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Form Positive New Habits Through Active Association

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Click for photo It’s probably no surprise that repetition influences the formation of new habits.  The time and way you brush your teeth probably doesn’t vary much night to night; it’s habitual.  Each night at 10:30pm (give or take a few hours) you probably grab that toothbrush, squeeze some toothpaste onto it, and go about your violent brushing ritual.  I can almost guarantee you don’t alternate quadrants of your mouth each night (unless you’re just a little insane) because it’s probably not something you think about anymore.  You just do it, and you’ll probably always do it that way unless you make a conscious change.

Do something enough times and it becomes a part of you – perhaps to a fault – and from that point on, it can be harder not to do something at all than to do it.  In truth, most of our lives consist of habitual action each day.  Have you ever been driving along and realized (too late) that you’ve gone in the completely wrong direction, because you habitually started driving to work even though you were originally planning to go to a friend’s house?  Your conscious mind shut-off the second you got into that car and was on auto-pilot until you realized you were heading in the wrong direction.  I don’t know anyone that hasn’t happened to.

Forming positive new habits (and replacing negative old ones) is the only foolproof path to achievement there is.  Your habits “accumulate up” to your goals – there can’t be real triumph without small wins along the way.  You don’t just wake up one day as the president of your company, or as someone who exudes positive energy and contentment, without taking individual small steps to get there.  This is the subtlety that’s lost on those people we all know who insist that good things don’t happen to them; not everyone realizes that it’s not just handed to you 🙂

One interesting thing about habit forming is that recent research has shown that each time you repeat a behavior, the context in which it occurs is linked in your mind to the activity itself.  Context in this example refers to the things happening around the activity – the time of day, the music that’s playing, whether you’re in your car or sitting in your favorite chair, and so on.  As explained by psychologist Wendy Wood and her team in Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits, an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “habit associations are represented in learning and memory systems separately from intentions, or decisions to achieve particular outcomes. Thus, walking into a dark room can trigger reaching for the light switch without any decision to do so.”

In other words, habits benefit from having similar context in order to be successfully maintained.  At first, people start with an explicit intent to change some aspect of their life.  As an obvious example, someone might have a goal to lose 15 pounds prior to their wedding day.  This eventually translates into action (if this person is serious about the goal), and most times this action is ongoing (daily or close to it).  With this repetition, associations are formed between the context of the action and the action itself.  Eventually, these cues can help trigger automatic repetition of the activity and the original goal itself is used less in terms of personal motivation.

It becomes more about just being “what you do when you do it” than about doing something solely based on reason.  You become like a computer executing a program step-by-step without much in the way of decision-making.

There are ways to form this active association between context and habits as a shortcut to form positive habits.  Here’s the idea: surround the habit you’d like to form with corresponding positive context, forever linking your new habit with an environment or situation you enjoy. You may need to experiment a bit with this a bit to determine which things help the most (for me it’s music and scents).  Here are some examples from my life:

  • In order to get into the habit of writing, I combine classical music and the smell of (good) espresso – now whenever I hear the music no matter where I am, I’m immediately ready to pour my heart out with a keyboard. 
  • Getting into the habit of going to the gym early in the morning years ago required a daily ritual of Rocky music as soon as I got out of bed.  To this day every time I hear Burning Heart from Rocky IV I’m ready to exercise. 
  • And as odd as this is, in order to get into the habit of flossing every night, I first had to reorganize my bathroom.  Seeing that the bathroom is organized how I like it as soon as I walk in reminds me that I need to floss!

The key to doing this is to combine something you already enjoy with a developing habit that isn’t yet second-nature.  The association between the two can be enough to ingrain that habit a little more quickly.

Give it a try!  The importance of the things happening around your behavior, positive or negative, is something that isn’t always recognized by people – but it’s important.  In order to switch your behavior from manual to auto-pilot more quickly, associate happiness-inducing experiences with your new habit until it becomes something you do instinctively.

Written by Mike Torres

September 28th, 2009 at 7:56 am

Posted in Goal Setting,Productivity

Tagged with ,

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