Behind every success is a trail of bread crumbs. If you retrace the steps of any successful person, you will find a path littered with intentional and pragmatic steps commingled with bits of good fortune along the way. Your success hinges on your ability to establish and develop powerful habits.
Understanding the “habit loop”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” ~Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Most endeavors begin with noble intentions. However, the best intentions coupled with bad habits is a recipe for failure and disappointment every time. If you set a goal but fail to establish habits that support and move you toward that goal, you are sabotaging your own efforts
We are slaves to our habits. They control us. They dictate our actions and those actions determine our outcomes. When you establish good habits, you get good results.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, every habit starts with a three-part psychological pattern called a “habit loop.” First, there’s a cue or trigger that signals and sends your brain into automatic mode allowing a behavior to unfold. Then comes the routine, which is the actual the behavior itself. Lastly, is the reward which is something that your brain likes and helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future.
Neuroscientists believe that habit-making behaviors are located in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is responsible for the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions and conscious choice, however, are made in the prefrontal cortex which is an entirely different part of the brain. As soon as a behavior pattern has repeated the loop enough times and becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into “sleep mode.”
“… the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.” He goes on to say, “you can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”
Studies prove that people will perform automated behaviors — like pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they’re in the same environment. Understanding how behaviors are formed and solidified is the first step in breaking these bad loops and developing powerful habits.
4 Steps for developing powerful habits
Now that you are aware of how habits are formed and how behaviors are naturally perpetuated by your brain, you can devise a plan to eliminate negative behaviors and institute good habits. Habits are a cycle. And developing powerful habits involves intentional willful acts that establish the correct cycles. Here are 4 steps to help you with this process:
1. Engage in personal introspection and self-reflection
Introspection is a process that involves examining one’s own thoughts and feelings in order to gain insight. Introspection and self-reflection, allows you to, not only recognize patterns and cycles but it also allows you to determine if they are having a detrimental effect on your emotions and outlook. Introspection and reflection also enable you to locate your triggers so that you can interrupt or prevent the “habit loop” from starting. From there, you can find alternative approaches for these triggers and develop a more powerful habit loop.
2. Replace bad habits with more productive ones
Once you have located a bad habit loop, it’s time to interrupt the loop. The biggest mistake most people make when trying to correct a bad habit such as smoking, or overeating is by merely trying to quit the behavior. But remember, when habitual behavior is occurring the brain is on automatic. The prefrontal cortex is in “sleep mode” and requires activation to help break the cycle.
The way bad habits are broken and powerful habits are developed is by replacing a negative habit with a positive one.
Triggers initiate habits. Once the trigger occurs a behavior results. By recognizing the trigger and then consciously replacing a negative behavior with a positive one, you reset the” habit loop.” Let’s use smoking as an example. Stress is what triggers the urge to smoke in most people. When feeling stressed, a person trying to quit smoking will simply try and resist the urge to grab a cigarette. Eventually, the urge becomes overpowering and they give in, or even worse, they start smoking without even realizing it. The correct way to end the cycle is when stress triggers the urge to smoke, a new behavior such as going for a quick walk, chewing a piece of gum or some other constructive behavior should be engaged in. You must identify the cue, substitute the unwanted behavior with a new more productive one and ensure the new behavior is rewarding.
3. Create an action plan
“A goal without a plan is a wish.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Failing to create a detailed and practical plan is a surefire way of sabotaging your own success. Developing powerful habits is an intentional act that requires a plan. Creating an action plan is a very deliberate and practical process. Below is a model for creating a “habit loop” action plan:
- Identify and write down the habit that needs changing.
- Write down two to three (no more than four) behaviors or steps needed to replace the habit.
- Keep the list visible and refer to it often to keep it top of mind.
- Try to follow the steps in the same order every time.
Hold yourself accountable for your plan. Record your successes and failures during the process and tweak the plan as often as needed. Be sure to celebrate your successes, and acknowledge your failures—but keep moving forward.
4. Create routines
Consistency is the key to developing powerful habits. Habits that support your goals should become an automatic part of your daily routine. This will ensure consistent progress. Persistence, discipline and determination are born and forged through routines.
Unfortunately, scientists have found that there isn’t a set amount of time or number of repetitions necessary to develop a habit. Biology and genetics are responsible for why some people are more susceptible to habit formation and why others are more resistant. But in every case, the adage–practice makes perfect—holds true.
“Habits are an accretive process,” says Duhigg. Each time you perform the habit, “there’s a thickening of neural pathways. It’s more automatic the third time than the first, and even more automatic the 21st time. Every single time you do it, it gets easier and easier, and eventually you cross the line in the sand where it feels automatic and it’s an almost thoughtless activity.”
Powerful habits are the force that propels you forward and significantly enhances your chances for success. Sometimes the process of change can be a long and arduous process requiring repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand your “habit loops,” can accurately diagnose the cue and find and replace the routine behavior– you gain power over it. The recipe for success begins and ends with powerful habits.