First we make our habits, then our habits make us. – Charles C. Noble
Habits are powerful because they create defaults. If your defaults aren’t working for you, then it’s time to change your habits. (Tweet this.)
It’s useful to think about habits as fitting into three categories:
- Constructive habits propel us toward our goals and priorities.
- Neutral habits neither move us forward nor hold us back.
- Destructive habits prevent, slow, or reverse our progress toward our goals and priorities.
We don’t talk much about neutral habits, but we have more of them than we have of the other kinds of habits. How you fold your towels, put the toilet paper on the holder, hang your shirts, and look for parking spots, along with myriad other habits, makes navigating your day easier as a whole but (typically) won’t make a huge difference at the very high level. As a general rule, naturally generated neutral habits tend to center on comfort, pleasure, and survival, largely because our biological wiring rewards those conditions. Sure, you might be able to deconstruct a handful of them to save an additional 20 or 30 minutes a day, but it’s better to focus on the constructive or destructive habits.
The Goal of Habits
The goal is to minimize or eliminate destructive habits and cultivate and reinforce constructive habits. Our biological wiring is such that the more frequently we do something, the more likely we are to do it the next time — as neuropsychologist Donald Hebb said, “what fires together, wires together.” When we create habits that propel us toward goals and priorities, achieving our goals and being in alignment become our defaults as well. The question is how to create and maintain the defaults that work for us and minimize the ones that work against us. The Momentum Planning method, the 5/10/15 split, and time blocking are all examples of defaults we’ve been building to make space for our best work.
The Connection Between Habits and Outcomes
Where we get tripped up with this is that we often don’t see the connection between habits and their outcomes. Some habits show their effects only by their absence. For instance, if you’ve developed constructive habits to stay hydrated, you might forget the effect that those habits are having on your mood and performance until something disrupts your daily flow and breaks your habits.
Nor do we see how our environments and tools influence our habits. I call these anchors. Environments are the containers we do habits in, and tolls are the things that trigger certain habits. The hard part of exercising for many people isn’t what happens in the gym. Once you’re there, it’s more than just thinking you might as well do something since you’re there; the environment itself makes getting your sweat on the default option that you have to decide against. It’s subtler but the same thing happens when you walk into a conference room, your office, or your parents’ house.
Since we know that shifts happen with places and tools we can choose to build our habits around those places. We have to actively create and cultivate anchors for our habits to have their power.
We also notice the effect of destructive habits by their absence, but most of our destructive habits are tied to deep physical, emotional, or social desires, so we quickly return to them. Returning from a trip where we’ve been away from technology, we check email or turn on the television, and in five minutes undo the entire reprogramming of our time away. Just about the time we get back on track from the last holiday season, we enter another season and undo all of the progress we’ve made. We repair our financial circumstances just long enough to end up buying unnecessary stuff all over again.
The secret to habits rests with the beginnings. It tends to be harder to start constructive habits, so we have to make starting them and sticking with them easier; consistency is your friend here. It tends to be easier to start destructive habits, so we have to do the opposite and make it harder to start them and stick with them; consistency is your enemy here.
Remember, what constitutes your flourishing will be different from what constitutes mine or anyone else’s, so your own set of constructive habits will be unique to you. More important than what they are is that you know the reason for them.
The Benefit of Routines
Routines are habits or behaviors that are consistently done in the same sequence or at the same time. They’re the equivalent of molecules, with habits being the atoms that make up the molecule. The major upshot of routines is that the only choice you need to make is to start the routine; the rest of the sequence has the inertia to complete itself.
None of what I’ve said here is particularly novel or mind-blowing, and lucky for me, I’m not trying to say something new or mind-blowing. Destructive habits creep up on us and we tend to under-reinforce constructive habits in the making, so we all need reminders to check whether our defaults are working for us or against us.
Over to you: what destructive habit has crept in that you intend to minimize or eliminate? What constructive habit would you like to cultivate or reinforce? Fundamentally, are your defaults serving you?