We work hard to obtain what we want but in certain areas of our lives, the changes just don’t seem to stick. In today’s article, I discuss how we can use habits to bring us the lasting change we desire.
Willpower and guilt
I think the biggest roadblock we face when we’re trying to implement a positive change is that we think it’s a question of willpower. When we face setbacks, as we inevitably will, we say to ourselves “I gave in. This means my willpower sucks” or something along those lines. We beat ourselves up and feel guilty. In that headspace, it’s easy for us to think that change is impossible and throw in the towel.
What’s even worse is that negative friend. The one who smirks, folds their arms across their chest and says “I thought you said you were going to start working out/quit smoking/start eating better/save more money? What happened to that?” This leads us to feeling even more guilt and prevents us from trying again for fear of failing again.
The good news is that making positive changes in our lives isn’t only about willpower.
I listened to an audiobook a while back called The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg. He was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and in 2006, he became a reporter for the New York Times. I found his book to be a fascinating exploration into human behaviour in all areas of life from consumer behaviour to sports to addiction to company cultures.
The three main takeaways in understanding habits were:
- The Keystone Habit: how changing one key behaviour triggers change in several other areas
- The Habit Loop: understanding the neurological way in which both good and bad habits work, which is cue-trigger-reward
- The Golden Rule of Habit: which is essentially that the best way to change a bad habit is to replace it with a good one
When we understand the mechanics of how habits work, we can then use them to our advantage. Think about any habit that you have, good or bad. It could be waking up early, going to the gym, biting your nails or watching too much TV. What do these habits have in common? You don’t consciously think about them. You just do them. They’re automatic.
This points to how we can harness the power of habits to create lasting change in our lives.
The self-fulfilling mental image
Another concept that Duhigg points out is that we all have a powerful need to be who we believe we are. This concept is called a self-fulfilling mental image. Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate the concept.
If you believe you are a generous person, you will act how you think a generous person acts. If someone is doing a charity run, you’ll donate. If your office is having a bake sale, you will pay more than the cost of the tasty treat. If a friend is sick, you’ll drop off some chicken soup.
If you proudly consider yourself to be a skeptic, you will tend to question everything. Is this new workout program a fad? Will this product actually work for me, or is this sales person just trying to scam me? You won’t take things at face value.
An interesting point that Duhigg makes is that we can actually hack into our self-fulfilling mental image to form new habits. In other words, we can “fake it till we make it.” We can set the belief first and our behaviour will follow.
I can personally attest to this concept with my blog. I remember when I started, I said to myself “I will publish on Mondays and Thursdays”. I wasn’t sure how I would do that or what kind of time commitment that entailed; I had even never created content before. I had no one to hold me accountable. All I knew was that the content creators I liked posted at regular intervals and on specific days. This was whom I wanted to identify with.
Upon making this decision, something interesting happened. Little habits began forming on their own. For instance, I started a log on my Notes app to jot down topics to discuss and I rearranged my schedule to make time for writing. If a friend wanted to do something during my writing time, I politely declined citing the reason, and they understood and worked around my schedule. These habits came from fulfilling mental image of who I wanted to be. I do plan on modifying this schedule in the future, but the fact that I could sustain producing content according to this schedule for almost a year with very little willpower helped me to understand how the self-fulfilling mental image leads to habits which in turn leads to the desired outcome.
Putting it all together
By understanding the mechanics of habits and the self-fulfilling mental image, you now have some basic tools to make lasting change.
Let’s say your goal is to get a promotion. Do you consider yourself to be a boss? What kinds of leaders do you identify with? Are there any bad habits you could swap for good habits? Is there one area which, if you knew you improved, would set off a chain reaction and affect other areas? This reflection requires introspection and self-awareness and perhaps some feedback from a colleague or mentor whom you trust but the effect will be profound. This exercise will help you align your habits with your desired outcome. It won’t be a question of willpower: it will become automatic.
Once you succeed in making those changes and the promotion comes, it will certainly feel great, but above and beyond that will be the pride you feel inside for conquering your bad habits and/or limiting behaviours. You succeeded in becoming a new and improved version of yourself. When you start using the power of habits to produce lasting change, the possibilities of what you can accomplish are endless.
I hope that this article has given you a taste of Charles Duhigg’s groundbreaking work. I invite you to check out his book The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business as well as his Ted Talk.