Whether professionally or personally, our habits can come to define us. Our good habits can lead us to make progress and become successful, while our bad habits can cause us to fail. Habits are powerful, and they are difficult to make or break, but if you can gain control over your habits -- both positive and negative -- you can forge yourself into the person you want to become.
Of course, gaining control over your habits is easier said than done. Some go their whole lives without considering the fact that they can construct their own positive habits, or never succeed in breaking the habits that drag them down. There’s no shortcut to mastering your habits, since it’s always going to take discipline and hard work, but there’s one principle that can guide you to a greater success rate: the idea that habits are grounded in consistency.
How habits are formed
Habits don’t appear out of nowhere. They aren’t the products of genetics or random chance. Instead, they’re merely products of our behavior, accumulating after several repeated instances. You wake up one day, perform a specific action, and go about your business like normal. You wake up the next day, perform that action again, and go about your business like normal. After a few days of this, the action begins to stick.
The explanation for this behavior lies in human nature. We are driven to seek routines in our daily lives because they’re predictable, and predictable means safe. Whether those routines are positive or negative is irrelevant to the formula -- because those routines have gotten us this far, we are prescribed to continue following them, because deep down, we know they’re safe.
This process takes time, which makes it hard to form positive habits when the initial actions are decidedly unpleasant ones (such as waking up extra early or working out every morning). But once manifested, they’re exceptionally hard to break because they require the intentional repetition of a new, replacement habit for as long as it took to form the habit in the first place. This is great for positive habits, because it means they’ll stick around for a long time, but it’s terrible for negative habits because they’re all that much harder to break.
Making good habits stick for good
Positive habits are hard to form, but they’re almost always worthwhile. Whether it’s eating healthy, keeping your task list at work in line, or keeping up with your industry’s news on a regular basis, positive habits can lead you to a healthier, more productive, happier life. Unfortunately, creating those habits can be problematic, as the up-front work required to introduce these actions into your already-existing routine can be disruptive.
One strategy is to start small. Instead of trying to eat healthy food for every meal of every day, start with focusing on one meal -- such as a salad or vegetable for lunch every day. Instead of trying a new time-blocking strategy at work every day, start out with one day of the week. Then, once you’ve gotten used to that element of your routine, start introducing it to other areas -- in this case, the other meals or other days, respectively.
Make sure you don’t “break the chain” of your initial habit-forming process. If you’re building a new habit that depends on a daily action, don’t miss a day -- it could serve as an escape route if you convince yourself it’s not worth pursuing anymore.
Once your habit is a major part of your regular schedule, you’ll know -- you’ll start doing it automatically instead of making a concentrated effort for it.
Breaking bad habits forever
Breaking bad habits follows the same process as making new positive habits. If you have a habit of procrastinating, or a smoking habit, your first step is to break it down into smaller chunks. Instead of quitting cold turkey, reduce the frequency or intensity of your habit slowly, piece by piece, in manageable chunks.
You’ll also want to avoid “breaking the chain” here. During the early stages of your habit-breaking process, if you can consistently follow your outlined plan, eventually the process will become automatic to you.
An alternative strategy to breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a positive habit. While you gradually reduce the impact and presence of the negative habit in your routine, start replacing it with a gradual introduction of a new, good habit. For example, if you find yourself aimlessly browsing the web around 3 p.m. each work day, replace that time with reading industry-specific news.
Making and breaking habits isn’t an easy process, but once you understand that consistency can make anything possible, you’ll have a much easier time forming and executing your plans.