how to take control of your life by forming positive habits: part one

when was the last time you consciously made an effort to do something courageous, wise, or just? it’s probably been awhile, because the fast-paced world we live in doesn’t leave a lot of room for intentionally cultivating the virtues of courage, wisdom, or justice.

but these virtues are exactly the kinds of things that people need most. when you look at people who are both professionally successful and happy with their personal lives, you will invariably see habits that reflect these ways of behavior.

similarly, when you look at people who are unsuccessful in their professional and personal lives, you will almost certainly see them perpetuating that state through bad habits. the most damaging ones are often the ones that are easiest to rationalize, especially when the culture we live in actually encourages us to do so.

we constantly hear about the habits that the world’s most successful business leaders have – like Bill Gates reading 50 books a year, or the morning ritual Tony Robbins calls “priming”. but we rarely hear about how they developed those habits in the first place.

this article will directly address that issue. it is the first in a two-part series, where the second part shows how long it takes to truly establish good habits so that they become second-nature. read on to find out how you unlock your potential and change your life for the better.

it’s important to note that i’m no master; this is something that i’m constantly working on and that one should never stop working on.

habits are how you manage a brain on autopilot

according to a study published by Cornell University, the average american makes around 35,000 decisions every day. we are not fully conscious of most of these decisions – they take place just under the sheen of our internal monologue.

the human brain has evolved to interpret experience and steer the body towards an appropriate response. the vast majority of these responses don’t require conscious thought, and even the ones that do, if repeated often enough, no longer will.

some highly successful and industrious leaders – like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama – subscribe to the theory of decision fatigue, which claims that the human ability to make conscious choices wears out over the course of the average day. that’s why both Zuckerberg and Obama intentionally limit their own wardrobes. one less unimportant choice to make.

these strategies help the brain conserve energy and steer behavior towards successful outcomes. they become habits that lead to greater professional and personal success.

people who take time and effort to build good habits and overwrite bad ones are actually revising their brain’s autopilot program. habits define so much of what people do, say, think, and feel that it’s almost impossible to reach a high level of professional or personal success without adjusting them.

habit-building is about structures of support, not willpower

almost everyone has an intuitive idea about how habits form. in most cases, the opinions of parents, mentors, and close friends form a fundamental substrate upon which habits are built. these factors often stretch back into early childhood and form an entire system of behavior that defines the essence of a person’s activities in day-to-day life.

human beings tend to participate in the systems of behavior established by their closest confidants regardless of whether those systems are consistent, coherent, or morally valid. this is because they come with a cultural structure of support,

both Plato and Aristotle called these flimsy structures “conventions”, which most people would simply accept as true without thinking about them. the habits they built as a result reflected those conventions’ shortcomings, which people could change if they work (and think) hard enough about them.

but everyone feels good about establishing a good habit, at first. you start meditating in the mornings, or go to the gym a few times, or express your gratitude and appreciation for a friend. but eventually something comes up and gets in the way, or you simply forget. enthusiasm is the easy part. commitment is the hard part.

anyone who tries to build a new habit without laying down the foundation of successful habit-building is putting all of the responsibility for success on a single element of the conscious human mind: willpower.

the problem here is that willpower just isn’t enough. clinical psychologists have found that, in most cases, willpower is not sufficient for enacting positive change over a long period of time. Aristotle referred to this as “akrasia”, which translates roughly to “incontinence” or “lack of mastery.”

counselors and criminal psychologists who work with drug offenders use the term “white-knuckling” to define the willpower-based approach. yet study after study concludes that incarcerated drug addicts who rely on willpower for rehabilitation stand a significantly lower chance of freeing themselves from addiction than those who are taken out of prison and put into rehab centers.

the one difference that stood out most in this research was the effect of participating in a positive environment that offered a structure of support. an environment that rewarded good behavior turned out to be far more effective than one that punishes bad behavior. willpower is still an important part of the equation, but it isn’t the whole answer.

how to commit to positive habit-forming behaviors

all habits draw their origin from a four-step feedback loop:

  • an environmental cue. you hit an obstacle at work, for example.
  • an inner condition. you feel frustrated because you’re stuck on a problem.
  • an active response. you pull out your cell phone and scroll through your social media feed, or you take a break and smoke a cigarette, or you calmly consider the problem an opportunity to practice patience and improve your work ethic, so you get right to it.
  • a satisfactory outcome. you either satisfy your frustration by turning away from the problem or towards it. whatever choice you make becomes associated with a feeling of relief. though, i recommend the positive (and typically harder to do) solution.

see the below illustration of a habit loop inspired by James Clear:

the important thing to realize about these four steps is that only one of them is always within your control. your ability to control the environment is limited, and you can’t control the appearance of feelings like frustration, anger, fear, or joy, but you can control how you perceive those conditions, which will form what you do in response.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind,” wrote Marcus Aurelius almost two thousand years ago. “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

if you could rationally work out the response to every single one of the thousands of decisions you make every day, you could form excellent habits just by perceiving them correctly. unfortunately, that’s not usually the case – ask anyone who ever tried to quit smoking.

in a world where much of what we do is already formed through habit, improving our habits requires building structures of support that encourage us to indulge the appropriate perceptions and act in appropriate ways at the appropriate times. in part two of this series, i’m going to cover how that works, and how long it takes.

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