Probably more than any other factor, your bad habits or good habits literally control your whole life. I find that so fascinating that I’ve devoted a lot of my life of working to smash those bad habits that are keeping ME stuck. In fact, a ton of the posts on this site are devoted to helping you hack your habits to improve your life.
When I’m talking about the habits that rule your life, I’m talking about things like:
- Managing your weight through controlling your diet and exercise habits
- Keeping yourself out of debt by managing your spending and bill paying habits
- Organizing your life by getting on track with your cleaning and decluttering habits (I’ve got like 100 posts on this)
- Getting yourself motivated to stick with your goals
- Parenting habits that will allow you to raise kids who will be functional human beings that you’ll be able to enjoy being around.
These are resources you can find all over my blog, but today we’re going to look at the origin and function of your habits and how you can hack your way into a more successful life through getting a handle on your habits.
Most experts agree that it takes at LEAST 21 days to form a new habit (give or take a few weeks). I’ll give you some strategies for choosing and starting new habits but it’s up to YOU to commit to at least 21 days for it to take hold. And common sense says that some habits will take longer than 21 days to break, such as smoking or drinking, so be patient with yourself.
Can you spare 21 days to commit to a happier you?
STEP ONE: Understanding how good habits and bad habits work
Take a moment to think about what habits you do on a daily basis – either work related or personal. Some of the most common personal habits are making coffee or drinking water when you get out of bed and brushing your teeth after breakfast. Every one of us has different habits; those little things that you do without thinking. It’s how we function in life – your brain would explode if you had to think through every action.
Habits are learned behaviors and can be categorized as healthy, unhealthy, or neutral. Exercising daily is a good habit while smoking a pack of cigarettes daily or eating endless junk food is a bad habit. The beauty of habits and the way our brains function is that you can CHANGE your bad habits and reinforce your good ones! This changes the neural pathways in the brain to extinguish some habits and reinforce others.
Why are habits beneficial? Not having to think about what to do next in your day – either at home or at the office – frees up more brain space to focus on client work or family activities. I would bet money that you’re much more productive than you think, simply because you’ve incorporated habits into your daily life without even realizing it.
Creating good habits also gives your brain some downtime in a busy day. If you know instinctively that you make coffee and then make your kids’ lunches, you can spend some time daydreaming or preparing for your workday ahead. Our brains actually thrive on habitual behavior because it releases serotonin, which is one of the body’s pleasure hormones. Serotonin helps stabilize our moods, which is why we can get grumpy or feel “off kilter” when someone or something interrupts our routine (aka habits).
Lastly, the more you do something, the stronger your brain’s network of synapses becomes. Our brains really are remarkable; our expertise at something is determined by how much time we give to practicing and repeating that task over time. For example, when you begin playing piano, you’re likely to stumble across the keyboard making plenty of mistakes. The more you practice and take lessons, the more easily you’re able to play – and the more melodic your music becomes as you make fewer mistakes.
So, if our neuron synapses become stronger the more we do something, the opposite is also true: Those synapses which are not used often are pruned away and eventually disappear. We alone are responsible for creating strong synapses in our brains! Therefore, if we perform new habits over and over again, we will improve our brain’s synapses related to those GOOD habits while the OLD habit synapses will eventually disappear. Are you impressed yet with the power you yield?
Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m here to upend your entire life by trying to fix everything in your life all at once. Pick just one habit to work on for the next 21 days. Then take some time to reflect on what else you’d like to change, ways in which you can make changes that stick, and look forward to how these new habits will serve you in your life and business.
STEP TWO: Identifying the bad habits that keep you stuck
I’ll bet money that you can probably identify a few habits right off the bat that are keeping you stuck in your life. However, before we dig into those habits, let’s explore what your dream life looks like.
Almost every day you’ll see Facebook memes or hear ideas from people about what they would do if they won the lottery today. Some of the ideas might seem crazy; others might seem very logical. But my question to you is: Why wait for the lottery to have a vision for what your ideal life looks like? Why not visualize that vision every day and make choices that help make your dreams a reality? Others have done it – why not you?
Life is not meant to be stressful and difficult. Stress comes from the decisions we make and from some bad habits that cause us to get stuck. If you often feel like you just can’t get out of your own way, it’s time to dive into your bad habits. Identifying your bad habits won’t happen quickly but just keep in mind that this is an important step in the process. If you’re unsure of what’s causing the stress and/or pain, how can you begin to make changes?
Grab a journal and start reflecting on your daily routines and habits. Jot down the good habits that keep your day flowing smoothly as well as the bad habits that are costing you money and keeping you from your best self. What’s keeping you from your goals and your dreams? Sometimes seeing a whole list of your habits will help you prioritize which ones to focus on first instead of tackling the entire list at once. That’s a sure way to overwhelm yourself and cause even more stress.
For example, what do you do when your eyes open in the morning? Are you checking your emails and/or Facebook and then getting stuck there for two hours? Me too. So I moved my Facebook app to a spot on my phone that would take me four clicks to get to it. That’s a great example of habit hacking.
Now, think about the rest of your day. What’s working and what’s holding you back. Then think of a strategy to enhance the good habits and smash those bad habits.
Here are some common habits and the best way to hack them.
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It’s great for your self-esteem, your emotional outlook, and your long-term health. It’s like the best prescription you can give yourself, but it’s also the most avoided habit in the world.
Habit Hack Ideas: Pick an exercise you enjoy. Exercise with a friend. Set out your exercise clothes the night before. Reward yourself for meeting your exercise goals. Make a set appointment on your calendar with a reminder alarm.
Here’s a helpful post of inexpensive exercise ideas even if you’re a bit on the heavy side and haven’t been exercising regularly.
Procrastination is another common bad habit. It’s so annoying because it sidetracks you from getting things done in a day – both work tasks and personal tasks. If you procrastinate at work, you run the chance of missing deadlines or being unprepared for client calls, which ultimately can cause you to lose clients or lose your job.
Habit Hack Ideas: Examine the reasons why you procrastinate. Are you avoiding something? Do you have a lack of interest in the task at hand? There’s always an underlying reason why you don’t want to perform this task, either at work or at home. Realizing WHY you procrastinate helps, but also look at HOW you procrastinate. Do you use your phone to procrastinate? Turn off notifications and move it out of sight and out of reach. Ask a friend or work partner to hold you accountable and you do the same for them.
Here’s a helpful post on how I overcame some (but not quite not all) of my procrastination habits
Poor eating habits
This is a biggie for so many people. We know what foods are best for us, but it’s hard to focus on the healthy foods when there are so many delicious (but unhealthy) choices available.
Habit Hack Ideas: One key strategy is to make the good habits EASY and make the bad habits HARD. For instance, keep pre-cut vegetables at the front of the fridge, but keep the cookies in a difficult-to-reach location (like above the fridge). If certain snacks are overly tempting to you, then don’t bring them into the house. Consider loading your plate with 50% vegetables and then fill the remaining space with smaller portions of protein or carbs.
I have a whole series of posts based on the Mindless Eating series of books by behavioral researcher Brian Wansink. It’s a topic I find fascinating and helpful to managing my eating. There are many more helpful tips about buffet eating, snacking, and grocery shopping.
Social media addiction
This is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for both kids and adults. I firmly believe that a lot of social media is extremely addictive. In other countries, they have programs similar to AA or other addiction programs for media addiction. Overuse of electronics, including video games can have major effects on our relationships and can lead to serious family problems. Happily, it is fixable, but it does take a lot of commitment to change.
Habit Hacks: Here are some hacks that have worked for me. Turn off all notifications and move your phone just out of reach or put it in a box while you are working. If you have apps that are particularly tempting, move them to a spot that is out of site and takes several clicks to reach. Make an agreement with your family to set devices aside for meals or at nighttime. I think Instagram is particularly insidious. Maybe consider a social media fast for a week or two. If that gives you some strong anxiety, that might be a clue.
I’ve given you some examples of bad habits and how personal habits can influence your work productivity. Keep working on your list of bad habits so you have a starting point for change.
STEP THREE: using your mindset to smash those bad habits
Have you heard the term “limiting belief” before? A limiting belief is negative self-talk in which we reinforce the false belief that we can’t do something – or learn something – and we’re always destined to remain in the same place. As you can guess, limiting beliefs are detrimental to our personal initiative and motivation in both our personal and professional lives.
This type of mindset can keep you stuck in one place, never reaching those dreams of your ideal day. If you’re thinking, “I’ve got too many bad habits to change now,” or, “I’m too old to change,” or “This is just who I am and I don’t want/need to change,” then you’re living with limiting beliefs.
STEP FOUR: Establishing positive mini habits in your life
So, we spent time identifying the purpose of habits, how to identify bad habits, and how a positive mindset is your secret tool to breaking bad habits. But if you want to break those bad habits forever, it’s wise to replace those bad habits with good habits.
This is the fun part because you get to be creative and really take control of this part of your life. You’ll want to start new habits that are positive and that are easy to perform every day so you’ll stick with it. My favorite way to form new habits is to embrace the idea of “mini habits.”
James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits and he teaches about the idea of mini habits. Instead of taking an all or nothing approach to new lifestyle changes, he suggests implementing a new habit very slowly. For instance, instead of telling yourself you’ll do 100 pushups every day, James suggests starting with 5 pushups every day for the first week, then increase the number every week going forward. If you’ve never done a pushup in your life, you could even focus on 1-2 pushups to start, then go to 3-4 the following week.
With this type of mini habit, you’re still challenging yourself (which helps develop your growth mindset) but you’re not struggling to find hours at a time to start this routine. And mini habits are meant to be completed in short amounts of time. You’re not required to dedicate a full hour at the gym, for instance; instead, dedicate a few minutes of your morning instead.
Consider your tiny habits as a way to create momentum. Using our push up example, don’t focus on that big, scary number of pushups you WANT to do in the future; instead, focus on doing just today’s pushups and as you get stronger, you’ll notice how “easy” it is to increase those reps. That momentum will keep you going toward your bigger goal.
James Clear also writes about the idea of ‘habit stacking’ which is an instinctive way to begin a new habit. Decide which new habit you want to begin, then pair it with a current good habit that you want to keep. For instance, while you drink your coffee in the morning (old habit), you will read 5 pages in a book (new habit). That book can be a personal development book, Atomic Habits, your journal, the Bible, or any other genre. It doesn’t matter so long as that new habit makes you happy.
Can you see how this habit stacking works? You’re already performing the old habit (making coffee) but instead of reverting to your bad habit, you’re consciously choosing to tidy up the kitchen while waiting for the coffee (or whatever your chosen new habit is). While you drink your coffee you could read a chapter in a book. Or journal. Or write your to-do list for the day ahead. See how it all ties together?
What small daily changes would make your business grow and excite you again? What tiny habits would help bring your vision for your life and business out of that dream realm and into reality? Your answers will all be unique and individual, but I hope you can begin to feel excitement brewing at this idea.
Remember, keeping a vision of your life and business foremost in your mind will help you make the right decisions to help you grow as a person and to help your business grow. If you don’t know why you’re working so hard in your business, you’ll find it more difficult to keep up the momentum, no matter how many mini habits you incorporate. Same thing with your private life.
A vision board is one way to keep your ideal life front and center so you can draw on it anytime you feel unmotivated or drained. The traditional way to create a vision board includes cutting images from magazines and gluing them onto a piece of poster board but you can also create a digital vision board where you copy/paste images from the internet and arrange them in a digital file. I have a great post on how to create a vision board for your life.
I hope this helps you to smash your bad habits once and for all and be able to put the good habits in place to enhance your life.