In truth, the only difference between those who have failed and those who have succeeded lies in the difference of their habits.
Who am I?
I am your constant companion.
I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden.
I will push you onward to success or drag you down to failure.
I am completely at your command.
Half the things you do might just as well be turned over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly.
I am not a machine, though I work with all the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a person.
Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will place the world at your feet.
Be easy with me and I can destroy you. Who am I?
I am HABIT!
In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
A teacher was trying to impress upon her pupils the importance of doing right at all times, and so to bring out the answer, ‘Bad Habits.’ She inquired: "What is it that we find so easy to get into and so hard to get out of?” There was a silence for a moment and then one little fellow answered, “Bed.”
Your habits will determine your future, and if you keep doing things a certain way, you’ll be able to predict the results. It’s the simple law of cause and effect. Successful habits create positive rewards. Negative habits breed negative consequences. Most of our habits are learned, not instinctual, but we perform them unconsciously all the time. This is a good thing. You would waste a lot of time if you had to think through every step of your morning routine or driving your car.
It’s enlightening to consider how the same behavior can be seen as either positive or negative. A father was brushing his teeth when his seven-year old daughter barged into the bathroom. “Aha,” she rebuked, “so you’re the one who keeps putting the cap back on the toothpaste.” A little girl writing an essay on parents wrote, “The trouble with parents is that they are so old when we get them, it’s hard to change their habits.”
Successful habits create positive rewards. Negative habits breed negative consequences.
When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you have a shower, or grab a coffee? Did you brush your teeth before or after you showered and toweled off? Did you put your left or right shoe on first? Which route did you drive the to work? William James wrote: “All our life is a mass of habits.” Let’s make sure our life is not a mess of bad habits.
By definition, habits are repeated, nearly automatic actions that are triggered by contextual clues. When you get into a car, you put on your seat belt if you have already made it a habit. When you wake up in the morning, you jump in the shower. Or grab a coffee. Once formed, habits require little willpower and even less forethought. If you can turn healthy behaviors into habits, maintaining them is a snap. Forming a new habit is really a simple task. Get yourself to do something repetitively and consistently and in the same context and it will become a habit. It is important to understand how new habits take hold. Eventually, we become our habits. In the words of poet John Dryden, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”
Jim Klemmer, in his book Growing at the Speed of Change, writes: “A habit is a learned behavior causing us to think and act automatically. Many times we’re not aware of the hundreds of tiny and bigger habits we’ve acquired over our lifetime. Each habit piles on top of another and shapes us into who we are today. These habits create our reality. Modern psychologist’s greatest contribution to our health, happiness and well-being is showing we are not stuck with any of our habits. It may be neither quick nor easy, but we can change any habit. That’s generally done by replacing a bad or unwanted one with a good or desired thought or behavior.”
Hal Urban adds: “We’re creatures of habit. Some psychologists believe that up to 95% of our behavior is formed though habit. Most of them start innocently and unintentionally. At the beginning they form a kind of invisible thread. But through repetition. The thread becomes entwined into a chord and later into a rope. Each time we repeat an act, we add to it and strengthen it. The rope becomes a chain and then a cable.” Urban continues: ‘It’s not my purpose to offer a scientific explanation of how and why we form habits. I just want to point out, we all do. Habits are part of being human. No one escapes them. I don’t advise people to avoid forming habits. They couldn’t anyways. I advise them to think about the kinds of habits they are forming. Whether we like it or not, we become slaves to our habits. They end up working either for us or against us.”
One of my favorite writings is a work by Portia Nelson entitled: “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters":
Chapter 1: I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless.
It is not my fault.
It seems me forever to find a way out.
Chapter 2: I walk down the same street.
There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter 3: I walk down the same street.
There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is still there.
I still fall in…It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
Chapter 4: I walk down the same street.
There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
Chapter 5: I walk down a different street.
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein
Always remember the ‘’First Rule of Holes: If you’re in one, stop digging."
M.J. Ryan in her book, This Year I Will, writes: “I find myself in the kitchen in front of the open refrigerator door with a piece of cheese in my hand. How did I get there? Suddenly my fingernails are chewed to nubs. Did someone sneak in the house and bite them? The tendency is to keep doing what we already have done is very strong because the neurons on our brains that fire together wire together. Meaning that they tend to run the same sequence the next time whether we want to or not. The brain’s tendency to habituate means we go through much of our life like sleepwalkers. That’s why when we want to create new habits or change old ones, our most important ally is being awake to our experience. We’ve got to become aware of what we’re doing or not doing.” We need to live less out of habit and more out of intent.
A gentleman named John Henry Fabre conducted an experiment with processionary caterpillars. They are so named because of their peculiar habit of blindly following each other no matter how they are lined up or where they are going. They generally move through trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following, each with his eyes closed and its head fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.
He took a group of these tiny creatures and did something interesting with them. He placed them in a circle in the rim of a larger flower pot where he succeeded in getting the first one connected with the last one, thus forming a complete circle which started moving in a procession which had no beginning and no end. For 24 hours, the caterpillars dutifully followed one another around and around.
They were following instinct…habit…custom and past experience. They meant well…but got nowhere.
We need to live less out of habit and more out of intent.
A fellow is lying on the ground, moaning and groaning. Somebody walks by and asks him why he he’s groaning. The fellow replies, “I’m moaning because I’m lying on a bed of nails.” The passerby asks, “Why don’t you get up off the bed?” The fellow on the ground replies, “It doesn’t hurt badly enough yet.”
It may be necessary to ask: “What’s the price of not changing?”
Other questions to ask yourself: Do I really want to make this change enough to put in the necessary effort? Are negative habits firmly holding you back? Are you stuck?
Changing bad habits is not easy.
Dr. Gail Brenner write in a wonderful article, The Pain of Being Stuck, “And who doesn’t know what it’s like to be stuck? We find ourselves doing the same unsatisfying thing time after time or looking at situations and people in the same habitual way that doesn’t get us what we really want. Being stuck is tunnel vision, it’s prison, it’s limited and it’s both small and frustrating. The good news is that you can get unstuck. No matter what habit is gripping you, you can find the courage to explore it, to understand how it works, and to understand the feelings that drive it. Habits can’t sustain themselves in the light of conscious awareness.”
Ashleigh Brilliant asks, “Why do I suffer the same painful consequences every time I perform the same foolish acts?"
Brenner continues with some facts about getting unstuck:
Moving through habits takes focus, willingness and perseverance.
Habits stay in place through unconsciousness and inattention.
You will experience urges and cravings.
Getting unstuck from habits means facing the unknown.
Dismantling habits takes patience.
Changing bad habits is not easy. Our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. We say we’re going to change, we may even do it for a little while, but soon we find ourselves back to our old habits. To bring new behavior takes work. Abigail Van Buren writes, “A bad habit never disappears miraculously; it’s an undo-it-yourself project.” Mark Twain adds, “A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.”
When trying to change a bad habit, ambivalence is normal and to be expected. We may want to change but we are not sure. We don’t know what the new behavior will mean. In addition, every single choice we make means giving up something to get something else. Ambivalence will be strongest at the beginning and will decrease as you see the benefits of your new behavior. And even after we do start, our initial motivation may weaken. Then we require discipline to keep going.
Our goal throughout these blogs is to be the best version of ourselves. How do you become the person you want to be? You start to adopt the right thinking, learn the right skills, and develop the habits of the person you want to be. What you do today is one one action toward who you will be tomorrow.
It’s hard to let old beliefs go. They are familiar. We are comfortable with them and have spent years building systems and developing habits that depend on them. Like a man who has worn eyeglasses so long, he forgets he has them on, we forget that the world looks to us the way it does because we have become used to seeing it that way through a particular set of lenses. John Mark Green writes: “It requires no extra effort to settle for the same old thing. Autopilot keeps us locked into past patterns. But transforming your life? That requires courage, commitment, and effort. It’s tempting to stay camped in the zone of That’s-Just-How-It-Is. But to get really good stuff in life, you have to be willing to become an explorer and adventurer.”
Bad habits people have that affect their lives:
Living on auto-pilot.
Spending too much time on social media or watching TV.
Being late to meetings or social engagements.
Complaining all the time.
Snacking when you are not hungry.
Overspending your way into debt.
Eating too much fast food.
As someone who left everything to the last minute said, “I’m not a procrastinator. I just prefer doing all my work in a deadline-induced panic!”
M.J. Ryan on New Year’s Resolutions asks, “How many of us have made a resolution similar to one of these?”
This year I’m going to stop smoking.
This year I am going to exercise regularly.
This year I’m going to declutter my house.
Surveys say that over 50% of us make New Year’s resolutions, but less than 8 percent succeed.
Ryan continues: “We all have something we want to change about ourselves or learn to do. But it’s not easy. Our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. To bring new behavior into being takes work. There are three things needed to make any change: desire, intent and persistence. The process is not getting rid of bad habits, the pathway to your current behavior is there for life. Stopping a bad habit, like smoking, is really about creating a good new habit, non-smoking.”
She then writes about some resolution pitfalls, which can actually be applied to any difficult habit change:
Being vague about what you want.
Not making a serious commitment.
Procrastination and excuse making.
Being unwilling to go through the awkward phase.
Trying to go it alone.
Turning slip ups into give-ups.
What you do today is one one action toward who you will be tomorrow.
And let us not forget that some long standing positive habits are worth keeping and are just like old friends. Apparently when singer/songwriter Billy Joel is struggling with writer’s block, he doesn’t go to a shrink or a doctor. Rather, he puts on the clothes he’s worn when he’s written successfully in the past, goes to the café where he’s written well before, orders the same drink, and uses the same pen and notebook that have brought him success in the past. I too have been subjected to writer’s block a couple of times since starting this series of blogs and have followed habitual patterns similar to the above with great success.
Let’s close this blog with a Peanuts Review. There are many Peanuts cartoons which show Lucy holding a football so Charlie Brown can run up and kick it. But each time, she lifts the ball off the ground at the last minute, and Charlie Brown misses the kick and falls to the ground. Do you think that better habits would improve the relationship between Lucy and Charlie Brown?
Being miserable is a habit; being happy is a habit; and the choice is yours. What do you choose? Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys.
Previous month: There is No Single Definition of Success
Next month: Change is compulsory but suffering is optional
What’s one good habit you would like to start doing this month? There will never be a perfect time to start. What’s holding you back?
What are some habits you have in your life that have led you to where you are right now?
What’s one negative habit or harmful thing you would like to eliminate form your life? What or who is stopping you from doing that?
The difference in who you are and who you want to be is what you do. Do something each week this month that your future self will thank you for.
See how long you can go without complaining.