Last week I wrote the first Friday Feelz post. It was encouraging people to focus on creating a positive daily path to live by, rather than focusing on #goals. So this week I thought I’d continue on from there and look at a couple of ways that might help us keep on track. Below I’ve listed three things that have helped me.
1. Be Committed
I read about the ‘Sienfield System’ years ago and it’s always stuck in my head. At a standup gig, a young comic asked Jerry Sienfield for some advice. Jerry said the trick is to have better jokes, and to have better jokes you have to write more, you have to write everyday. Jerry told him that he would get a big wall calendar with a box for each day of the year. When he had done his writing for a day, he would mark the day with a big red X. His big advice was ‘Don’t break The Chain’ Keep those Xs building up, and once you see that you’ve been able to keep it up for a few days and then a few weeks, you’re encouraged to keep going. The better jokes, they come no matter what, as long as you focus on the daily commitment or whatever schedule you’ve set for yourself. “Inch by inch, anything’s a cinch” is an awesome motto to help fight the overwhelm of facing big tasks, but more importantly, this method of commitment gives you internal validation. You do the work, you draw that big red X and you feel proud of yourself. External opinion doesn’t come into it, you don’t have to worry about proving anything to anyone. The fulfilment comes from within, making it very empowering and rewarding.
The problem is although we all know that we’ll feel better after we do that important thing, we find it so hard to motivate ourselves to do it. We find an excuse not to exercise, not to work on our passion project or to not practice the thing. We allow our monkey minds to run the show. But ‘we must let our actions dictate our feelings, not our feelings dictate our actions.’ The trick is to make it so small that the hurdle to starting looks tiny. Once you’re in motion it becomes easier, but start by making the reason you get to cross the day of with a big satisfying red X so small you don’t have to do much to accomplish it. Then don’t think, just do. You’ll always be glad you did, and once you repeat that enough times, you begin to form a habit.
2. Understand and Use Habits:
Every habit is made up of the same three steps. These steps together are called the habit loop, coined by Charles Duhigg in ‘The Power of Habit’. The loop begins with a cue, which is the thing that triggers the habit. Next you have the action; the actual habit that is performed. And finally comes the reward; you satisfy some craving and usually get a hit of dopamine as a pay off.
Just as every person is unique, so is every habit. Therefore changing or creating a habit can take time, work and experimentation. A great example explaining all this can be seen in Charles Duhigg’s experiment to change his afternoon cookie habi
t. Every afternoon Charles would go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while chatting to his colleagues. Then he would go back to his desk, regret eating the cookie and promise tomorrow would be different, he’d break the habit!
To actually achieve this was harder than you might expect. Will power failed him, he repeatedly tried to white knuckle it but the power of the habit always won out. So instead he began to experiment to uncover the habit loop. He first tried to figure out what the craving and reward were in this habit loop. Was it hunger, or was the need of a sugar hit for some extra energy, did he need a break from his work or was it social interaction that he craved. So for the next week instead of having a cookie he tried a different action. First he tried to eat an apple, the next day he went for a walk, then he tried going over to his work friends for a chat and another day he tried coffee. After each experiment he would write down whether his craving for the cookie had passed and how he felt.
Next he tried to figure out the cue. A habit’s cue nearly always falls into one of five different categories; the time of day/night, the location you are in, your emotional state, the actions of other people or the action directly beforehand. He discovered the time of day was the one consistent thing in his cookie habit. After all this, he looked at the results of his experimentation and found that the real craving was for a break from work and some social interaction in the afternoon. So over time, with a few cookie shaped road bumps along the way, he began to form the new habit of taking a ten minute break in the afternoon, in which he would wander over to his work colleagues, chat and gossip with them and then return to his desk feeling rejuvenated.
So next time you’re trying to break a bad habit take some time to uncover the craving you are trying to satisfy, find the cue that triggers it and once you have those, you will be able to replace the action or bad habit with something more useful. Likewise, if you are trying to add a positive habit to your daily routine, start with the cue. Clearly decide on that and then make sure you have a reward that will come straight afterwards. This doesn’t have to be a big treat or anything extravagant. When I first started going to the gym, I’d drive myself mad beforehand arguing with myself about whether or not I will go. Then I set myself a specific cue, a time of the day I would go. I would pack my gym bag the day before and try and remove any roadblocks that might get in the way. This helped me to stop thinking and just go. My reward was how amazing I felt walking out the door after a good work out and a hot shower. At the begin it was still a little hard to get going but I’d then remind myself of that feeling I’d have, that reward afterwards and it made going so much easier. Then over time it just became an automatic habit, something I no longer thought about.
Something that might be surprising is that negative thinking and negative emotional states can be habits
that fit into the habit loop, and in turn, end up fitting into our lives. But what’s the reward for feeling bad?! Well our brains are actually wired to activate the reward system when we feel negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, and worry. We get a reward when we feel these negative emotions, so if we do it often enough we build a habit without even knowing it.
Understanding that our worrying might be habitual is the first step to breaking the pattern! We can then use the experimental method to first figure out what is the cue that triggers our negative thought patterns. So if we know for example, that morning times or meetings in work, talking to a certain person or Sunday evenings are cues that trigger negative thinking, we can use that insight to break our negative habit. We’ve identified the cue, so we know when the habit is about to start. The next step is to identify the emotion; anxiety, guilt, shame, embarrassment. By naming the emotion we move it from the non-verbal part of the brain to a more rational part of the brain where we can take control of the emotion.
Once we’ve identified the emotion, for example let’s say it’s embarrassment at a meeting in work. Next we look at the story we have created around the emotion. Our brain is constantly trying to understand and make sense of the world. So even if it’s a negative story that paints us in the worst light possible, our brain still goes there as a way to understand what’s going on. So we tell ourselves we’re feeling embarrassed because what we said in the meeting was so stupid and now everyone thinks we’re an idiot.
This may have built up over time into a habit that now happens in every meeting. The cue is the meeting, the habit is getting embarrassed every time we have to speak and the reward system is triggered in the brain by the negative feeling of embarrassment, the loop is complete. We then create a story around the habit.
So how do we break this. One way is, after identifying the narrative we have created, we think the opposite. So staying with the same example, we break that mental framework by thinking what we said in the meeting was really great and everyone was impressed by what we said. This is a way of disrupting our negative thought pattern. Once we’ve come up with a more positive story, we need to find something to back it up with. However small, however long ago, find those positive comments you’ve been given in meetings in the past. Then build on them, allow yourself time to feel the positive emotion of pride and the things that have been said. Pride is one emotion that will activate the reward system of the brain stronger than any of the negative emotions
. Spend time thinking about the positive feedback you’ve received, think about the people that were there, relive the moment. The longer you spending thinking about the positive moments, the more ingrained it becomes in your memory and the more it will disrupt your old negative habit and will encourage you to feel pride instead of embarrassment in the future.
3. Hold yourself accountable
So you’re on track, you’re working on building those positive habits and focusing on your daily accomplishments. Another great little tool to keep you going when things get a bit boring, tough or you feel like you’re losing that initial motivation. A bit of social pressure is a great way to stop you from going completely off kilter. Why not find yourself a partner in crime, someone else who’s on the same page as you and wants to work on building the say habits as you. Having some to encourage you when you’re not feeling it and also helping someone else when they need it, is a great way to keep you going. Telling friends, family or co-workers about the new path you’re on is a great way to use peer-pressure to your advantage. Or going public is another option and the one I’ve chosen as a push to keep me writing on a daily basis. I’ve just started my chain of big Xs on my calendar and I’m posting each day when I cross that day off. It’s early days but so far it’s working and it’s all here in black and white now to see if it works going forward.
Whatever methods you decide to use to help you live a more purposeful, fulfilling and most importantly happy life,remember to keep it simple and enjoyable. These things aren’t more things to add to your to-do list or feel bad that you’re not currently doing them. If something resonates with you, give it a try and see if it works for you and your lifestyle. If it doesn’t no biggie, move on and try something else until you find the things that work for you.