This is the last part in my series on how we can take control of our habits. Habit control first must start with awareness of your habits. Without being aware of how your habits are effecting your life, you are powerless to control them. Once you have identified habits that you would like to replace and what you would like to replace them with, the key to making that change is through conditioning. Using a variety of both natural and simulated techniques you can condition in new responses. If you don’t have enough willpower to make it through your conditioning phase, leveraging yourself to take action can allow you to tackle those big problems you don’t feel capable of. Finally, by understanding how habits are grouped and by carefully replacing old habits with new ones we can ensure this whole process will last.
If you’ve read through the last four articles in my extensive series on how to change habits, then chances are you already have a lot of ideas for how you can take control of your habits. By investing the time to practice these skills, making effective habit changes will become a lot easier. Fixing the habits that you are aware need obvious changes is the first step. Once you’ve reached this level, however, you can start taking your habits from good to great.
To someone who hasn’t mastered the skills of changing habits, experimentation may seem like searching for problems that are not even there. But for those who have become skilled making habit changes in themselves, experimentation allows us to take our habits a lot further. Instead of just theorizing about whether a habit change will improve your life, you can actually go out and test it. Don’t guess what you can test.
Just as awareness is critical to identify your bad habits, awareness is critical to help you notice how you might be able to take your habits to the next level. By reading and researching from a large variety of subject areas, you can continually receive ideas for ways you can take your habits to a new level.
The main problem with getting a lot of information is that the information is largely useless unless you can invest it into your life. Reading about time management is a waste of time unless you can adopt the techniques described for yourself. Reading about health and fitness is also a waste if you lack the skill to invest those abilities in the form of habits and behaviors in your life. This is why mastering the ability to control habits is so critical. Without the ability to effectively control your habits, self-help is just something interesting, not actually helpful.
Read from a large variety of fields, don’t specialize. While reading for your career or passion can give you expertise in that field, running your life can’t be specialized. You can’t delegate your life functions to another person, so you have to be a Jack of all trades and master of none. Learn about diet, business, finances, time management, spirituality, relationships, psychology and science. Don’t limit yourself to studying your favorite subject when it comes to yourself.
Maintain an open mind with whatever you are reading. There are many times when I’ll be reading something, especially something where the author has a different view of spirituality than my own, where a little voice in my head wants to say, “Yeah, right…” During these times I have to consciously turn off the little voice in my head. Use this voice when you are deciding whether or not to take action, but so long as you are still gathering information make sure your skepticism doesn’t rear its ugly head.
Conduct Your Experiment
With your new ability to change habits fairly easily, you now have the option of suspending your judgement on an idea until you have tested it in your own life. People who can’t effectively change habits are stuck with using their narrowminded viewpoint to decide whether or not to go through the process of making a change. With the power to test, you have to learn to restrain your tendency to judge until after you’ve given it a thorough testing.
Weigh out the possible consequences for pursuing your habit change. In almost all cases the potential upside if the habit does work is far greater than the downside if it doesn’t work. By taking intelligent risks with your experimentation you can maximize your benefit. Clearly starting a habit of doing drugs or excessive alcohol is something where the potential negative consequences greatly outweigh potential positive ones. Using commonsense to decide whether the habit warrants a trial is necessary to filter out potentially great habits from incredibly toxic ones.
A successful experiment usually requires a minimum of thirty days to conduct. This is because any less than that and you are still in the difficult part of the conditioning phase. Knowing whether a habit is more or less effective can only be determined once you’ve reached a point where simply running the habit doesn’t take a lot of your energy. Dietary changes may require even more time to effectively study simply because of the added stress of your body adapting to a new dietary pattern. Unless you feel that the habit may be dangerous to your health, I would recommend ninety days for a full dietary trial. Keep careful records up to 30 days and then check back in at the sixty and ninety day mark. This way your body will have ample time to adapt to the new diet and you will start to be feeling some of the long term effects of the new diet.
Once you’ve selected a habit and decided to test it, there are several ways that you can conduct the test to help make your evaluation. Spending a week or two using these techniques before you actually start the trial may be helpful in giving you some data to compare your results with.
Journaling is a great way to test your habit changes. The process works very well even if you already know you want to keep the habit but you need to have a way to work around temporary problems that come up during your conditioning phase. By journaling your thoughts and feelings during the trial, you can get a written record of how the trial is progressing.
To set up a trial journal either open up a new word processor document or buy a small notebook for taking down your thoughts. Every day you should include at least one entry where you write down how you feel the trial is going. Write down all of your observations that relate to your habit. Include observations on your own internal feelings and emotions as well as objective analysis that demonstrates evidence your habit is working or failing.
Journaling is probably one of the easiest ways to conduct an experiment for a new habit and it can be very effective. The one flaw with this method is it really lacks the objectivity that you might want in determining whether the habit is actually effective or just a placebo. This method is probably ideal where much of the reason for changing the habit is emotionally involved. If you are emotionally neutral between one habit and your replacement, more objective means might be desired to actually see if there is a difference.
Although this process is also fairly subjective, ranking the status of your habit is a more objective practice than simply journaling your thoughts. This process allows you to actually have somewhat reliable data so you can see trends in your behavior and determine whether the system is actually working. By using a ranking system you will actually have some numbers to go along with your progress.
To use a ranking method, simply brainstorm a list of measurable categories you feel should change as a result of this habit. If your habit change is to try a new diet, your list might include energy level, physical endurance or alertness. Remember to include areas that might also be effected negatively by your habit as they need to be weighed into your results. Once you have a list of categories, narrow them down until you have 3-5 factors you expect to be influenced by the ranking.
Like your journaling method, make a ranking at least once per day. At this time take your short list of factors and rank them on a scale from one to ten. It might be helpful to decide exactly what each measurement means. If your category is energy level you might decide that a 1 indicates that you can barely make it through your day without sleeping, a five is feeling tired but okay and a ten means that you feel like running a marathon right now!
This ranking process can be combined with the journaling process to give an evaluation that is both holistic and has a degree of objectivity to it. I used that technique when I was conditioning my vegetarian habit and I found it very helpful so I could get some ideas on how it was going both in terms of numbers and in general feelings and thoughts.
Forming an objective measuring procedure is very hard to do for many of the things that we find important. It is very difficult to measure things like happiness, emotional control or energy levels. However, when using an subjective ranking or journaling process just won’t cut it, conducting your experiment using an external, objective measurement can work very well.
The first thing to do when using this technique is to decide exactly what you are going to measure. Just like the subjective ranking process, brainstorm a list of categories that you feel would be influence by this new habit change. Once you have this in place, decide how you are going to effectively measure each of these categories using objective means. If your habit involved increasing or modifying your exercise routine, you might decide that endurance and strength are two categories that could use objective measuring. You might then decide that the speed you can run ten kilometers might be a good measurement of endurance and the amount of pushups you can do would be a good measurement of your strength.
Finding objective means to measure changes can give you a level of accuracy that subjective means can’t afford. Be careful in choosing what and how you measure your change. Just because something is measurable, doesn’t mean it is worth measuring. Measuring something that is either irrelevant or is unrelated to the true effect you want to create is often worse than no measurement at all.
Taking your habits to a new level of excellence can be a curious and exciting process. Try to gather as much new information as you can each day to foster ideas for how you can affect the changes you desire. Once you have some ideas, using a combination of journaling, ranking or measurement can allow you to actually test whether or not the habit made a positive effect. Don’t be afraid to try out crazy ideas that might not work. Be creative in your experiments and you might be able to find out new ways to take excellence to a whole new level.
This concludes my five part series on making effective habit changes. Being able to control your habits is probably one of the most powerful tools you can use in your life. If you don’t currently feel you have much control over them, start building that skill today. Just as walking, driving and reading were very difficult for you when you started, effective habit changes get easier as you gain more tools, skills and practice with them. Reach new heights and start taking that control today!