Maybe you’re a chronic procrastinator who’s trying to actually get things done. Or maybe you’re an impulsive shopper who wants to stop crying every time your credit card bills come in. You might even be a couch potato who needs to get out there and start working out regularly.
Every one of us probably has a bad habit we want to kick. The thing about bad habits, though, is that they tend to stick worse than superglue. Each January you tell yourself, “This’ll be the year. This will be my year.” Each January you start on a high, and each December you end with a whimper.
It doesn’t matter if your goal is to increase your productivity, improve your finances, or get six-pack abs. Knowing how to effect lasting behaviour change (first for yourself, then for others) will upend your life in ways that you never imagined. Here’s the thing, though: discipline isn’t all you’re going to need; a good strategy for effective habit change is also crucial.
However, most people tend to focus almost exclusively on the former. Here’s why you keep failing to change your bad habits.
The human brain is hardwired to create and stick religiously to habits, for the simple reason that it saves a lot of mental energy. The world would move a lot slower if we had to keep re-thinking our morning routines every time we got out of bed.
For the most part, it works, but it also has its drawbacks. Since your brain has so expertly programmed itself, changing your habits requires substantial conscious effort to reprogram yourself mentally.
According to neuroscientist Ann Graybiel, “Habits never really disappear… The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there.”*
Therein lies the first reason why bad habits are so hard to kick. If you’re trying to create an entirely new habit instead of changing your existing ones, you’re exerting more mental energy than usual. That makes it harder to maintain in the long term. A more effective way, then, is to alter the way your brain understands your bad habits so that you can turn them to your advantage.
How do you turn them to your advantage? By starting with self-awareness: making sure you understand the root of the problem.
So often, people fail to confront the reality of their bad habits. We know our bad habits are costly, but we don’t keep doing it because we enjoy inflicting pain on ourselves. We keep coming back to it because we’re chasing a given reward that we perceive when we engage in those habits.
Take procrastination, for example. There are lots of reasons why we procrastinate. One huge underlying reason, though, is often that we’re afraid of disappointing ourselves if we were to put in 110% effort and still fail. In this case, the reward for procrastination is preserving your self-image.
Hence, to beat procrastination, it’s not just about forcing yourself to sit down and (finally) get started. It’s about re-framing your perception. Instead of trying to avoid letting yourself down, look at how you can create a positive self-image by getting started on whatever it is you’ve been putting off.
In other words, visualise your ideal self, and think of this each time you feel the urge to procrastinate. It’s so simple, yet so incredibly powerful.