This is the first part of five in a series about how to change, improve and modify your habits easily and effectively. I have always been very interested in methods for taking control over these subconscious processes that run our life. A few of the more notable habit changes I have made include waking up at 6 AM every day, becoming a vegetarian, giving up television and exercising for an hour every day. I’ve reached a point where I don’t consider habit changes to be oppressive and sacrificial but exciting and fun. Using the techniques and concepts I’m going to describe in this series, you too can gain control over this incredible important factor in your life.
Series – Habitual Mastery
Introduction – In the article below, we’ll start on our path to mastering our habits. First we need to really recognize what a habit actually is. From there we need to develop the ability to become aware of these habits and our ability to seek improvements in them.
Conditioning  – Conditioning a habit is the primary mechanism for installing it. In this article I’ll detail some of the methods I’ve used to condition new habits to make them an effortless part of my life.
Leverage  – What do you do when your habit requires more willpower than you have? In these cases, understanding the power of leverage can allow you to take a small amount of willpower to push through an incredibly difficult habit.
Replacement  – Habits can’t be removed. They must be upgraded or replaced. In this article I’ll detail how we can work on replacing habits to prevent some of the unwanted side-effects caused by massive habit changes.
Experimentation  – Now you will know how to change your habits more effectively and easily, you can really start pushing the boundaries for what is possible. In this article I’ll give steps for what I feel is the fundamental key from taking your habits from average to excellence.
Our lives run on habits. We have habits for what we eat, how we dress and where we drive. Habits dictate whether we jump out of bed each morning or hit that snooze button… Just… One… More… Time. Habits decide what actions we take on a consistent basis. Since it is our consistent actions that determine the direction of our life, our habits ultimately decide much of the outcome of our lives.
January 1st seems to create a lot of enthusiasm for people desiring to make changes. But, after a few short weeks, these people revert to their old habits. So disappointing is this ritual that many people have completely given up on the idea of being able to change their habits. These people think that, perhaps, habit changes are only for those with a lot of willpower or drive. The few people that are able to make changes on their habits usually reserve that power for extremely critical changes. Is it even possible to gain control over our habits?
Yes! Habits can be changed and we can even reach a point where even dramatic habitual changes are fairly easy. Changing habits is a skill. Like all other skills it needs both practice and technique. Once you are competent with the skill you can use these techniques to conduct your own personal experiments. Instead of sitting back and theorizing what a different set of habits would be like to live with, you can actually try it out!
What is a Habit?
Our brains are created from a very complex array of neurons. These neurons receive input from our sensory organs and deliver them to the brain. Each of these neurons is connected to thousands of others. By carefully adjusting the importance of each neuron in relation to another, our brain forms pathways of these chemical impulses, processing and interpreting the massive amounts of information we receive from the world.
In order to free up our cognitive abilities our brains streamline common procedures. Some pathways have been used so much that our brain has set up these connections to run through them automatically. If you’ve ever walked into a room and forgotten why you were there, chances are you understand this process. Actions like walking and driving were incredibly complex and difficult for you to learn initially, but now you don’t even need to think about it.
Habits also serve as a mechanism for quick problem solving. Whenever we encounter pain, our brain immediately searches for a way to avoid it. Similarly, whenever we encounter joy or gratification, our brain stores those neurological linkages to benefit from that pleasure in the future. Some people use food or alcohol as a mechanism to get out of depression or boredom. The habits that are closely linked to our mechanisms for getting into pleasure and out of pain are often the most difficult to remove. Because these habits are so difficult to modify, they are often the very habits we are most desperate to change.
Think of your mind like a computer. Your computer does millions of calculations without input from the user. Some programs often require little or no input at all to function properly. Just like habits, these programs will often run completely without your awareness. Some of these programs are malicious and destructive, such as viruses and spyware. Like these nasty programs, destructive habits often run without our awareness of them.
Awareness Must Come First
Malicious programs usually must be detected by another piece of software, usually an anti-spyware/virus program, before they can be removed. Similarly, destructive or ineffective habits need to be recognized as such before any changes can be made. If you don’t feel that drinking several times a day is not a good habit, you won’t make any effort to change it. Awareness must always come first.
Chances are you already know a couple habits you have that you would like to change. Maybe it is something major like quitting smoking, alcohol or drugs. Perhaps it is a smaller change like avoiding the temptation to check your e-mail every ten minutes. If you already can think of some habits you would like to change, that’s great. The real problem is all of the destructive habits you have that aren’t so obvious. That is why we always need to keep a very keen eye on our own behaviors and be very conscious of the many patterns that we run without realizing it.
There are really two methods to becoming aware of habits that you need to improve. The first is through internal review and the second is external study. Use both of these methods simultaneously to get the best perspective on your own habits.
Internal Review – Basically this means self-reflection. Internal review is done by carefully analyzing your current behavior. While I am a big fan of the weekly review  as a method for analysis, this process should really be done all the time. Whenever you see yourself doing something you don’t feel is a good habit, recognize it as such in your mind. When you pick up that donut at work, even if you can’t stop the habit, notice that this isn’t good for your health.
Another method for internal review is through measurement. By using an objective measurement system, often times our true behaviors will come through. If you aren’t sure whether you have some bad habits in an area, try measuring the habit. If you think you might have some bad eating habits, record what and how much you eat for an entire week. This kind of measurement allows you to uncover habits that you didn’t know even existed.
External Study – As opposed to internal review, external study is using information outside of yourself to gain insight into your own habits. Reading books is probably one of the best ways to do this. As soon as you gain more knowledge about a subject, you will become more aware of the habits you have that could be improved. More knowledge really expands your opportunities to improve your habits.
I know that before I had read a lot of material on the benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet, I was ignorant to how the meat I was eating was affecting my health. After several months with the diet I can attest to how powerful a change it has been. If I hadn’t pursued knowledge from outside sources, I likely would have never realized such a fantastic area for improvement.
Studying other successful people is another great way to find areas to improve your habits. By modeling the habits of success we can often recreate a lot of that success for ourselves. If we only look to our associates and peers for areas where we can improve ourselves and our habits, our potential for growth is going to be incredibly low. Conversely, studying people who have done very remarkable things can give us a lot of areas where we can improve our own habits.
Habits are processes that run in our subconscious. They are constructed as a way to free up our cognitive ability from common tasks. Habits are also used to form the quickest route out of pain and into pleasure. Because so many of these habits run without our conscious control, making habit changes has to start by recognizing the ones we already have. Keeping a keen eye on our behavior and having a voracious appetite for new information can always leave us with more opportunities for growth.
The next article in this series will uncover the methods to condition a habit. I’ll explore some of the various techniques and methods I have used to make habit changes in my own life. I will also talk about the role of willpower, and how we can minimize its impact to make the changes we want without all the frustrations of failure.