This is part four of five in my series devoted to how we can take control of the habit patterns that run our lives. Habit control must first start with awareness of the habits we currently have and their positive and negative effects on our lives. Once you can recognize your habit patterns you can take control of them by conditioning alternative habits. Through both natural and simulated conditioning methods you can recreate what your brain uses as its default pattern of behavior, making highly optimal and effective patterns easy to sustain. Making it through a conditioning phase often requires more willpower then we are have available. In these cases, harnessing the power of leverage to move us forward is really necessary to take the action we need.
Habitual Mastery – Series
Changing a habit is more than just leverage and conditioning. Just because you can make it through a temporary conditioning phase doesn’t mean that your habit will stick. Launching a habit is like getting a spacecraft into orbit, but if the orbit you make is unsustainable you won’t keep it, regardless of all the conditioning and leverage you use.
Habits cannot be removed or added, they can only be replaced. This is a critical point. Many times we try to give up an old habit but then we have nothing to replace the habit with. Other times we try to stack a new habit without trying to replace the habits that already existed. In both of these cases our habit changes will fail because they are unsustainable. Like our space shuttle with the unstable orbit, our habits will crash back to where they came from.
Every habit we have has a function. The function of these habits may be irrational and have destructive side-effects, but they are all used for something. A smoking habit may not make a lot of rational sense, but it does provide some benefits. Smoking may be your conditioned way to relieve stress, relieve boredom or relax. The reason our brain uses the habit is that, despite long-range consequences, the habit serves a function. What do some people refer to ice-cream and snacks, “comfort” food. In this sense, the foods purpose is to comfort them and to relieve stress.
A habit change can only become stable when we also come up with other ways to achieve the benefits provided by the original habit. It will be impossible to maintain a lasting diet change as long as your brains method for reducing stress, relaxation, or fun is to eat junk food. Just because you’ve conditioned yourself to eat healthy foods won’t help you when you are feeling really stressed and the only thing your brain can think of doing is picking up that bag of potato chips.
In order to successfully make a habit change you need to identify all of the areas of your life that will be impacted by this new change. Even if you have one major benefit, you will still be unstable if there are a bunch of minor losses that are unaccounted for. Make a list of all of the benefits that were previously given by your old habit. So if your habit was overeating and eating unhealthy foods your list might look like:
- Nourish – Eat when hungry
- Socialize – Eat when with others
- Flavor – Eat to experience great tasting foods
- Comfort – Eat when depressed
- Relax – Eat when stressed
- Speed – Eat when there is little time
Now lets say using the techniques I identified in the last three parts of this series you wanted to go about changing your diet. As a result you may want to try conditioning a new habit to eat only bland, healthy foods. You think that this diet may require a bit more willpower then you have so you even apply various leveraging techniques to commit yourself to the conditioning phase. But three months later your habit snaps and you go back to eating the way you used to. Why?
The reason is rather simple. Your dietary change wasn’t a single habit change. You thought that because it was one category of behavior that it was one habit. But your brain stored the habits you were trying to change as the six separate habits in our list. Even though the pattern is the same for all of them they are seven distinct habits with distinct functions. As a result the list your were trying to condition was:
- Nourish – Eat when hungry (healthier foods)
- Socialize – ???
- Flavor – ???
- Comfort – ???
- Relax – ???
- Speed – ???
Even though you were able to recondition your habit for nourishing your body using healthier foods, you had no alternative for the other five habits. As a result you were surviving on willpower (and leverage) as your brain couldn’t fill the roles required by these missing habits. Eventually when your brain couldn’t take the pain of being unable to fill these habitual functions it reverted back to its previous state. Because your habits were so closely related, it managed to undo the only habit change you actually made.
Being able to recognize, not just the major habits that are associated to the change you want to make, but all of the minor habits make the difference between effortless long-term change and continuous struggle. Armed with this new knowledge we can now reformat our list and insert new habits that will fill the void created by removing the first ones.
Now our list looks like:
- Nourish – Eat when hungry (healthier foods)
- Socialize – Don’t meet with friends at restaurants that serve unhealthy foods.
- Flavor – Try various spices and cooking styles for more variety and flavor.
- Comfort – Watch a feel good movie, talk to a friend.
- Relax – Take a bath, read a book, meditate
- Speed – Prepare several meals in advance to be reheated when necessary.
Now there are no voids in our habits and the change will be sustainable. When you are doing this exercise with a change you want to make, try to brainstorm as large a list as possible of all of the possible positive alternatives to your old habit. This may seem a little involved and complicated, but perhaps now you can understand why most people fail to make long-term habit changes. If you aren’t satisfied with the alternatives you have, don’t move forward until you have concrete solutions to all of the inadequacies created by your habit change.
Willpower is what we expend when we consciously deprive the emotional part of the brain of what it wants. All conditioning phases require willpower simply because your brain wants to settle into its old pattern and you have to focus your attention on your new method. Without accounting for all of the minor changes you need to make, any habit will require long-term willpower to sustain because every day the void isn’t being filled your brain is fighting back against you.
Understand that this phase of replacing minor habits takes place whether we plan it or not. Some authors and speakers simply suggest the conditioning approach without thinking about the replacement strategy. In these cases the author is assuming that during your conditioning phase you will automatically find ways to adapt your old habits to the new change. I think this is dangerous and unnecessarily costly. Changing a habit becomes a lot harder if you don’t actively take control of your replacement strategy.
Even with a successful replacement strategy, enough leverage and a proper conditioning phase, some habit changes will be unsuccessful. In these rare cases the reason is simple. The habit you are trying to change to is broken and is unusable or impractical in your life. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a noted critic of the popular Atkins diet, says that the reason very people can stay on the diet for a long period of time is simply because you aren’t able to eat enough calories on the diet. An almost completely meat based diet ends up having far fewer calories from the simple fact that you can’t eat as much meat as you can carbohydrates. As Dr. Campbell then explains, you simply can’t stay on the diet because your body is starving itself on the amount of calories you are ingesting.
Many fad diets can’t be adopted into a successful habit conditioning process simply because they are unstable, unhealthy and dangerous. If you look back at our old list of benefits produced by our overeating habit, you will see that the top habit is to nourish your body. If you are starving yourself on your new diet you cannot successfully fill this role. It doesn’t matter that a minor habit of looking attractive isn’t being filled if your body can’t sustain itself.
Instead of asking whether people lose weight on this new diet ask if you know many people that have kept with the diet. If you know a lot of people that lost weight but noone that stuck with the diet for the long haul, chances are it isn’t sustainable. Even though my vegetarian diet change seemed a little drastic at first, I was aware that other people has successfully stuck with the diet for at least several years, so I knew that it was viable for the long-term.
Replacement is a critical factor in making any habit change. By carefully examining the impact any change will have on your life you can greatly increase the chances for long-term success. If you identify a void where your needs aren’t being fulfilled by your new habit while conditioning, quickly come up with alternatives. Like a house of cards, habits are all interrelated. Replacing them in isolation requires a delicate surgery, so don’t go about doing it with a baseball bat!
In the final article in my series on habit changes I am going to go over experimentation. The first four articles of the series have been dedicated to installing the new habit patterns you desire for yourself. The final article talks about some things that you can do once you become proficient with the skill of changing habits. By conducting trials and testing various results you can begin to optimize in ways that greatly exceed what you previously thought was possible. Experimentation is where the real fun of habit changing starts.