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For many people, forming and keeping positive habits is a real challenge. Each habit can sometimes require a different mindset or a slightly different approach in order to make it into a routine, and that can make it awfully difficult to stay consistent. It turns out that our happiness is a direct result of how much control we have over our environment, and control is directly correlated with how well we’re able to form and maintain positive habits. If you’re able to identify changes in your current behavior that align to your values and bring you closer to your goals, and then keep those positive changes going on a regular basis, you’ll find that you’ll have a comfortable level of control over your life.
Think back to a time when you felt everything was in order in your life; you felt great in your relationships and with your family, your job was something you looked forward to each day, your finances were on a positive trajectory, and you were getting regular exercise. Heck, you were even flossing every day, making your bed, and staying on top of the laundry. Every night as you drifted off to sleep the only thing you were thinking about was counting sheep. Minimal stress, maximum smiles.
Compare that to how you feel right now – do you have that same sense of control over things? Do you find one or more areas lacking? How many things would you change if you could? If you’re sitting there thinking that something’s lacking, this post may help get you back on track. Yet thinking about the level of effort involved in getting everything going at once can be pretty overwhelming. Where to start?
The key is to stop beating yourself up about all the small things you’re not doing, and focus on getting just one habit back on track first.
In a series of studies performed by a social psychologist named Roy Baumeister, it’s been suggested that “improving self-regulation operates by increasing a general, core capacity. That is, as the person performs exercises to improve self-regulation in one sphere, he or she becomes better at self-regulating in other spheres.”
What does this mean? It means that if you get just one thing clicking, other things will follow. It means that self-regulation builds on itself, and if you’re able to make progress with just one thing, you’ll find that you’ll end up making progress across the board.
Need some proof? Here’s a quick synopsis of some studies in the space:
- Posture study. In a recent study, college students were asked to improve their posture for two weeks – straighten up whenever they’re aware that they were slouching – and at the end of the two weeks, those students tested higher for self-control.
- Exercise study. In this study, college students were taught an exercise program consisting of weight training and cardio, and were asked to maintain it for 2 months. At the end of the two months, the students had improved their eating habits (less junk, caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes) and even saw improvement in areas unrelated to health – they were getting better grades, watching less television, and doing more household chores.
- Money study. In this study, students were asked to manage their finances for four months using a specific system. You can probably guess what was seen at the end of the four months? Yup: better study habits, fewer cigarettes, increased positive behavior, and so on.
While these studies focus on some specific behavioral changes, I’d postulate that the odds of success increase by starting with a single habit that aligns best with someone’s core values and interests. A biker who’s two months out of practice may find it easiest and most fulfilling to hop back on the bike. That single action may have a greater impact on his or her ability to translate success than, say, flossing would. Which is why I’d recommend focusing on something I’ll call a “master habit” first, and then monitoring how success carries over. Your master habit is a habit you’ve had success with in the past, and something that aligns directly to the person you aspire to be.
If you’re interested in giving this a go, here are some specific recommendations.
1. Find your master habit by researching your past
Chances are you already know what your master habit is because you’ve seen it work its magic before. It’s probably no surprise to you that by getting this thing going again, other things will start to improve. But if you’re not sure what your master habit is, you should spend some time looking back at the past few years to see if you can identify it. When were your stress levels the lowest? When did you feel most in control? This may involve digging through old emails, or asking friends and family members for their thoughts. If you’ve kept a journal, diary, or blog, that would be a good source to look into as well.
If you still come up blank, you should revisit your core values and goals. Run through some simulations in your mind to answer this single question: “If I can only do this one thing for the next 4 weeks, is it going to bring me closer to the person I want to be than any other single thing would?”
2. Put yourself back into the mindset of someone who is an expert
Before doing anything – before even taking another step – change the way you think about yourself in the context of this habit. This may involve becoming aware of your self-talk and adjusting it accordingly, or it could be something as silly as wearing clothes that help put you in the right mindset. The key here is to make sure you’re thinking like someone who’s already consistent with this habit – as you have been in the past – and not someone who isn’t. Start thinking about yourself as “already there”.
3. Start slowly incorporating your master habit back into your routine
Try these two things: 1) starting slowly with simple steps, and 2) doing those things every single day for a while. For example, if exercise is your thing, you may start doing 30-minute walks everyday before moving to 45 minute training sessions 4 days/week. If your master habit is keeping your house in order, you may start with a single room – again, making sure to straighten up daily.
If you start with a 3 day/week routine, you may find it harder to adapt than you would if its an everyday habit. And of course, building on success by starting small and accumulating small wins can help you make a real lifestyle change instead of a one-off, short-lived one.
4. Give yourself at least 4 weeks before you worry about anything else
While you may start to see positive change in other areas in your life, it’s not worth stressing about it if you don’t. If it’s not happening, that’s OK… give it time! But if you find yourself inspired to start stretching every morning because you’re now eating right, or if you find your work output increasing because you’re exercising, embrace it! Even though you shouldn’t strive to change too many things at once, it’s OK if those things start to change for you. That’s the magic of self-regulation.
Before going further, I’d also recommend reading this post: 15 Ways to Get a Habit to Stick Forever.
In closing, increasing control over our life by focusing on just one positive master habit can have a serious domino effect. An increase in control can lead to a decrease in overall stress and other hindrances that hold us back from achieving our goals. Baumeister agrees, “Look at just about any major category of problem that people are suffering from and odds are pretty good that self-control is implicated in some way.”
Thoughts? I’d love to hear them.