Making a Habit

Bill Abbate
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Habits. You wish you could get rid of some, and you cannot live without others. Good habits and bad habits are two sides of the same coin, and the coin is you!

Habits give you power, and take it away. They help you achieve goals and steal them from you. Habits give you freedom or make you a prisoner. They are one of those things you can't live with and can't live without at times.

“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.” Nathanael Emmons (1745-1840)

How habits affect your life

Habits have a great number of attributes; some good, some bad, some ugly. They are a significant part of life and living. Seeing and understanding habits can be the beginning of reshaping your life. Ignore them at your peril!

Here's the crux of habits – they control you, and you can take it back if you are up to it. You gain the greatest power over them when you can name them individually, recognizing what they control. You can allow them to remain on autopilot or modify or stop them completely.

A large portion of your life is on autopilot. Habits are so automatic they control about 40% to 95% of your actions each day. That can be good or lead to disaster, depending on the habit.

The making of a habit

A habit is simply a cycle called the habit loop. The habit loop consists of a:

  • Cue
  • Routine
  • Reward

The cue acts as a trigger, starting the routine. When the routine is complete, you receive a result or reward.
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The benefit of naming your habits

By simply naming a habit, it becomes a visible object. Seeing it and naming it allows you to understand what lies beneath it. When you reach the point where you know why and how you developed the habit, you can work on changing it.

Before discussing how to change a habit, let's look at two basic types of habits: good or helpful and bad or harmful. Good habits throughout each day can include things like:

  • Working out (health habit)
  • Showering (cleanliness habit)
  • Eating a healthy breakfast (nutritious habit)
  • Driving to work (discipline habit)
  • Checking email without getting lost in it (email habit)
  • Dressing for work (looking good habit)
  • Maintaining a reasonable schedule (timeliness habit)
  • Taking regular breaks (R&R habit)
  • Heading home at a decent hour (discipline habit)
  • Eating with the family each evening (family habit)
  • Reading each day (personal growth habit)
  • Turning into bed about the same time each night and getting sufficient sleep (sleeping habit)

Notice the name I chose next to each in parentheses. Naming each habit helps me stay aware of them as I am always trying to improve my best habits when possible. Habits such as these may occur every weekday, week in and week out, month after month, year after year. Within each habit can be nested other habits. For example, when you eat, you can make a habit of chewing your food well, drinking plenty of fluids, and helping with the dishes. Or, while heading home in the evening, you can develop a habit of listening to soothing music (instead of a talk show that only winds you up.)

While some habits serve you well, what about those that do not? They could be things like:

  • Nail-biting (nervousness habit)
  • Being pessimistic when you arrive at work each day (lousy attitude habit)
  • Watching the news and worrying about things you cannot control (negativity habit)
  • Overusing slang (unprofessional speaking habit)
  • Smoking cigarettes (killing myself slowly habit)
  • Ignoring the nutritional value of food (sloppy eating habit)
  • Snacking while watching TV (gaining weight habit)
  • Eating everything put before you (starving kid habit)
  • Having a high-calorie soda at lunch every day (sugar habit)
  • Gossiping (sin habit)
  • Procrastinating on various decisions (stalling habit)
  • Taking things people say too seriously (taking things too personal habit)

And on and on and on they go. Again, notice I named each habit to make them real so I can more fully recognize their effect on me.

The list of helpful and harmful habits is practically endless and unique to each of us. Why not make similar lists of each of your helpful and harmful habits. Be sure to name each, making them recognizable and memorable, which gives you power over them.

Changing a habit

“Good habits are the key to all success. Bad habits are the unlocked door to failure.” Og Mandino (1923-1996)

You want to keep good habits that support your life in the right way, but how can you change a bad habit?

While simple to explain, it can be challenging to do. By naming the habit, you bring it to the forefront of your mind when you speak its name. The best technique to change any habit is to interrupt the habit loop. For example, say you are committed to losing weight and have a habit of ignoring basic nutritional values in food. You determined sugar and fat are the dietary components to watch. Give the habit a provocative name like "Ignorant."

Every time you decide to snack or eat a meal and have no idea how much sugar and fat you are about to consume, speak the name "ignorant." By saying the habit name, you interrupt the cue (the hunger trigger in this case.) Interrupting the habit allows you to insert something in its place, thereby changing the loop. As you continue to practice this, you can eventually supplant the original habit with a new one. As with anything in life, this only works if you are serious about change. Note that you can interrupt a habit in any part of the loop with similar results.

I used to love to snack on junk food while watching Netflix. When I started snacking on something unhealthy, I would say to myself, "I do not want this habit of ignorance in my life!" Then I would stop and grab a carrot or stalk of celery (no peanut butter!). Over a short period, I broke the routine of eating unhealthy snacks while binging on Netflix. Eventually, I no longer craved a bad snack, yet I continued to snack while watching Netflix.

Netflix was the next habit I attacked using this method. I named it my "time-sucker habit." When I fall into watching Netflix too often, I remember the name and speak it – "time-sucker" and find something more productive to do.

I have now trained myself to be less casual about wasting time binging on Netflix. In its place, I started a new habit I named "reading." By replacing "time-sucker" over time with "reading," I overcame my excessive Netflix habit, forming what I consider a much healthier use of my time.

You can also use this tactic by interrupting the routine or reward part of the habit loop by attacking it to modify, change, or stop the habit in the same way.

If you attack one part of a loop and it doesn't work, switch to another part of the loop. Experimenting will help you gain firsthand experience. You can even have some fun and make it a game, especially if you are the competitive type! There is no tougher competition than yourself!

Final thoughts

The bottom line of habits is after you name and interrupt the habit, the success you find will depend on your intent and commitment. If your intent and commitment are strong, you will do well. If you have little or no intention of changing and are unwilling to commit, why bother?

Why are intent and commitment important? Together they create discipline! Remember this simple formula to help you in life:

Intent + Commitment = Discipline

When you have a strong enough intent and are fully committed, you will find the discipline to do the work. As a wise man once said:

"We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons." Jim Rohn 1930-2009)

And don't forget to replace the bad habit with something good whenever possible. If you want to build the best possible life, understand your habits and make them work for you. If you care about your life and those you love, reduce your time on autopilot with habits that poorly serve you.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Invest time in yourself to examine your habits. Make a list of as many good and bad habits as you can. Get someone to help you with this and, at the same time, help them with theirs. By the time you finish, you will know yourself far better, especially the hidden parts.

It's always worthwhile to get to know yourself better, don't you think? Why not give it a try? Use your journal to record your habits and those you are working on. Over time you may find you have made great strides and will have turned the power of habits to your advantage!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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