Welcome back to our series on habits based on James Clear’s bestselling book ‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones’. Habits are the building blocks of our lives and have the power to determine whether we struggle or succeed.
‘I should’ve drunk more water today.’
‘I wanted to go to the gym but I was just so tired.’
‘I know I should have done my homework but I just couldn’t motivate myself today.’
We all know what we *should* be doing, so why is it so difficult to follow through? Surely it should just be as easy as setting up a plan and doing it. But it isn’t.
That’s because our behaviour is very much linked to neurochemicals and the way activities make us feel. Dopamine – that addictive pleasure sensation we get when consuming junk food, watching our favourite show, checking on our social media notifications – has the power to make us want to do something or choose to avoid it.
‘For years, scientists assumed dopamine was all about pleasure, but now we know it plays a central role in many neurological processes, including motivation, learning and memory, punishment and aversion, and voluntary movement.’
So how can we use this to our advantage?
You want to motivate yourself to act? Pair an activity that you aren’t so keen about with one you already enjoy. Maybe it’s watching TV while you walk on the treadmill, listening to your favourite podcast while sorting the washing. Maybe homework would be more enjoyable done outside or with a favourite cup of tea.
Or you can delay that row of chocolate until after you do the hard thing, using it as a reward instead. When we feel positive about our habits, we are far more likely to repeat them.
Join a Group
While we might think our behaviours are our own, when we stop to examine them, how many have we inherited? Right from the start, children learn by modeling and it is very likely that a high percentage of your habitual actions have been programmed into you. We are also susceptible to the dominant culture in which we live and ‘everyone is doing’. If you ever find yourself ‘keeping up to date’ with a celebrity’s life choices – we emulate the behaviours of those we see as powerful as well.
This can work for us or against us, but at the very least it is good to be aware. How are our habits rubbing off on our kids?
If we want to use this inbuilt power to our advantage, the best thing we can do is join a group where our desired behaviour is the norm. Want to read more? Join a book club. Want to exercise? Team up with some friends and run together. With our kids, we can set up study groups or enrol them in extra-curricular activities that reinforce the type of person that we want them to become.
Changing the culture in our family is the most powerful way to provoke change in our kids.
Flipping the Switch
Sometimes changing a behaviour is as simple as approaching it from a different perspective.
‘Your brain did not evolve with a desire to smoke cigarettes or to check Instagram or to play video games. At a deep level, you simply want to reduce uncertainty and relieve anxiety, to win social acceptance and approval, or to achieve status.’
When we examine the core needs that we are trying to satisfy underneath our behaviours, we are in a better position to change them.
‘Habits are attractive when we associate them with positive feelings, and we can use this insight to our advantage rather than to our detriment.’
If we shift our language from ‘having to’ go for a run to ‘getting to’ go for a run, this has the power to flip that switch in our brains.
The more we understand about ourselves and the way we are wired, the more success we will have in implementing healthy habits. We are complicated beings, but not unpredictable and these simple strategies help us work in alignment with our neurochemicals so that we begin to want to change.
And, if there is a persistent bad habit that you are trying to shift, how could you make it unattractive this week? Perhaps contemplating where you will be in five years if you continue along that path? Or writing down all the negative consequences that you put up with as a result of choosing that behaviour?
We do have the power to change and that is a wonderful thing. And, as we improve ourselves – even in tiny, imperceptible steps – our actions ripple out towards those we love and inspire them too.
Next week we will delve into the third law of behavioural change: make it easy.