Monday Mornings with Madison

The Amazing Power of Habits – Part 3

Establishing Good Habits

For the last two weeks, we’ve been considering the power of habits.  We learned that habits reside in the basal ganglia within the brain and that habits are separate and independent from memory and learning.  We discovered that nearly half of all our daily behavior and decisions are actually driven by habits rather than conscious, deliberate thought.   Once habits are formed, they become more formidable in controlling behavior as they become ever more entrenched in our brain’s neural pathways.  Breaking bad habits, therefore, can be a challenge… although not impossible.  The key is to change or remove the cues triggering the habit or the rewards reinforcing it.  Even so, breaking a bad habit requires a lot of deliberate thought.

Scientists have discovered that one of the best ways to break a bad habit is to simply replace it with a new good habit.  Actually one habit doesn’t so much replace another.  Rather, one habit fades while another is reinforced.  So, instead of expending a lot of money, energy and time breaking bad habits, most people are better off establishing and reinforcing good habits.  Over time, the new good habits will become entrenched in the brain’s neural pathways while old habits fade (through lack of use and reinforcement) even though they can still be triggered by old cues.  When harnessed for good, habits can be incredibly productive and positive.  Here are 11 tips to help establish new ‘good’ habits.

No Such Thing as Good or Bad Habits

For the brain, there are actually no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ habits.  When it comes to habits, the basal ganglia part of the brain is amoral and cannot distinguish a good habit from a bad one. In creating habits, what the brain ‘sees’ is that an action is being routinely performed so it would benefit from an improved neural pathway for more efficient processing.  Thus, the process of establishing a good or bad habit is the same.  Creating a new ‘good’ habit is just as easy as it was to establish old bad habits.  The formula is the same:  cue + behavior = reward… Then, repeat… repeat…. repeat… repeat.   While the process is made easier if the habit activity has some good rewards associated to it, the reward is not what makes a habit. The habit is formed by repetition and the establishment of the neural pathways.

Of course, for people and businesses, some habits are deemed good and other judged bad or harmful.  Given how automatic habits are, the goal is to establish good ones.  Success in many things boils down – at least about 50% — to the establishment of good habits.

Top 11 Tips for Establishing a New Habit

Here are some tips to help the process.  Imagine that a person wants to establish a habit of drinking more water daily (and thus drinking less soda and coffee).

Identify the habit.

Make the objective clear and specific. That makes it easier to establish.  For the person who wants to drink more water, the objective might be:  drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day.

Visualize the habit.

Visualize the habit perfectly.  Mentally rehearsing the goal or objective helps the mind and body train to perform the skill or behavior.  In this case, the person should see the eight glasses of water and imagine drinking the glasses of water.

List the benefits of the habit.

Identify any benefits of the new habit.  Cost savings.  Improved social relationships.  Improved health.  Better financial picture.  It helps to have a list of all the ways that life will improve thanks to the new habit.  A person that drinks more water will spend less money on coffee and soda at home and in restaurants.  Since most restaurants make much more money on drinks than food, that is a big savings.  Drinking more water will help with digestion.  A person that drinks more water will have an easier time losing weight.  Drinking more water also helps skin to be more hydrated and healthy.

Commit to the habit.

Practice makes perfect.  There will be mistakes and slips along the way. Commit to continuing the habit even when you falter.  Accept the failure as part of the process and don’t feel guilty about it.  For the person wanting to drink more water, there may be a day at work that is so hectic that he forgets to drink any water.  It’s best to accept the failure and commit to doing better the next day. The person can bring a water bottle to make it easier to still drink water even on busy days when he can’t get to the water cooler.

Take baby steps.

Build up to the goal.  Start slow and then, over time, increase toward the goal.  Initially, the water drinker can start by drinking four glasses of water a day.  After a week, he can increase to five glasses of water daily for another week.  And continue to increase the number of glasses of water weekly until he is drinking eight glasses daily consistently.

Set reminders and rewards.

Post the goal(s) everywhere where you spend time as reminders.  Once the goal(s) is met, or even partially met, reward yourself.  But the reward should not undermine the goal.  The water drinker might put a picture of a pitcher of water as screen saver on the phone and computer.  After a week of drinking 64 ounces of water daily, he might reward himself with a bottle of flavored water.

Eliminate or avoid temptations.

Not only is it important to establish cues or triggers for the habit, it is also equally important to eliminate anything that gets in the way of the habit.  The person wanting to drink more water should stay away from the coffee machine and soda vending machine at work.  He should only buy flavored waters and avoid the soda and juice isles at the grocery store.  At restaurants, he should order water even if he is also going to have wine with dinner.

Make time to self-motivate.

Motivation is essential to create a habit.  Set a time each week to recommit and get motivated.  In the beginning, the need to self motivate may be daily.  For a person who wants to increase their water intake, each morning he might need to remind himself that water is good and helps increase stamina and fights lethargy.

Choose consistency over performance.

It is better to repeat the behavior daily even if the build up to the goal is slower.  It is repetition that establishes the habit and neural pathways in the brain.  A person who wants to drink more water can increase the intake even just a few ounces weekly.  But the goal is for the person to always order, ask for, have and drink water when drinking anything at all.  And it is not enough to just drink more water.  The activities that act as triggers should be repeated in much the same way daily, such as always filling a bottle of water before leaving home to have in the car, always ordering water at restaurants, and always filling a glass of water to have at the desk before starting work in the morning and after lunch.  It is important for the cues to be the same each day.

Get support.

It is important to have others to provide comfort, encouragement and help when starting something challenging.  Have someone track accomplishments and monitor progress.  The person increasing their water intake might also want to have others at work and home commit to the same goal.  To help with tracking, he might use a phone app that helps tracks the amount of water consumed at any point in the day.  Weight Watchers’ app, for example, has a section that tracks daily water intake.

Repetition is key.

Even after your goals are set and met, it is important to continue reinforcing the habit.  Habits fade if not repeated.  A person who increased their water intake to 64 ounces daily cannot revert back to having coffee at break time and ordering sodas at lunch without ultimately undermining the water-drinking habit.  The idea is to think of it as a lifelong change.

Following these tips, the average person should have little trouble establishing a good habit.  It is unclear, however, how long a behavior should be repeated to become a habit.  Some believe a habit can be formed in as little as 10 days, depending on the amount of repetition. The more a behavior is performed, the more reinforcement is given to that habit and the stronger it becomes.  Most experts agree that habits are formed within three to four weeks time, assuming the habit is repeated regularly in that time.  Considering the power of habits, its worth trying to make all good behaviors into habits.  So get started.  Identify one singular thing you want to make a habit.


Quote of the Week

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle


© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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