Our lives are our habits. That is true for all of us whether we realize it or not. Waking up early or late, drinking coffee in the morning, eating or opening Facebook when stressed – those and countless others are the habits that define how we live our lives on a daily basis.
Few months ago I did a test – I counted how many times per day I open the BBC news app? Shocked doesn’t start to describe my reaction when I counted 27 times in one day! 27 times! How was that possible? Very simple – I developed a habit that every time my brain was tired or started wondering around, I picked up the phone and went to that specific app. The worrying part was that I didn’t even realize it – I have simply trained my brain to do it, no questions asked. The more I did it, the stronger neuro link I built, the easier for me to go back to the app next time my brain decides to wonder. Let me repeat that part because it is extremely important – the more you repeat an activity (look at the BBC app) once you are in a specific state (brain tired or starts to wonder), the stronger the neuro link you built; thus, increasing the chance that next time you are in that state you will do that same activity. A process called conditioning in the broad neuroscience.
And, of course, we like to think that everything we do is great and has great value to our lives and humanity – but we simply build stories to justify our behavior. No, reading news every 20 min very likely will not add great value to your life. It didn’t add to mine. But it feels good. Your brain and body calm down because you move to a familiar territory. But this doesn’t mean it adds value to your life – so what can you do?
Step 1: Write down clearly the current habit and the state that produces it.
Example: I open BBC app on my phone when my brain is tired or starts to wonder.
Step 2: Write down the problem you see in the current situation – try to quantify it, make the pain real.
Example: I open the BCC app 27 times per day and I spent on average 2 min reading. I lose 54 minutes – which is basically 1 hour per day on reading random news. Wow – it means I can add one more hour to my day doing things I want to! Now I am interested to change!
Step 3: Write down the exact activity you will perform once you get in that same state.
Example: Instead of opening the BBC app when my brain is tired or starts to wonder, I will talk to people.
Select an activity that gives you energy, that you enjoy doing. I love talking to people, so now I have conditioned myself to communicate with people when my brain starts to wonder. If in office, I talk to a colleague. At home – to my wife. If nobody is around me, I pick up the phone and call somebody.
Step 4: Consciously track and ensure you have 20 consecutive occasions when the state happens and you perform the newly desired activity.
Take a piece of paper, write the numbers from 1 to 30 and start tracking. Don’t try to automate or digitalize on email reminders or apps – use simple pen and paper. Don’t forget – you need to have 30 times to consecutively perform the new activity! Reason again is to weaken the neuro links to the old activity and to strengthen the new one. I must put the disclaimer that if you want to change habits that you have had for many, many years (i.e. smoking), 30 consecutive occasions will likely not be enough and you need to go for a higher number. However, the process and the principles remain the same.
Also, it is much easier to change an activity associated with a state. It is extremely difficult in most cases to change or remove state. In this case, thinking I can train my brain to be 18 hours a day without wondering is kind of impossible. So, be careful if you want to change or remove a given state – that really qualifies for mega advanced, Yoda level of habit and state management.
Here is your simple blueprint for changing any habit you want. Start by selecting one thing at a time – one thing only! Which will you pick? Take the first step now – share in the comments!
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