Habits are the mechanisms that control much of our lives. The majority of our actions and responses are based on conditioned reaction to certain stimuli. The patterns of behavior you consistently use will ultimately determine the kind of life you live. If you have habits that allow you to have more fun, achieve greater success and enjoy higher levels of happiness then your quality of life will reflect that. Similarly, destructive habits can destroy you.
I have already written about habit changing fairly extensively, in a five part series entitled Habitual Mastery . In this series I went into great depths to explain the various obstacles to forming new habits and how to overcome them. One of the greatest obstacles in creating a new habit is simply in consciously conditioning that habit. Usually this conditioning process involves setting aside at least a month to consciously focus on running your habit until it becomes automatic.
The process of conditioning is often lengthy and consumes a lot of your energy. For some time now I have been exploring various ways that the costs of creating new habits could be reduced so that the benefits of controlling your habits would be more accessible. Various research led me to breaking down some of the obstacles that impede conditioning a new habit such as not having enough leverage or not properly replacing the habit, which I outlined in Habitual Mastery .
The need to consciously condition the habit until it becomes automatic is one of the key factors that makes creating change so difficult. During this time period your instinct is to revert to old patterns of behavior. As a result, you are forced to use huge amounts of willpower to change even minor habits. This problem in changing habits has irked me for some time and only now do I think I have come across the solution.
For those who haven’t been reading this blog, I recently moved from living at home to living in a student residence in University. Although my transition wasn’t as drastic as that of some of the international students I know, this shift has forced me to change and modify hundreds if not thousands of behaviors almost immediately.
It was during this time that I realized that being physically forced to change a habit makes changing it far easier. A good way to think of habits is like a series of interconnected rivers. As the water flows over the riverbed it carves it deeper and deeper. Because of the laws of gravity the more water that has flowed over that riverbed the less likely the water will spill into a different direction.
Conditioning a new habit is like lifting that water and pushing it into a new path. Until the new path has carved out enough to be deeper than the old one you have to consciously be pushing the water. This pushing requires huge amounts of energy for even a tiny stream and it can be almost impossible for the biggest rivers.
Continuing with this metaphor, it seems impractical to push all the water going down the river to try and redirect it. Instead doesn’t it make a lot more sense to just build a dam? Building thousands of little dams on my behavioral rivers is exactly what occurred when I moved away. Because many of my habits couldn’t be executed in a new environment, there was no need for willpower in changing them, it just happened.
Instead of changing your habits by consciously exerting willpower for months, doesn’t it make more sense to alter the environment so that executing the old habit will be impossible? This may not seem like an easy task, but building dams can make the process of changing habits much faster and much less painful. So how can you start building dams?
Change the Environment
The most powerful way to switch a habit is to physically alter the environment to necessitate it. If done correctly this process eliminates the need to go through lengthy conditioning processes because your brain can’t possibly go back to the old pattern.
Let’s say your normal wake up routine is to get up, walk to the bathroom, have a shower and then go eat toast. This habit may not be a critical one in need of changing but it is still habit nonetheless. Now, what would happen if you went to a hotel that didn’t have a shower or toaster? Those two habits would have to be corrected immediately because they can’t be executed in the new environment.
For some really difficult habits, changing the environment may be necessary. If you have a habit to get into a really depressed state because of the people you spend time with, it might be necessary to physically remove them from your environment by moving away or telling them you are going to see other people. This may seem drastic but for severe problems such as an addiction it might be necessary.
Change the Expectation
You are subconsciously guided by the expectations you have or the expectations you perceive others to have about your behavior. If you are expected to shake hands as a greeting at an event, you may do this even if you don’t normally shake hands. The expectations you have about how you must behave in a certain situation will build a dam controlling the river of your behavior.
One of the expectations I had about my own behavior when entering university was that I would be friendly and go around to meet lots of new people. This expectation modified my behavior immediately so that I individually have met hundreds of people in the span of a few days.
You can change your expectations simply by visualizing and defining a new criteria for behaviors in a different setting. Visualize and make clear how you must behave in this new setting. Changing your setting is important because you need to attach a reason why the expectations for your behavior have changed.
So if you wanted to become more fit and healthy, you may decide the setting change would be to join a club like Toastmasters. From there you would visualize and define the expectations for becoming extremely health conscious because you need to be in shape to add to your speaking ability. Once again, the expectations you set for yourself can be attached to a setting that may not even require it. In this case, being in shape for Toastmasters would definitely be a plus but it probably isn’t a prerequisite. But by setting a new expectation you can change the habit.
I have listed two of the most simple ways to build dams in directing the streams of your behavior, but I am sure you can think of many more. The more external control you can use to force your patterns in a new direction the less willpower you will need to use and the sooner you can enjoy the benefits of this new way of living.