The Idea Behind Habits

Whenever I want to make a positive change appear in my life, I usually approach it in one of two ways.

I either try to get rid of a bad habit or I try to establish a good habit.

Habits are at the center of both of those ideas. It’s around that hinge of habits that I try to improve myself. I see some flaw in my own life and I want to get rid of it (or at least reduce it), so I turn to my habits.

It makes sense to really look at what a habit is. I tend to like Wikipedia’s definition of the word:

A habit (or wont) is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously.

Let’s break that down a little.

A habit is a routine of behavior At its core, a habit is just a sequence of things that you do.

that is repeated regularly You do those little sequences of actions on a regular basis – probably daily, if not more often. A habit is something you do all the time.

and tends to occur unconsciously. This part is really the key, in my eyes. People rarely think about their habits.

A habit is just a set of things you do all the time that you barely think about. Think about your morning routine. Most of the activities in that routine are pretty much the same every day. It’s a habit. Think of what you do when you first get to work. It’s a habit. Think of what you do when you’re feeling some stress. It’s a habit.

Our lives are absolutely chock full of habits. We have certain ways of responding at certain times and to certain events in our day – and we do those things barely without thought.

Now, we’re not perfect people. I’m certainly far from it. Some of my habits are … pretty poor. Not only that, some of my big life goals aren’t well supported by the habits I currently have.

How can I fix those things? I fix them by changing my habits – improving (or eliminating) bad ones and introducing new good ones.

Sounds easy? It’s not.

The big challenge is the fact that most of our habits are unconscious. We don’t actively think about our habits. We just do them as a normal part of our days and in response to certain situations.

So, in order to introduce a new habit, you have to repeat it often enough (in the right situation) that it becomes an unconscious thing.

That’s why I use a to-do list each day. I’ve successfully made a to-do list into a habit. When I’m trying to build a new habit, I put that item on my to-do list each day along with a note telling me when to do it. For example, I might have something like “After taking youngest to preschool, go for one mile jog.”

My goal with the list is to turn most of the regular items into full habits. I want the trigger of “taking my youngest to preschool” to unconsciously translate into “going for a one mile jog.” I want that to feel as natural as getting up in the morning.

Until it feels that natural, it remains on my to-do list.

What about negative habits that I want to eliminate? I use the to-do list there, too, but I also use reminders and other tools to make that habit as difficult as possible. If I’m trying to kick a soda habit, for example, I get rid of all of the soda in the house (and deal with the caffeine headache … thankfully, I only had to do this once). I make the old habit difficult and uncomfortable so that it will slowly go away or morph into something less negative.

By gradually combing through my bad habits and adopting better ones, I (theoretically) transform myself slowly into the person I want to be.

Want to kickstart all of this? Here’s a simple activity.

Make a list of five things you would like to change about yourself. Ignore what you’d like to change about others or things that are outside your control. Focus entirely on things you’d like to improve in your own life.

For each of those, identify a single habit that could help you get there – either a new habit you’ve introduced or an old habit you can modify or eliminate. That one habit doesn’t have to completely take you to your goal, it just has to be a step in the right direction. These should be little changes, like cutting out soda or skipping a morning coffee shop visit or avoiding a tempting store – whatever it takes to establish a new habit.

Over the next month, focus on hitting a home run with just one of those habits. At the one month mark, add a second habit change. Each month after that, add another change. The previous changes should be easier to maintain, after all.

After five full months where you’ve actually stuck with these changes, reflect on what’s changed in your life. I’m willing to bet that with just five little habit changes, you’ve improved your life in many different ways.

That’s what habits are all about. They are a big tool for creating the life you want to live.

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