What Will Truly Help You Achieve Your Goals?
Habits are lasting. Some habits are more harder to break than others. And a few are almost impossible to get rid of. Does this sound familiar?
So, in order to make healthy food choices, we only need to form the equivalent habit. Right? Once established, your new healthy food choices will occur automatically, meaning without willpower and self discipline. What do you think? Sounds easy peasy, doesn’t it?
Well, here comes the catch!
How does it work to make a change to daily behaviour like food choices?
Is it really more or less easy to reshape our habits? Or is this approach too much of a slippery slope?
Here is how it works The accomplishing of changing a behaviour is deeply rooted in scientific evidence known as “The Habit Loop”. It explains HOW HABITS ARE FORMED.
The habit loop starts with an external prompt: a time of day, an environment that we enter, seeing or smelling something, etc.
It is then followed by a routine: It’s breakfast time so we drink coffee. We’re sitting at our computer, so we check for emails. We see a tasty package of sweets so we eat some of these sweets.
Then we are receiving the reward: The coffee taste delicious and gives us the morning kick. The tidy inbox gives us a sense of accomplishment. And the cookie…. Well, the sweets just taste delicious.
Brilliant. Since we now understand how it works we can easily use this process to accomplish anything we want!
Just follow this process
Prompt: Get home from work, see your running shoes.
Routine: Get changed, heading outside and run.
Reward: Released endorphins from running, satisfaction of accomplishment and maybe treating yourself to a smoothie when you get home!
So, we only need to repeat this process until this habit becomes soft wired habit. It seems simple enough, wouldn’t you agree?
We only need to design habits in our life and follow this process until they become automatic. This seems like the easiest and most effective way of changing behaviours to accomplish our goals. But this process has downsides. It does make sense in theory, but it fails in the real world with many of our behaviours we so hardly try to change. Because let’s face it. A good habit that contributes to our health doesn’t need to be changed. It’s these misappropriate behaviours that are difficult to change. But in order to understand a better solution to this challenge we need to dive deeper into the subject.
First let’s have a look at the benefits of automated behaviour.
THE ADVANTAGES OF HABITS
Habits conserve resources Whenever we make a conscious decision about something, we use mental resources. Or in other words, we use our willpower. But if this decision making is automated by a habit, it requires much less mental energy. Our whole body system is built on and evolved using and conserving energy most appropriate. From this aspect it is crucial for our brain to constantly saving mental energy for more complicated tasks that might occur at any given time.
Habits are useful when we’re stressed or tired A good habit can be very useful to fall back on. For example: you have developed a habit of eating a healthy snack, even if you’re stressed. You have a habit of no smoking, even you’re stressed.
Habits are very useful when it’s comes to automated activities We wouldn’t be able to drive a car without the help of automated behaviours (habits). Our brain does not have the capacity to use mental energy on a task like this for a longer time. You might remember the first time you tried to get a car moved. These sort of tasks has to be automated or soft wired in our brain in order to accomplish them over a long period of time.
Now let’s have a look of some disadvantages of automated behaviours.
THE DOWNSIDE OF HABITS.
1. Habits are formed in the primitive brain Do you recognize the following scenario? You just got home from work and you have big aspiration to go to your local gym for a workout, but you feel all of a sudden tired and exhausted. Now the internal debate begins. Part of you is trying to advocate, that you feel exhausted and need to rest, while the other part of you is telling that you should be committed to goals and aspirations regarding your health.
It sounds like Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hide, Like we have two competing minds – and we do! One is called the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, desires and rewards (the primitive brain). This is the part that wants you to relax and rest (and eating sweets). The other part is the prefrontal cortex, the logical mind, which is responsible for thinking, communication and long-term goals (the evolved brain). This is the part that wants you to hit the gym!
Because habits require no thought and next to no mental energy, they are formed in the primitive brain. So, if we want to make drastic changes subject to our food choices through changing corresponding habits, we are essentially delegating the job of achieving this complicated goal to our primitive brain, rather than to our evolved brain. That doesn’t sound very smart, does it?
This is like asking the fox for taking care of the hen house. The primitive brain’s deep down rooted motivations are completely opposite to what we’re trying to accomplish. And yet, we are giving it more authority than to the evolved brain who is the most qualified candidate for this task.
2. A good amount of habits that we have developed are not really beneficial. To understand why most habits that we form are not in our favour isn’t that difficult.
Trigger: See sweets.
Routine: Eat sweets.
Reward: Delicious taste of sweets!
This sounds like a habit loop that is more easy to stick to than this one:
Trigger: See running shoes.
Routine: Put on running shoes and run 5 miles.
Reward: Drink a healthy green smoothie that is admittedly not as tasty as a cookie.
It is quite easy to see how bad habits form more easily, isn’t it?
In fact, in the pursuit of creating that good running habit, we may by accident create a disadvantageous habit like this one:
Trigger: See running shoes.
Routine: Feel bad about ourselves for dropping the last run we were supposed to do.
Reward: Comforting ourselves by the delicious taste of sweets. Feel good about thinking that tomorrow will be different.
Not exactly a solid ground to create a new beneficial behaviour.
3. New habits don’t necessarily change old ones. Let’s say that you were finally able to create the running habit that we talked about above. Does that replace the habit of eating cookies? Not necessarily. One change in a behaviour doesn’t affect another. In fact, some researches suggests that, we are more likely to indulge in unhealthy food if we pick up a new exercise habit. The reason can be, that we tend to reward ourselves for being so committed to our new goals. So let’s assume that you’re trying to start running for the greater goal of health. Simply changing the one behaviour of running is just a small part of achieving the overall goal. It’s not as simple as just adding running to your life. We have to make a lot of other changes in order to design specific other habits as well. For example: Eating more healthy food. Maybe consuming alcohol more moderate. Or reducing stressful situations, and so on.
4. Habits won’t work in every situation. Again. Let’s assume that we are able to design all of those specific habit changes. And we are well on our way of becoming a more healthy person. More exercising. Eating right. Resisting empty calories, etc But what happens when we get invited to a cocktail party after work? When do we go running? How will we deal with the tempting food at the party? There is no habit to fall back on. And not only are we likely to skip our work out and eat unhealthy food, but we might actually more likely to go on a full-out binge due to the “what-the-hell effect”.
5. Achieving a new habit can ruin our goals. The final problem with habits is, that we can focus so much on creating a new habit, that we might lose sight of the overall goal entirely. Let’s go back to our example of creating the running habit in order to achieve the higher goal of health. If we accomplish our running habit in the morning, our brain will put a checkmark on our health to-do list. So later that day, we could be tempted to eat unhealthy food. We may credit ourselves for having accomplished a healthy task that day and will grant ourselves the license to indulge. This can lead to not making any progress towards our goal, or even leave us worse off than before.
WHAT ARE WE REALLY SEEKING?
Well, if not by changing our habits, what is the best way to ultimately achieve our goals? First we need to look at what we are really seeking. We’re seeking to be more consistent towards behaviours that will help us achieve our target. When we set a plan to change our food choices for the better, we want to achieve it. Not just only tomorrow, but on the long run.
In order to achieve that, we need to delegate this task to the evolved brain, and exactly this is why we need to strengthen our willpower. ACHIEVING OUR AIM WITH TRAINED WILLPOWER The evolved brain is our ultimate decision maker. It has the capacity to choose the things we really want to achieve, even when that choice is hard. In the classic angel and devil on our shoulders situation, the evolved brain is the angel. That angel is driven by our willpower. Well, and we know what the diabolic part is driven by, don’t we. There are 3 types of willpower the evolved brain uses to help us to accomplish our purposes.
I WILL This is the power we use to do those tough things to accomplish our set goals. This is what we use for instance to workout. Clean our homes. Or accomplish a difficult task at work.
I WON’T This is the power we use to resist the various temptations in our lives. This is what we call upon to resist those cravings of chocolate. Playing the next episode on Netflix. Or holding back our true feelings from rude clients.
I WANT This is the most important willpower we have. It’s the part of the brain that remembers our long-term goals, like dreams and desires. What we really want! It makes us remember. For example: Why did we resist that bag of crisps or why we are committed to the task of achieving a healthier life style.
Unlike type number 1 and 2, this one can produce willpower out of nothing. Last time you heard a motivational speech or read an inspirational story, you might have felt this happening. We get a rush of energy and motivation to take on the world. Simply by believing in something bigger. This is part of the brain we want to use when creating behaviour change.
THE WILLPOWER APPROACH
To cultivate this part of the brain and strengthen our willpower, we can use 3 strategies:
1. Automating Goal Pursuit Instead of automating our behaviours (habits), we should to automate our dedication to our goals. Automating our goal dedication is about setting triggers and reminders of our overall target. This could be following a plan to write down our achievements everyday. Send yourself reminders or increase our self awareness. What’s the difference? Let’s go back to the scenario where our aim is to become more healthy and we get invited to a cocktail party. When we’re focused on our habits, we have nothing to guide us. Nothing to fall back on, when the environment changes. Which can lead to indulging for instance. However, if we are automating our goal pursuit, we would either create a plan to eat the healthiest things available or be more mindful of how much we are eating or keep track of everything we eat and drink in a food diary. Whatever tactic we choose, using the logical, creative part of our brain will benefit us more than a habit. Because we are not dependent on certain prompts in order to make the correct decision.
2. Building and strengthen the Willpower muscle. One of the biggest problems we have by creating automated behaviours is, not practising the making of the right decisions. It might sound strange, but our willpower is like a muscle. When we face temptations and make a conscious decision to say “no”, we literally strengthen our willpower. Conversely, our willpower becomes weaker the more we try to automate our behaviours by introducing new habits. A bit like someone who doesn’t workout their physical muscles. If we don’t train our willpower, the result will be much weaker when the going gets tough.
3. Making Commitments Consider this: When you get into a relationship with someone. Would you create a habit to stay faithful to him or her? No! You would make a commitment! You would make a commitment based on your moral compass. Let’s assume you are committed to be a faithful and trustworthy person. Even if someone else may tempt you from time to time. It doesn’t require that you need to fall back on a habit in order to stay faithful. It just requires, that you believe in the greater purpose of the relationship. This same principle holds true for our other goals as well. In many cases we don’t need to have a specific behavioural response to avoid a temptation. We only need a higher purpose to fall back on. Whether that is our health, being a good role model for our kids, or a vision to believe in. Making a commitment to our goal will help us deal with challenges that we could never foresee coming. Scientifically, this commitment triggers our evolved brain into action to deal with a challenge. This will give us motivation to act on our long-term aspirations.