Be fanatical about good habits

by | May 6, 2018 | Mindfulness

It was Mark Twain who first said, “Good habits are worth being fanatical about.” I couldn’t agree more as my habits have become the backbone of my life. They are what keep me on the straight and narrow. They are the daily steps that ensure that my dreams come true. They are what get me through the days when the mind plays tricks on me and tries to convince me that giving up is my only option. In my experience no matter how good the list, process or regime, if the steps don’t become a habitual part of my life, transformation either doesn’t happen or it doesn’t last. Real, lasting change happens when intentional actions become daily habits.

“Real, lasting change happens when intentional actions become daily habits.”

—Pamela J. Alexander

If habits are that important, the big question is, “Is there an easy way to create daily habits and what exactly is that process?” The short answer is yes. Here a scientifically proven steps-by-step process that was not too long ago verified as I updated my own morning ritual. 

Step 1: Visualize your outcome and be clear about why you want what you want

There are two parts to visualization. 1) Researchers find that abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. What’s abstract thinking? It’s the ability to think about things that are not grounded in the facts of the “here and now,” like daydreaming! So if you’re going to dream, dream big. The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is 2) they aren’t clear about exactly why they want the change to happen. Why may seem obvious, but not knowing exactly why you want something could undermine our motivation over time. Without that piece of the puzzle excessive fantasizing can be extremely detrimental to the stickiness of any habit. So if you don’t know why you want what you want chances are you won’t stick with it. So your fantasies need details to work for you.

Step 2: Be specific about how you will approach your goal.

In a study Lien B. Pham and Shelley E. Taylor, researchers at UCLA, found that those who engaged in visualizations that included thinking about what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about eating healthy, by visualizing themselves eating a fish or fowl with salad a veggies for lunch) were more likely to stay consistent than those (who visualized themselves simply being healthy). The visualization process worked because planning helped focus their attention on the steps needed to reach the goal and helped them manage their emotion because seeing how easy the steps were reduced their anxiety. So the clearer you are about what you want, the more vividly you can see the benefits and the more specific the new picture in your mind, the more likely you are to make that change. 

Step 3: Make “micro quotas” to achieve your goals

Once you’ve dared to dream and are clear about exactly what you want to achieve and how you’re going to approach it, the next step is to create what many call micro quotas. No matter how big, hairy and audacious your goal, as Tim Ferris says, it should be broken down into the minimum amounts of work you need to do every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. Broken down to manageable bits, your quotas feel entirely achievable and that makes your goals feel easy. Remember the 2009 film “Julie and Julia?” Well it was a blog before it was a movie. The point of the blog, Julie Powell shared her experience as she tried to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s 1961 classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” within one year. To achieve her goal she had to cook 1 or 2 recipes a day. So, cooking 1 or 2 recipes a day was her micro quota. From grocery shopping to finding rare ingredients it all seems less daunting when you only have to think about one recipe a night, right? That’s the beauty of micro quotas.

Step 4: Integrated your new habits

The next step is to integrate your new habits so that they flow into your life as it is already. It is far easier to add things to our current routines, than trying to overhaul our lives. Use your existing routine to support your new behavior. So look at your existing schedule and embed your new habit to it. For instance, instead of simply trying to drink more water, you could think, “I’ll drink a glass of water first thing every morning when I wake up.” Then put a pitcher on your bedside table. That way your new behavior is embedded into something that you do every day anyway. Studies, like this one, show that this method works much better than willpower! So the next time you decide to eat healthier, instead of saying something vague like “I’m going to get healthier,” instead decide that, “Everyday for lunch I’ll only eat fish or foul and vegetables or salad at lunchtime.” That’s not an intention, that’s a plan.

Step 5: Eliminate excessive options

A variety of research on self-control suggests that there is great power in being boring. American tech circles Steve Jobs embraced this idea and is known for wearing his “uniform of a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers.” But he’s not the only one, scientists to fashion mavens have all gone down his path. Here are some you might know. But why? Scientific evidence found that making repeated choices depletes our mental energy, otherwise known and will power, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant. Much cited researcher Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues’ have done countless studies. In the study she and her team did this year states, while “some researchers have put forward rival theoretical accounts, and others have questioned the existence of the phenomenon. The weight of evidence continues to support the usefulness of the strength model…” So for now, don’t overtax your willpower with too many decisions because you only have so much per day and if you use it too much and it will stop working. Be habitual instead.

“Our habits need to supports our hopes, dreams and ambitions. If they don’t, we need to change our habits not our dreams.”

—Pamela J. Alexander

Step 6: Allow for plan updates.

New habits are often very fragile, and it is for this reason that we must eliminate pitfalls that may lead us astray and makes us want to say, “This is not working! Why bother?” We must be both patient and realistic. Thinking that one plan will work for all phases of your life is a sure fire way to set yourself up to fail. I had a morning ritual that worked superbly. Then Sebastian and I moved plus he accepted a new job in a different part of the city and our schedules totally changed. Then I realized that while I found a new exercise schedule, which I never had before, and my writing scheduled continued to go from strength to strength, I wasn’t meditating as regularly as I was before. So adjustments were needed. What worked before no longer worked in our new circumstances. These are the very steps that I used to get myself back on track.

“Creating a live you love requires intentional work, not hard work.”

—Pamela J. Alexander

So what does it all mean? Our habits need to supports our hopes, dreams and ambitions. If they don’t, we need to change our habits not our dreams. For real change we must actively do the work and integrate the philosophy and ideas into our daily lives. Both research and my own experience supports a simple 6 step process:

  1. Visualizing,
  2. Being specific,
  3. Making small manageable micro quotas,
  4. Integrating quotas into our existing routines,
  5. Eliminating options,
  6. And finally allowing for change as we evolve.

Reading the how the process works may make it sound like a lot of work, but you can sit down and write this out in about 15 minutes. Easy, yes? So the good news is that often creating a life you love requires intentional work, not hard work. 

What do you think? Write a comment below. Good, bad or indifferent I want to hear from you.

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