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Habits

Recommended Reading - The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg

45% of what we do every day is done without thinking; these behaviours and habits have their own momentum; they work unconsciously, requiring less will power on your part to make them happen. The habit wants to keep going, on its own.

When I think about the areas of my life where I have been successful I realize that most were driven by the habits I have created. The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg gives a powerful yet simple explanation of how to achieve great things by doing the same things over and over again. The book describes how all habits are underpinned by three elements which create a loop:

The cue triggers the habit e.g. When you wake up or when you sit at your kitchen table after dinner. The routine is the behaviour you automatically do at this point e.g. You look for the pan to make your eggs or you reach for your laptop to complete the 6 pages of your book you want to write each day. The reward is what you get e.g. Eating your eggs with your favorite sauce and enjoying them or the satisfaction of completing your work and allowing yourself to watch some TV as a reward.

There are 100 Trillion connections in the brain. In order to save energy the brain allows the nerve cells or neurons which have been used together before to be used again, Donald Hebb, a famous Neuropsychologist, is quoted as saying "Neurons that fire together wire together". The brain activity when doing something new is much higher than when you have grooved a habit; the cue and the reward create activity spikes but the routine is automatic.

How can you harness the power of habits? The first step is to gain a strong understanding of your current routines so that you can unlock the “compound interest” of healthy habits. Having a strong awareness of your present habits, both bad and good is not easy! For example, I used to eat badly and had been gradually putting on weight over 5 or so years. When I started seeing my fitness coach I was convinced I was eating well but I would put on weight when we would do the monthly weigh-ins. I decided to start texting him everything I ate. This served 2 purposes: it helped me really identify what I was eating (we lie to ourselves!) and it created a new "reward" where he would say if I was eating as I should (and would also shout at me when I wasn't!).

Once you have documented your habit then you can start to replace the routine and rewards with things you actually want to do to make your life more productive. This is hard. According to research conducted by University college of London it takes people between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit. The good news is that the research also found that "missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process" - so it's ok to mess up a bit.

Here is another example. Let us say you want to improve your wealth which is driven by what you make, spend and learn to help create future wealth.

Firstly, look at what is stopping you getting where you want to be. This could be time wasted doing meaningless things which could be spent working more at my job (if this allows me to make more money), reviewing my investments, or learning.

Now dig deeper into those time wasting habits which can include: Watching TV in the evenings, Spending hours on social media or gaming your life away. Think about the cues which make you do these things: After eating dinner, boredom, fatigue or no clear plan. Write all this down and then spend the next week being aware of (and documenting) your cues and the routines they trigger.

Then make a plan for how you can use the same cue but replace the routine and reward with something more productive. For example:

  1. After eating dinner I will write 6000 pages of my new book and then afterwards I will allow myself to watch some TV (this is something I do to replace the normal routine and make it the reward, then over time I try and change that reward too - sometimes successfully but not always!)
  2. Remove all apps I waste time on from my phone or switch my phone off (except when I need it for work). Instead I will try to always have a book with me and start reading it when I am bored instead of using my phone.
  3. Leave your gym stuff ready to go on a Saturday morning so you put it on and go to the gym. Ideally arrange to go to the gym with someone it makes it more likely you will go and serves as the reward for going (social interaction is a strong motivator). If you can't find someone to go with you could visit a favorite coffee place after the gym or get a smoothie you like (if that's ok within your diet routine!).

Once you have a plan then you have to follow your new routine multiple times to make it a new habit. And you have to be prepared to fail multiple times too. The new habits will allow you to execute the more productive tasks you have identified on auto-pilot which will, in turn, free up your energies to improve other things.