Humans are creatures of habit. No matter how much we like to think of ourselves as in control and aware of our actions, we are all dependent on the autopilot built into our minds. It’s an evolutionary design that has helped us cope with the complexity of our environment.
Our senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste (plus my wife’s ability to tell when I’m bending the truth), send tens of thousands of messages to our brain everyday. Mix that with the thousands of decisions we have to make everyday and you have a recipe for madness. If we had to think about each and every message from our senses and consciously consider every choice presented to us, we’d literally be unable to get anything done. We’d be paralyzed by the distraction. We could never formulate higher level thoughts or recognize patterns from the noise of everyday life.
Habits are like little apps our brains run to complete tasks and make simple and repeating decisions. They relieve us of the need to actually think about those little mundane tasks and decisions which allows us to focus our mental energy on more important things like avoiding predators and attracting mates (clearly I’m referring to modern office culture ). Habits are part of our design – they are natural. That said, we shouldn’t leave them to chance. Sometimes those mundane tasks and decisions are part of larger, more important patterns of behaviour. Sometimes our habits hold us back.
Habits can be shaped, changed and molded. Far too often however, we let the rest of the world shape our habits for us whether by simple happenstance, or by an intentional programming effort (marketing) – we regularly turn over the keys of our minds to others and that my friends is expensive.
I’m sure you’ve heard the term “spending habits” before. This powerful turn of phrase reminds us that much of our mind-to-wallet connection is managed by our mental autopilot function. Think about it…how often do people in the Tim Horton’s drive-thru really think about whether they should stop for coffee on the way to work,? They just do it. What about buying a lunch each day? What about getting popcorn and a drink at the movies? Frequently we open our wallet because we are conducting a routine purchase. We have been conditioned to spend.
Habitual Spending and Financial Freedom are Mortal Enemies
You can’t spend your way to happiness and you certainly can’t spend your way to financial freedom. If you’re on the path to financial independence, then you must divert more of your spending to savings. Poor spending habits can make this extremely hard. Financial Freedom Fighters know however that to succeed, you must recruit your mental autopilot. You must take control of your habits, dropping the bad ones, and shaping new ones that will support you in the battle for true liberation.
5 Habit Harnessing Insights
1. Recognize your spending Habit
The first step is admitting you have a problem right? Well the first step in breaking bad habits is first recognizing you have one. How do you identify a habit? That can be a little tricky because sometimes habits are subtle and hidden from our consciousness…that’s why they are useful after all! A good tip-off that something is a habit is when you find yourself doing something and you can’t remember or explain why you’re doing it.
2. Focus on one at a time
Changing one habit is hard enough…trying to change multiple deeply ingrained routines and behaviours at once is overwhelming and is just setting yourself up for failure. It’s one of the reasons why diets and efforts to quit smoking so often fail. Remember, life is a journey and making yourself into the best you is a process. Accept your humanity and set yourself up to succeed. Be methodical and change you’re life one habit at a time.
3. Recognize rituals and target triggers
Habits are usually part of a greater pattern of behaviour. Breaking a habit sometimes depends on recognizing what triggers the behaviour. For example, one of the challenges I faced in bringing a lunch to work everyday was whether I left enough time in the morning to prepare the lunch. Often I would find myself racing to get ready before the car pool arrived and deciding I’d just buy a lunch because I didn’t have time to pack one. By reviewing my morning routine I found that I was actually wasting a lot of time with non-essential activities early on. By breaking the old habit and setting a new one, I now never run out of time to pack a lunch because it’s one of the first things I do when I wake up. From friends and family who have quit smoking, I’ve learned that one of the things that helped them the most was to break their routines that involved smoking.
4. Remove the weed and plant a flower
Habits fulfill some need, that’s why they are created in the first place. To break or change a bad habit often you’ll need to find another way to fulfill that need. Replacing a less productive behaviour with something healthier is pretty standard advice. If you’re going to snack, eat carrots instead of ketchup potato chips. Installing a new, healthier habit or routine proactively defends against the old habit “growing” back.
5. Practice for 30 days
Installing a new behaviour is often a simple matter of repetition. Determine the new desired behaviour and consciously practice it over and over again until you don’t have to think about it. Most people say three weeks is enough time to make a daily routine a habit – but make it a full month just to be sure. A month is also a nice, easily definable unit of time to plan and measure your habit busting efforts.
6. Use peer pressure and social accountability
Telling other people automatically makes us accountable for our efforts. As soon as you tell someone about your habit breaking decision – you know that if you don’t break the habit, you’re going to have that uncomfortable conversation if/when they ask you later why you’re still doing the same old thing. That’s an embarrassing conversation that no one wants to have. We all want to save face with the people we respect and care about – none of us want our friends, families or co-workers to see us fail. Just as importantly – by telling people, we engage them in our efforts. By sharing our plans we essentially ask them to help, or at the very least understand when we choose not to do things we’ve done in the past. Instead of nagging or shaming you back into the old patterns they are comfortable with, telling them may make them active participants in the change. They may offer alternatives and helpful suggestions. At the very least they will hopefully not enable the old behaviour.
7. Keep it simple
Don’t make things harder than they need to be. Changing behaviour is about progress, not perfection. Don’t develop elaborate new routines when a single activity will do. If you want to make exercise a habit, don’t start with an elite athlete’s training program – plan to walk 30 minutes every day. Once that’s a habit, change that walk to a 30 minute run. Once that’s a routine – maybe you add 10 additional minutes for a calisthenics workout after your run, and so on. Step by step, you’ll evolve your couch potato habits into the routine of an active, healthy person. I often like to repeat the motto “Dream big, start small and grow as you can”. It took you years, maybe even decades to build the habits and routines you are today. It is unrealistic to think you’ll change those over night.
8. Get leverage and build in rewards
Rewards and penalties work. Strategically build these into you plans and you’ll be more likely to succeed. For example – commit to doing something fun and rewarding if, and only if, you actually practice a new behaviour for the full 30 days. Say you want to establish the habit of making to-do lists every day (a powerful habit by-the-way). If you actually complete a to-do list each and every day for thirty days – reward yourself with a small but meaningful reward. Be careful to not over do it here because disproportionate rewards and penalties can skew your intended behaviour change – but appropriate leverage systems can be a useful tool!
I know that I’ve provided eight insights/tips when I promised only five…I’m trying to establish a new habit – under promising and over delivering.
If you can make your mental autopilot a partner in your efforts (whatever they may be) – I guarantee you’ll achieve more success then you ever imagined possible. This isn’t a bombastic claim – it’s science. Take control of your habits and you can do just about anything humanly possible. Lose weight and improve health, become a better student, outperform at work, improve relationships, and on and on. We are our routines. Choose better habits, and you choose a better life.
Tell me – what habits are you going to break, change or establish this year?