Bad habits never really go away; they just lie dormant until they’re set off again, intentionally or unintentionally. This is why it’s so hard to kick bad habits, and so easy to undo the progress you’ve made with regards to habit change.
Knowing this, though, doesn’t render your habit change efforts thus far futile. Instead, it sheds some light on how you can more effectively convince yourself to kick your bad habits. (Not just for the time being; this time, for good.) Here are four simple steps you can use in that regard.
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Counter-intuitively, one of the best ways to effect positive behaviour change is to focus on changing one habit that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with anything.
In his New York Times bestseller “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg calls these “keystone habits.” These, he writes, are habits that “have the power to start a chain reaction… that over time, transform everything.”
Let’s say you’re trying to stop procrastinating, but you don’t know where to start. A good keystone habit, in this case, would be making your bed the minute you get up in the morning.
Research has shown that those who make their beds in the morning are likelier to practice greater self-control. They’re better able to prioritise their responsibilities over their desires and are generally more productive.
Once making your bed in the morning is second nature to you, you’ll find that your mind is a lot more used to exerting willpower. This is a critical factor in overcoming procrastination. According to Duhigg, it’s “small wins” like these that later precipitate more considerable and more significant behaviour changes at work and in life.
One way to deal effectively with the temptations of “caving” is to use military precision and planning. You know yourself best; certain things are likelier to set you off than others. Knowing what to expect helps you to either minimise the chances of encountering such challenges. It could also give you recourse on an alternative plan of action to take in case such temptations are inevitable.
For example, some people procrastinate because they feel there’s still a lot of time left. If that sounds like you, you could deal with it by taking some time every time to schedule every hour of your day in advance.
This helps to drive home the point that you have a limited amount of time every day to accomplish what you need to. The minute you choose to procrastinate on something, you’re penalising yourself by messing up your schedule, or by adding on to your workload for subsequent days.
Beliefs are the cornerstone of habit change. You might be able to train your mind and body to a particular set of actions and rewards. But when push comes to shove, if you don’t truly believe in the benefit of trying to kick bad habits, you’ll very quickly revert to them since that’s what you’re used to.
Habits and routines get tedious for everyone after a while. Those who manage to overcome this inevitable tedium are no different in this regard. What sets them apart, though, is that they’re better able to tap into the strength of their beliefs to tide things through.
One of the best ways to do this is to use visualisation techniques to keep reminding yourself of the ideal self you want to create through this habit change. Each time you feel the temptation of procrastination, think of the version of you that you want to embody. For example, you could picture someone who is self-disciplined, productive and works systematically and conscientiously towards achieving her goals. You could even use visual aids or mementos that help activate that vision of your ideal self.
What makes it so easy to give up and stop committing to habit change is that most of the time, the only person you’ll look bad to is yourself. When this happens, it’s very easy to convince yourself that things aren’t so bad and that you’re not that incompetent.
Alternatively, if you introduced your “street cred” into the picture, all of a sudden, you stand to lose a lot more. When you share your goals publicly, you’re opening yourself up to public scrutiny. Now the whole world will know what you’re trying to achieve, which means there’ll be more boos all around if you miss the mark.
This is why it’s crucial to commit publicly to the particular habit change you’re trying to make, or at least have an accountability partner. The point isn’t to make you beholden to others’ perceptions of you. It’s to increase the stakes and rely on the power of community to catalyse long-lasting behaviour change.