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Your Habitual Power - Forming better patterns

written by Sarah C.

I was having lunch the other day with a friend, and when I resisted the bread-basket she compliment me on my strong willpower. I looked at her, as though she was a crazy person - my willpower is shaky at best, the fact that I still can't keep ice cream in my house is a case in point against my willpower. Not reaching for the breadbasket is actually just a habit. A few years ago when I was tackling my need to lose 50 pounds I concentrated on building new habits - not just reaching the goal. So, by developing healthy habits I could maintain, not just losing pounds, I still continue to look past the breadbasket helping to maintain my weight loss.

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I have found that forming positive new habits (and replacing negative old ones) is the only foolproof path to achievement there is.  Each small habit counts and they all "accumulate up" to your goals - there can't be real triumph without small wins along the way.  Its not like you just wake up one day as someone who exudes positive energy and contentment, ready to run 10 miles - but you can take small determined steps to get there.

So what my friend thought was willpower was more about me repeating a behavior enough times it required no thought (thinking about the bread and resisting it seems a lot harder and would deserve props!!) If you do something enough times it becomes a part of you (sometimes to a fault) and from that point on, it can be harder not to do something, than to do it.  If you think about it most of our lives consist of daily habitual actions. It's more about simply repeating an action than about doing something solely based on reason. You become like a computer executing a program step-by-step without much in the way of decision-making. For example, the time and way you brush your teeth probably doesn't vary much from day to day.  Its not something you think about anymore, you just do it, and you'll probably always do it the same way and at the same time unless you decided to make a conscious change.


So here is how I was able to form new healthier habits:

  • Devote 15 minutes a day to the formation of any habit you wish to establish, and do this faithfully for 21 days. By the fourth week, it should actually be harder not to engage in the new behavior than it would be to continue doing it. This applies to any type of habit, whether it is a physical practice or a way of perceiving something, such as self-image. If you miss a day, just keep going until you've been doing the new behavior for 21 days in a row.
  • Perform activity at the same time each day. It will help to establish the habit if the behavior, such as jogging, is performed at the same time of day, every day. One interesting thing about habit forming is that recent research has shown that each time you repeat a behavior, the context in which it occurs is linked in your mind to the activity itself.  Context in this example refers to the things happening around the activity - the time of day, the music that's playing, whether you're in your car or sitting in your favorite chair, and so on.  As explained by psychologist Wendy Wood and her team in Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits, an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "habit associations are represented in learning and memory systems separately from intentions, or decisions to achieve particular outcomes. Thus, walking into a dark room can trigger reaching for the light switch without any decision to do so."
  • Use other senses to help establish the habit. For example, if you want to establish the habit of meditating, you can reinforce the practice by wearing the same clothing, burning the same incense, occupying the same location, and assuming the same posture. The more senses you can involve in the new habit, the more likely it is to become ingrained in the neural pathways.
  • Be positive and stick to your plan. The importance of the things happening around your behavior, positive or negative, is something that isn't always recognized by people - but it's important.  In order to switch your behavior from manual to autopilot more quickly, associate happiness-inducing experiences with your new habit until it becomes something you do instinctively. Additionally, according to a recent study if you predict you will eat better and work out more next week, you probably will. The reason is that once you turn wishful thinking into a plan of action, that goal feels more accessible and your behavior becomes more consistent with your ideal, explains Vicki Morwitz, Ph.D., study co-author and research professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business in NY. "Self predictions can help reinforce good habits and disrupt bad ones," Morwitz says.

Your Challenge: Give it a try!  Pick a practice and make it a habit - chose one to start out with, such as eating a piece of fruit or doing deep breathing just after you wake up. Pick a time, a method and do it everyday.


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