When it comes to our daily lives, we like to believe that we’re in control. That we’re making conscious choices and thus shaping the events and outcomes which follow. It’s natural that we want to feel this way – to see ourselves as masters of our own lives is empowering. But unfortunately, it’s rarely entirely true.
A social media obsessive wakes up, logs in, and scrolls for fifteen minutes before even attempting to get out of bed. The caffeine junkie finds their triple shot cappuccino ready and waiting as soon as they walk into their local coffee shop. A serial procrastinator might lose hours to pointless phone games – and a work addict might be answering emails late into the night. Yes, these people might occasionally find some motivation to try and change these habits, but ultimately, after a week or two, that motivation wanes and they slip back into their old routines. This happens not because these people are failures with poor willpower, but because these undesirable behaviours are ultimately habitual. In recent years, neuroscientists have found mounting evidence showing just how powerful habits can be in controlling our behaviour. In fact, between 40-95% of our thoughts and actions can be filed under the category of “habit”.
Needless to say, habit is – well – habitual. In other words, it does not involve conscious choice. Whenever we perform a certain behaviour, the connections between cells in our brain change creating a neural pathway. The more frequently we repeat that behaviour, the deeper and more ingrained those pathways become. So, if we want to change our behaviour for the better, we must replace negative habits with positive ones. This is the best way to tip the course of our lives towards success.
I know what you might be thinking: “If all I have to do is replace the bad habits with positive ones, why start small? I may as well go in all guns blazing and give it everything I’ve got.” Well, the problem comes in the form of those pesky neural pathways. Like a well-trodden path through the forest, it feels easier and safer to take the well-worn route. While we might think we have the bravery to cut our own way through the trees, and even when we have the energy to take this approach initially, eventually our motivation lapses, we become demotivated and return to what is known. Conversely, Micro-habits work by shifting negative habits into positive ones via incremental adjustments. Neural pathways are like grooves in the brain, and every time you repeat a positive behaviour you deepen that groove. So, just as you wouldn’t attempt to complete a project by doing all the required tasks at once, micro-habits allow you to make small, gradual changes to eventually reach your overall goal.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Sabina Nawaz says: “You’ll know you’ve truly reached the level of a micro habit, when you say ‘That’s so ridiculously small, it’s not worth doing.’” This is good advice. As humans, we often get addicted to the idea of things – it’s so intoxicating to imagine banishing our bad habits and welcoming in new ones, we set lofty goals which require more effort than we can actually muster. To make a micro habit you must first figure out an old one you’d like to replace. Perhaps you rarely, if ever, get out to exercise. In this instance, if you’d like to improve your fitness, instead of signing up for a 10k run, try setting out your exercise clothes each night and putting them on each morning. Commit to doing this for two weeks. Once you’ve got that right, you can commit to getting out for a short walk. Do this for another 14 days. When that’s become natural, you can look at actually getting out for a run. It may seem like slow progress, but moving in this way makes you much more likely to stick to the change long term.
A lack of awareness is the fuel which powers bad habits. Micro habits work because they’re so small they don’t feel daunting to undertake, but if you want to replace existing habits with new ones, you need to make sure you’re actually doing the micro habits. That means carving out time for completing the micro habit – even if it only takes one minute of your day – and keeping tabs on your track record. That might look like scheduling time to complete the micro habit in your digital calendar, and turning the event green once completed – or you might simply wish to add it to your daily to do list. The trick is to provide yourself with an easy way to look back and see at a glance how successful you have been in sticking to your new habit.
After having stuck to your new micro habit without fail for two weeks you can look at building on it by 10-15%. This can feel frustrating in the moment, the satisfaction of ticking off this new habit each day is motivating, and you now feel more than ready to take the next step. As tempting as it might be to go from 0-100, you must resist. In order to truly ingrain this habit within the brain it must be wired in slowly but surely. Every time you push too hard, making the new habit a little bit too daunting, you risk bringing the whole thing down in collapse and returning to those old, negative habits which have such deep existing grooves within the brain. You can think of habit building much like saving money. If you commit to putting away a small amount every month, you’re likely to stick to it and end up with a nice pot of money at the end of the year. Alternatively, if you begin putting away more than you can afford, you’ll likely end up dipping into the savings account and ultimately end up with nothing. As the old saying goes: take care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves.
You may be wondering how small changes result in big success. The answer lies in consistency. Because micro-habits enable you to truly reprogramme your brain and commit to new habits, over time these small shifts become huge changes. Think of all the times you’ve promised yourself huge changes in the past (whether with your career, diet or fitness) and ultimately fallen flat. Micro habits cut out the yo-yo way most of us go about making changes, and ultimately pave the way for real, lasting success.
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