Hammering Habits

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.” Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit

The backbone of my 101 Days to Optimal Health Journey is establishing and solidifying nourishing habits by January 1st 2018. On Autumn Equinox, the day I started this journey there were 101 days to New Year’s Day. I call this the reverse New Year’s resolution – working toward a goal of improved lifestyle one habit at a time instead of picking New Year’s Day to change a whole host  of things at once – just to realize in a few days or couple of weeks that it is not feasible, feel like a failure and give up.

What gives me motivation to build new nourishing habits and put those actions into autopilot is knowing that the lower centres of our brains responsible for cravings and rewards can be trained and tamed in about 60 days. It is much easier to train the beast than struggling with it on a daily basis for life.

Here are the top 8 ideas I picked from studying the subject of habits and implementing it in my life, as I have been consciously installing new nourishing habits.

  1. Every Habit is Malleable – This is the good news!  The origin of the word comes from the latin “malleus”, meaning hammer, Malleabilis = able to be hammered. This term is very fitting, as in reshaping our habits we need to hammer away at it in a consistent manner. 
  2. The Anatomy of Habits – Cue + Routine => Reward – Duhigg suggests that using cues that we have in the past for less nourishing habits and replacing the routine with more promoting ones is the most effective way of building a new habit. Example: I used to check my email and Facebook after pouring hot water in my french press, while waiting for the the coffee to steep. I kept the cue of pouring water, but changed the routine to cleaning the cats’ litter box while the coffee is steeping. Reward: nice clean litter box every day.
  3. Start with a Moderately Easy Habit – this will build momentum by making the experience of habit building enjoyable and rewarding. On the back of the first installed habit one can build the next, more challenging ones.
  4. Keystone Habit – pick a habit that other habits can be built around. Meaning of “keystone” = a central stone at the summit of an arch, locking the whole together. My keystone habit I developed this summer is going for a walk/run in the forest every morning. I only missed about three mornings since I started unless I was away. I have thought about how I could improve my mornings and my days getting the greatest results with the least investment. I knew that starting my day in nature is the single most effective factor I could reintroduce to my life, so I made the commitment to wake up early and start my day in the forest near my home.
  5. Don’t skip a day – consistency is paramount when installing a new habit. If you skip a day, definitely don’t skip a second day!   
  6. Make it fun – Use “streaks” – consecutive days the new habit is performed to make the process more fun and game-like. It is very satisfying to see a high number on your app of choice that you use to keep track of habit building. You can check out this list to review the available apps.
  7. Focus on installing nourishing habits instead of on eliminating demoting, non-nourishing ones. Promoting habits will give rise to other beneficial ones, the rewards of good habits will spark the desire to install more of them and eventually the demoting habits will not fit into your life. Another reason not to focus on the habits you want to eliminate is that the brain will automatically protest like a teenager if you try to take something away that it finds rewarding. Teach it that there are other ways of being rewarded and the process becomes much more manageable. I realize that my 101 days to optimal health started with eliminating   sugar and grains from my diet, however leading up to it I already installed habits such as morning walks in the forest, regular yoga and meditation practices, breathing exercises, and regular physical activities such as cycling and rock climbing.
  8. Ask for support – your family and friends can be a great resource in several ways. Communicating to your loved ones what you are working on and how they can support you can go a long way. They can become your cheer team, they can stop offering you cookies and pastries, or inviting you to the bar, they can be there for you to listen in the challenging moments. Use this valuable asset to achieve the best possible you. You never know, they might decide to join you, making you a catalyst of positive changes in your social environment.

Have fun hammering away at your habits!