How to Master Your Habits

Our habits determine a large part of what we spend our time doing each day, so taking control over those unconscious drives can go a long way in helping us navigate towards our goals.

We all have habits. They show up in every facet of our lives; in our thoughts, our speech and of course, in our actions. You probably don’t even realize half of your habits because they are so deeply ingrained in your lifestyle. Yet, these unconscious drives play an undeniable role in shaping our reality and, ultimately, determining whether we find success or fall short of our mark.

Bad Habits vs. Healthy Habits 
Not all habits are created equal. If you are like most people, when you think of the word “habit” you can quickly generate several examples of harmful routines that don’t really bring us much value. These might include things like substance abuse, procrastination, excess spending, oversleeping, losing your temper, or any other acts that lead us away from our goals.

Poor habits, however, are not limited to our actions. Many of us (myself included) have had to work through self-destructive and limiting thoughts as well.  It is important to realize that the things we think about inspire the words we say and, in turn, what we say eventually becomes our reality. So, it is crucial that we not only focus on our physical habits, but also the thought patterns that shape our perspectives.

With all of this in mind, the difference between a good habit and a bad habit can be summed up like this: a bad habit is a reflex or thought that distracts you or sets you back.  A healthy habit, on the other hand, is something constructive that you routinely do in a given situation.

Habits don’t have to be extreme to have a significant impact. Some of the positive habits that I have been working on over the last 12 months are actually really simple; daily goal setting, packing my gym bag the night before a workout, and listening to audio books on my commute. All of these things, in some way or another, help me feel better about myself and make me more productive with my time.

10 New Habits
Here are some simple practices that you can try adding to your daily routine:

  1. Start your day by writing down one thing you are grateful for.
  2. Add 10 minutes of stretching to the end of your workouts.
  3. Make yourself breakfast before you leave the house each morning.
  4. Carry a water bottle with you all day.
  5. Spend 15 minutes reading each day.
  6. Instead of answering messages individually as they come in, set a specific time when you will read and reply to emails (or texts, etc.).
  7. Give someone else a compliment at least once a day.
  8. Write down your goals for the week each Sunday.
  9. Save $10 more from every pay cheque, just because.
  10. Add a new healthy food to your diet. Eat it once a week.

How habits are formed
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes habits as a 3-part cycle he refers to as the “the habit loop.” In a nutshell, we are presented with a cue (also known as a “trigger”), we respond with an action (also called a “habit”), and then we are rewarded for taking that action. Trigger, habit, reward.

Example #1: You are walking through the mall and smell the sweet scent of cinnamon rolls (cue), so you forget about what you were doing and get in line (habit). Finally, after waiting in line for a few minutes you get your freshly baked treat, sink your teeth in and bang – satisfaction (reward).

Example #2: Your friend is on her way over to your house to hang out for the afternoon. While she is on the way you get a phone call, “hey, do you want anything from the coffee shop?” (cue). You aren’t actually thirsty or craving anything, but you automatically reply, “Sure! I’ll take a small regular, thanks.” (habit). Then, a few minutes later someone is at your door with a 315 calorie gift, just for you (reward).

Habit triggers come in all shapes and sizes. Your brain works like a giant network of ideas and memories, each one connected to another. Simply put, a trigger is a spark that initiates the chain reaction of neural activity which leads up to action.

Most triggers are either environmental (i.e.: driving past Starbucks), sensory (i.e.: the ringer on your phone, the smell of McDonald’s fries), or psychological (i.e.: boredom, loneliness, fear, anger, etc.). Of course, there are other types of cues, but regardless, they all serve the function of initiating that habit loop.

A reward is just what it sounds like. As mentioned, your brain is like a network of ideas. Whenever you notice a particular trigger, your mind begins to make assumptions about the things that will accompany or follow this cue. When your brain learns to connect a certain trigger with a particular outcome, we are then motivated to take action (habit). If this action leads to a reward the habit loop is strengthened and the cycle becomes more likely to continue.

So, here’s the cycle one more time.

Trigger, habit, reward.

Catalyst Habits
Knowing all of this great stuff about the formation of habits is cool, but how can we take that information and apply it to our lives immediately? Well, because our habits determine a very large part of what we spend our time doing each day, taking control over those unconscious drives can go a long way in helping us navigate toward our goals.

It can be overwhelming to think about overhauling your life to realign your personality with an ideal version of yourself that you are striving to become. So, instead of spreading yourself thin and taking on a ton of new challenges all at once, try focusing in on one or two catalyst habits.

There has been substantial research on catalyst actions (or keystone habits as they are called in The Power Of Habit). When put to good use, these catalyst habits have an ability to trigger a domino effect of productivity and efficiency. Simply put, a catalyst habit is a routine which generally leads to another constructive act, making all tasks that follow easier or more likely to be completed.

A simple example is making your bed in the morning. Making your bed in and of itself might not change your life, however, beginning your day with a ritual involving cleanliness and attention to detail can setup the rest of your day for more of the same. Carry that momentum with you into the kitchen and wash your dishes after you eat breakfast. Now with a clear kitchen table, you feel inspired to pack a lunch for the day. Then when you take that break around noon, you don’t have to wander around for 15 minutes deciding which fast food restaurant is the healthiest. All because you made your bed and started a wave of positive energy that carried you through the rest of the day.

Catalyst actions can be difficult to identify. In my experience, the best way to find them is by taking a little time to build some self-awareness. The key here is to reverse-engineer the momentum.

Think about when you are at your best. Times when you are most productive and most disciplined. Where are you when you feel energized and focused? What does the area look like? What items are around you? Who is there with you? What time of day is it? What were you doing leading up to this moment? Did you just eat? Were you taking a walk when a great idea popped into your head?  Did you have a particular song on in your headphones?

Try to isolate all of the variables in the scenario so that you can better understand how you got into that focus zone. Really take some time to think about what inspires you in great detail. If you can identify your triggers, you can create motivation on demand.

Creativity, dedication, and positivity can seem to come in waves. Some days the ideas are coming by the dozens and we have enough juice to hit the gym twice. Other days we just can’t get anything going. That is why it is so important to keep control of our habits.

Regardless of the goal, it is critical that we pick up on the patterns that put us at our best. As your awareness develops you will learn which buttons control your cues. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to build constructive routines around these triggers and truly make success a habit.

– 22


“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

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Author: Courtney A Stephen

From Brampton, ON, Canada. Professional Football Player & Founder Overtime Football Club Inc. Wilfrid Laurier University & N. Illinois University Alumnus

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