Our habits are the cornerstone of how we operate in the world and, as high achieving individuals, we are always looking to form good habits that elevate our game, make us better, and help us achieve our goals.
But what is a habit really? And why is it so hard to form a new one? And what are the simple ways one can self-program a new habit?
Simply put, when an action or behavior gets ‘programmed’ into our brains in a way that it feels like a default process that we perform on autopilot, we call it a habit. Neuroscience studies show that habits are formed in three steps, first we deliberately explore a new behavior that has value to us, second, we repeat the behavior until we make it a habit, and finally, the continued repetition further imprints it in the brain.
In other words, to form a new habit, the most important thing is to repeat a deliberate valuable behavior or action relentlessly until it becomes deeply programmed. It is hard because we want it to happen quickly, but instead, we must give it the repetitions, the time and the emotional investment.
Here are some of my favorite tips on forming new habits:
1. Connect your new habit to a meaningful ‘why’: Connect your new habit to a meaningful why – what is that powerful, extraordinary outcome in your life with this habit. From a neuroscience perspective this weaponizes your habit-forming intention with a powerful personal reward. For example, why do you want that habit of waking up earlier? Perhaps to experience an amazing, energized day packed with accomplishment – now visualize yourself felling that amazing and connect powerfully to that.
2. Set simple action rules for the new habit: Deconstruct the new habit into all the sub-actions that need to be in place for you to succeed and set rules for each of them. For example, for a new habit of waking up early, you want to identify all the sub-actions you need in place – what time you need to stop caffeine the night before, what time you need to sleep, what time is the alarm set for, and how you will make sure you get out of bed at time.
So, your simple rules might be: No coffee after 4pm any day; Nighttime routine by 10pm so that you are sleeping on time; Set alarm for 6 am. Place alarm clock or phone in next room so that you have to get out of bed and walk over. Text an accountability buddy that you woke up at 6.
These simple action rules will help institutionalize the habit and help set you up for success.
3. Do the Reps and don’t give up– Taking the simple action steps and repeating it again and again is the most important part of creating a habit. If you drop the ball, pick it back up – do the reps of the new habit relentlessly without getting disheartened.
Studies show that the length of time to form each habit depends on your unique brain, the complexity of your new habit, your system and circumstance, so keep going. The only way to do it is to do it and keep doing it!
4. Prepare ahead for weak moments– the reps will need intention and energy and you will likely have many a weak moment. Prepare ahead for what will happen during those weak moments – what emotions and excuses might come up and what will you do to override them. In the example of waking up early, what will you say to yourself when the brain says, “I don’t feel like it” or “it’s too cold” or “give yourself a break today”. Consider a support system where you can call a friend for support and cheerleading, have an accountability partner, read a self-affirmation message that re-motivates you.
5. Visualize yourself with your new habit– Imagine in a compelling way, yourself with your new habit and think about it a lot. This also strengthens the neural pathways you are creating. Focus your attention, emotion and energy on the new habit every day – read about it, obsess over it, talk about it, make it the most important thing in your life, keep it front of mind.
6. Have fun and celebrate– if you drop the ball, pick it back up. Don’t self judge. Celebrate the habit wins. Do little experiments with your habit to get creative. Keep it interesting and challenging for yourself. Don’t give up!