Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny. – Charles Reade
I was reading Dr Michael Greger’s How not to diet, a big book stuffed with real research insights, and came across a bit on making and keeping habits. The points he makes are so good that I want to record them here to help me remember them later.
We’re getting to that time of year when we look back and reflect on what we’ve done – was it what we planned, was it enough, could we have done more? Should we have done more?
There are a few things that started to converge for me as I read through the literature associated with understanding and insight into situations and what they need. An important theme is the idea of the ledger – the daily record of what has been traded, what has been done or achieved. We can have grand plans but those plans will be achieved or not depending on what we do every day. If you make a profit every day then you can be certain that you will end the year in profit. If you want until the last month to check how you’re doing then you’ll probably be unhappy with what you find.
If you want to change something then the first thing to do is decide in advance what you’re going to do when the opportunity to make a choice presents itself. This is called an implementation intention and it’s quite simple. It’s writing down a statement in the form “If this then that.” When I started this blog, for example, my intention was quite simple – to write every day. But life is bigger than one thing. When you focus on one intention others fall by the wayside. While I focused on writing, other things suffered – I spent less time on exercising, eating healthily. A focus on one thing almost always leaves less time for other things.
The way to rebalance is to reset or rewrite your intentions. A way that works for me is to do what is most important first thing in the morning. For years that’s been reading and writing. But some years that was getting exercise. It’s deciding what matters and when you’re going to do it.
The challenge is that it takes a while to rewire yourself – to get a new habit going. Probably a couple of months, if not more. That’s going to be much easier to do if you take the thinking out of it – just create a set of rules that you follow every day.
Which brings us to the second part of the problem – the what the hell theory. This essentially says that once you fail to do something then you tend to give up and don’t see the point in still trying. This is easy to see when it comes to dieting. You may have avoided sugary foods for ages but then you’re in a situation where you just can’t refuse. And once you’ve had more than you should you think, “What the hell…” you’ve already had too much, what difference will a bit more make. So you stuff yourself.
But it does matter – those are still calories you don’t need. The right thing to do is stop but that takes effort.
If you can do these two things – decide in advance how you will act and choose to stop yourself from doubling down when you fail – you’ve got two powerful tools that can help you start and maintain new habits.