Creating a Habit
“In truth, the only difference between those who have failed and those who have succeeded lies in the differences of their habits. Good habits are the key to all success. Bad habits are the unlocked door to failure. Thus, the first law I will obey, which precedeth all others is – I will form good habits and become their slave. ” —Og Mandino, Greatest Salesman in the World
Habits die hard. Anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows this all too well. I tried to stop smoking several times without success before I finally nailed it. Habits are there of a reason. They free your brain from having to consciously process everything you do. What happens is, your brain takes everything you do routinely and turns it into an automated process, a habit that runs in the background while your brain focuses on the things you do that require your conscious attention.
As a habit acquires more and more triggers and associations, the stickier it gets. Take for instance smoking. You may want to smoke when you need to do some super focused thinking or when you want to relieve stress or when you want to stay upbeat at a party or when you are drinking with friends or when taking a break at work. Over time this becomes habit.
Before you know it, you are buying a pack if cigs everyday as you go to work without even thinking about it. After a stressful meeting at work, you just reach for the pack and head for the smoking area. (Smoking areas, by the way, are a new development. Used to be, you just reach for your pack and light up wherever you feel like.) When a friend calls you for a break, you just automatically reach for the pack. The thing is, gradually over time, smoking has been built-in to most of your activities and is also increasingly associated with many pleasant emotions. Now try to stop smoking. [evil grin]
What is not so evident, is that smoking here is not a single habit but many habits. It is so integral to many of your activities that to break it, would require you to extract yourself from your life and endure a great deal of emotional deprivation. Okay, it’s hard.
Breaking the Habit
I finally managed to quit smoking when I graduated from college. Actually it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I used to think it was just my disciplined mind and dogged determination that got me through it. But thinking back, what made it easier for me, was the fact that I was transitioning from student to job hunter (or unemployed as my mother chose to see it).
All the activities that smoking was associated with, had disappeared and I was free to integrate new activities into my life sans the smoking. I still had to contend with my physical addiction to nicotine and the loss of my security blanket, but as I gained 18 pounds, I kicked the habit. I eventually lost the weight I gained, so it still has a happy ending for me. I still sneak in a smoke or two every so often but I never got hooked as bad as I did as a student.
Likewise, consider what a newly retired person has to go through, especially someone who has been working all his life for 40+ years. Decades of acquired habits will suddenly lose their triggers. This could actually be a very good opportunity renew oneself, to start afresh. But in many cases, people are just overwhelmed by the immensity of the change they have to endure after retirement, not to mention the loss of all the reinforcing emotional rewards associated with those past activities. To be cut off from our habits with none in its stead can be as crippling as a severed limb.
The Best Way to Make that Change
“For it is another of nature’s laws that only a habit can subdue another habit.”–Og Mandino, Greatest Salesman in the World
The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a better one. Og Mandino in his book the “Greatest Salesman in the World” suggests that it takes 30 days to create a habit. Matt Cutts (see video) says the same. The first page results of my search gave me anywhere from 15 to 30 days. To be in the safe side let’s just assume that it takes 30 days.
So if you have a habit you want to break, deliberately take the time and effort to do something else instead. Remember it has to be a conscious, deliberate and repetitive effort, because if you don’t focus on the new behaviour and do it every time, over and over again for at least 30 days, the old habit will sneakily kick back in and it’s business as usual. Your mind will fight it. It will, if it can, maintain the status quo, because that is the only way it can function efficiently. For the most part that’s a good thing. But when it comes to breaking bad habits, it really sucks.
This is going to be a battle between your mind that wants stability, and your will to make a change. The key here is focus, determination and persistence. Your mind will shut this operation down if it can, so you need to be on your guards. The good news is, as your mind gets used to this new behaviour routine it settles, and a new habit is formed in place of the old one.
Watch a TED video: Matt Cutts: Try something new for 30 days