fail, there are consequences. This can be as simple as vacuuming the floors, writing lines or doing the lawn-mowing in your wife's Sunday Best. (Simpsons Episode). This is one thing the Catholics got right with 'confession'. Now I'm not saying postulating on the floor with arms spread in front of Mother Superior is everyones way of 'creating a lever' but you can see the accountability here. Picking back up when you falter is a great habit to get into.
Habits aren't easy but if you can use the 3 simple steps, you can see 'the plan' and identify where you may have missed a link. Keeping on track is vital and a great way to do this is to revisit what the intention was and targeting the 'steps' along the way. Staying on target and setting 'achievable' goals is the way to go about establishing a good routine that ultimately results in success.