You finally set aside the time to turn over a new leaf, and you want to form a new habit. You have a task in mind that you have never attempted or has eluded you in the past. Maybe you are planning to eat healthy or get fit. This is the time you are going to do it! You sit down at your computer and ‘just’ like every other person in the information age, step one is to google it. Maybe you try to find some youtube tutorials. This is the moment you are distracted by a thumbnail for a cute cat video or worse, a compilation of cat videos. It’s all downhill from here… A familiar story for some of us I’m sure.
While lack of time can be a factor, the focus of this post is on when you have the time but still can’t seem to get the work done. If you are looking for ways to create space in your day, you can checkout my post on Decision Fatigue. For now lets take a look at habit formation when it’s staring us in the face. It is a whole new level of discouraging to have finally found the time and still be unable to make any progress in our endeavours.
Let me be clear, this post focuses mostly on strategies for more complex habits such as: cooking, eating right, writing, running, etc. If you are having trouble with a simple habit like flossing or brushing your teeth, my simple recommendation is to download the Coach.me app on your phone. Use it for 30 days for any simple task and solidify it into a habit. After this you won’t need the app anymore and can rely on the habit itself. Although this post does not apply to, it does explain how simple habits work as well. The more complex ones however, we seem to have trouble with even when we do remember to do them.
Want vs Action
What we want for ourselves is not always what we do for ourselves. Procrastination and laziness are tough opponents. How do we wake up in the morning with new resolve to lose fat and be eating cupcakes before the end of the day? Why does what we want for ourselves not always line up with what we are doing for ourselves? What is preventing us from acting in the way we feel would benefit us most?
To answer these questions we dig deep into how a habit is actually formed. To what is happening in our brain on a physical and chemical level, when executing old habits and when trying to form new ones.
How We Survive
Is there a point to life in general? My personal belief when observing humanities actions point towards one of survival and procreation. It’s something that all life seems to strive for. To survive, an organism needs to obtain resources (such as food) before it runs out of the stored resources necessary to stay alive. Then it needs to be successful at this long enough to reproduce. The best way to achieve this is to be very efficient when spending energy. To only use it when necessary for ensuring survival. This unfortunately explains the origins of laziness as well.
Our bodies have a naturally intelligent system for forming habits from our actions. Habits from the survival needs of the environments we live in. The importance of something is determined by the number of times and how frequently we execute them. At first an action may be difficult to complete or require much thought and focus. After several repetitions in close succession the actual connections in our brain become physically wider and create a faster connection.
“Habit – An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary” ― Dictionary.com
Myelination is the scientific name for what is happening in the brain. By executing the same action often enough the corresponding neural pathways in the brain become insulated with white matter (bundles of nerve cells). The habit actually forms physically in the brain with this insulation of the pathway. The insolation is what provides a faster connection. A fully myelinated pathway would result in a feeling of effortless execution. In some cases you may even gain reactive execution where you can perform a task before thinking at all. It’s like a voting system for ensuring that the pathways we use the most get high speed installed on them.
If you are looking for a more in depth look at the science, check out this article: https://blog.bufferapp.com/why-practice-actually-makes-perfect-how-to-rewire-your-brain-for-better-performance
Lets circle back to the point about living things spending the least amount of resources to keep themselves alive. We have a tendency to avoid pain at all costs. Pain is often an indicator of effort and resources being used to complete a task. A certain level of pain or discomfort can be felt from standing vs sitting. Even getting out of bed in the morning can cause considerable discomfort and pain on some days. Our bodies can however naturally regulate pain with dopamine in some cases. The Dopamine System helps guide our actions and plays a large part in early habit development before myelination takes place.
Dopamine is released when we do something pleasurable. It can even be released when just anticipating a pleasurable thing. Think about how much easier it is to get out of bed when looking forward to something that day. Dopamine can also reduce pain after we have already experienced a painful physical stressor. People who enjoy physically demanding sports seem able to tolerate more pain than those who do not. This is partially from the dopamine release of playing their favourite game.
The Dopamine Double Edged Sword
The overall problem with our habit forming system is that it creates bad habits through repetition the same way it creates the good ones. When we are not busy surviving we have a tendency to not push ourselves to do any unpleasant tasks. In modern day first world we are all essentially just killing time when it comes to the bad habits we develop. The majority of our bad habits start because we are bored. The recipe for an addictive bad habit is as follows; Trying to kill time with no goals and spending the least effort, while seeking the highest rewards for stimulus.
So we avoid all types of pain unless their is a reason to do otherwise. This is why the goalless abyss of boredom is so dangerous. In this place you are looking to kill the pain of just existing, seeking out time killers with lowest effort and high rewards. The high rewards often present themselves in the form of a good amount of dopamine being released. Dopamine also has the added affect of speeding up the connections in the brain because it is a neural transmitter. This means in the presence of dopamine, prior to myelination, the connections in the brain are sped up and are executed with more ease. This is how very addictive habits with high stimulus rewards form very quickly.
Any habit that requires little-to-no-pain to execute, while still delivering a large dopamine release is an addiction level habit. They should be avoided with the exception of maybe a reward after other work done. By injecting work into the habit cycle we can make some bad habits work for us. A cheat day in your diet for good behaviour and healthy eating all week is a great example. I also detail how this makes the reward seem even better along with some other benefits in a previous post. Cheat Days and Addictions
The Right Attitude
Dopamine is a neural transmitter that speeds up connectivity in your brain. What does this mean for us? It means when you have positive association with a task, dopamine physically makes it easier to execute. This really puts wind in the sails of people who say, “You have to have the right attitude.” This true right down to the biochemical level. The right attitude might give you enough dopamine to get the necessary repetitions to myelinate a habit in your brain. Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do!
First World Problems
The biochemical mechanisms we have developed for survival are pretty impressive. They were perfect systems for our hunter gatherer ancestors. We didn’t go extinct and overcame a lot of obstacles as physically fragile mammals. Habit formation helped us decide what tasks were relevant to survival and which were unnecessary. This was done through the myelination voting system preserving habits we used most often. Myelination ensured those completed most often, were easier to complete again in the future. Survival based habits were the ones secured from the needs created by the environments we lived in. But is this still true today?
Fast forward to modern day living. We no longer have to personally secure food or shelter. We have every food imaginable in season all year round. We have access to it all without having to grow, gather or hunt food anymore. Even cooking is mostly optional with modern inventions like the microwave. Food and shelter are both things we can purchase with having no knowledge about how to create them for ourselves. Repetition of habit is no longer an indication of the important tasks needed for personal survival.
So we have stumbled upon a major problem with modern living. We are no longer utilizing the systems of habit formation for survival reasons. Survival is taken care of by the community we have built through allocation of very specific specializations. We live in a place where habits form from what we CHOOSE to do with our time and not by force of environmental conditions. This can be both liberating and imprisoning. We have effectively changed the habits of survival from needs to wants.
My personal vice for killing time is checking social media far too many times a day. I think on some level it’s easier for me to check in on what others are doing rather than deciding what to do with my own time. It is a comfort zone I retreat to where little work is needed to kill time. There is endless entertainment that relates to my friends in the infinite scrolling news feed. Many online media outlets act as people’s comfort zones by having infinite sources of media content. They are like sand traps sucking up people’s time.
The majority of the internet and social media generation is out of control. Doing the minimal and then retreating to comfort zones. So how can we take back control? I can tell you I’m no stranger to falling into these traps. I can however share the things I do to fight back. The things I have come up with to take back my time and get more done.
How to Turn it Around
Mindfulness is the short answer to turning it around. Start paying attention to, and have an understanding of the world we live in. Use the facts about how our brains determine importance described above. By understanding your internal logic and the environment you now live in, you can adjust your approach in life to accomplish your goals. A way of personal betterment knowing a specific frame of mind to approach it with. This can be a new beginning of setting out to do, and doing exactly that same thing.
Find out what is most important to you. If you feel unmotivated to complete a task it is not useless to stop and thing about why it is important to you. Think about what excites you when taking on a task. Remember that inducing dopamine releases makes things easier. We need to get in repetitions to make it a habit.
But don’t stop here. This is where we can really gain some leverage. Take this one step further and myelinate a habit of forming habits. A habit of first finding the meaning in the task you are doing, then focusing on that meaning. Then completing repetitions long enough to myelinate a habit. Then repeat this approach in repetition long enough and you will have formed a habit of creating new habits. Possibly even a dopamine response to trying new things of importance to you. That’s a powerful habit to have!
Community is Everything
At first you may struggle with finding the meaning for a goal if you have no experience doing that specific something. If this is the case for you, I can’t emphasize the benefit of a community enough. Find a community that already enjoys what you are trying to do and join it. Communities offer support for the things they are built around and have the answers to what is meaningful in the work. It’s a group of people who can relate to what you are trying to accomplish and the problems associated with that journey.
A community can also offer you some quick wins early on. The wisdom of a community can usually help you avoid common beginners mistakes. This results in building positive associations during starting efforts. Find a community, ask lots of questions, then get started! Just being around people already doing the things you want to accomplish could influence you enough to make your efforts a success.
On the opposite end of this spectrum, also avoid negative communities or people. As much as it is important to have good influences for positive association early on, bad influences do the opposite. Negative people’s influences will literally handicap you in your efforts. Your brain chemistry will be affected from these influences and will be telling you to give up. The feeling will be one of unimportance and your goals will become unappealing.
“But you are the average of the five people you associate with most, so do not underestimate the effects of your pessimistic, unambitious, or disorganized friends. If someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.”
― Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
An Argument for Life Long Learning
The conclusion we must come to and the honest truth is that we can no longer rely on our circumstances or our environments to create healthy habits for us. Modern conveniences have made habit forming and skill acquisition mostly unnecessary for survival. We don’t really need to do most of the things we spend our time doing. We really need to be smart about what we choose to do with our time. Discomfort and strain causes growth while inaction and lack of repetition causes atrophy.
“If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.”
― Frank Lloyd Wright – 1867–1959 – An Innovative American Architect who designed over 1,000 structures, with an amazing 532 of which were completed.
If you are completely comfortable in all your actions throughout the day then you are most likely not growing as a human being. It is most likely that atrophy is setting in with the many skills and abilities you no longer practice. This WebMD article really puts it into perspective. It shows that in most cases early retirement leads to early death.
The participants in this study had jobs that were exercising many habits and actions that were literally keeping them alive. Without the need to face the struggles of there job they quit some life extending activities along with their jobs. Inaction took over, they atrophied and died quicker. Not being exclusive to, but many things like Facebook, Youtube, Netflix (popular forms of killing time) without moderation are literally causing us to sit ourselves to death.
Aim for Discomfort
Many people want or think they can acquire new skills and habits while simultaneously avoiding discomfort. The truth is however, that creating new habits is a form of pain. Don’t worry though, this pain we can learn to enjoy if you stick to it long enough to reap the rewards. You can eventually make a connection between struggle and progress.
“You’ve got to get comfortable in getting uncomfortable. And the minute that discomfort begins to rule you, you are no longer in control. So put yourself purposefully in uncomfortable situations.”
― Elliot Hulse – Strength Coach and Pro Strongman
Enjoy the discomfort and unfamiliar territory of learning new things. Purposefully venture outside your comfort zone for a while and mindfully monitor your improvement. This is a very important final step many forget. Gratitude is the last piece of the puzzle when creating positive association with struggle. If you do not reflect on how far you have come you will only know struggle and failure. Make sure you take the time to reflect on what you have accomplished to ensure you mindfully take notice of your progress.
Are you Performing or Practicing?
Sometimes even when trying to improve we sit in our comfort zones. Many people who try to acquire a complex habit or skill find themselves plateauing. This is a very common mistake made by amateur musicians for example. We often see a musician that can play a small handful of songs very well but not much else. Playing what you know is not practicing, it is just a performance of executing old habits. If you just stick to what you know, you will never fully develop your skill or habit.
Performing is showing off what you can already do and practicing is working on what you cannot do. When it’s time to practice it should not be a pretty picture, appealing or complete. Don’t get caught performing for yourself. Practice should look and sound bad. Your efforts should require your focus while feeling just a hair out of reach of your current ability.
This is a difficult mindset to have for those who have avoided struggle all their lives. At first you might have to force it before you can see the feedback required to start enjoying it. It is a long feedback loop and there is little instant gratification involved. The reward at the end however is better than instant gratification. Learn to love the struggle!
Don’t be Dismissive
Learn from your mistakes when you are purposefully struggling. Don’t shrug off the situation and say, “I’m just not good at this.” Stay in the moment and try to figure out where you are going wrong and what you can do to fix the situation. Do not be dismissive or make excuses for your mistakes. You can not learn from unnoticed mistakes that you decided to excuse or dismiss.
And Lastly, Getting Started!
One last problem is actually getting started with a new habit. You can often think of all kinds of problems you will run into the first time you attempt something and procrastinate diving in. Once started, most often the problems you think up don’t occur, or are completely different ones from what you thought would happen. Getting started is the best way to find out what ACTUAL problems you will run into early on. It is also common to find easy solutions to many problems once started. You can see the problems more clearly when you are doing vs thinking about doing.
“For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually,” just do it and correct course along the way.”
― Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
A great way to force yourself to start something is to create a deadline for starting. Deadlines have too much negative conditioning and association with school and the job world. This often causes us to overlook their purpose and usefulness outside of work and school. Remember we discussed earlier that we can’t rely on environment to create our habits anymore. Deadlines are equally important in our spare time for leveraging personal productivity as they are professionally. Set time limits on your tasks to inject urgency in getting started. If you have less time to complete a task, it will reduce the amount of time you spend thinking and increase the amount of time you spend doing.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” – Parkinson’s Law https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law
Limiting time can also apply to your personal indulging time as well. If you don’t limit your time spent “relaxing” it will expand to consume any space available in your day. So schedule and limit the amount of time you spend on social media and consuming fictional works to accomplish more with your time. The best time is at the end of the day and works nicely in winding down before bed. You will also feel like you are getting more out of relaxation time when you work hard to earn it. Alternatively, procrastinating work to the end of the day can lead to a restless nights sleep and hinder work done the following day as well.
You Can Do It All
If you follow the prescription above and manage to start enjoying the struggles in life, then chances are you will also be super charging your learning curve. A positive attitude will lead to a positive outcome when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory. The release of dopamine from enjoyment of struggle will create faster connections in your brain. The unknown will become an area you excel in.
Everyone has that one friend that is good at everything and picks things up quickly. You now know the secret! You can guarantee he or she enjoys the struggle of learning a new thing or taking on a new challenge. With some repetitions you can be just like them. Willingly accepting all that is new, you will soon be a jack of all trades. Venture outside your comfort zone and realize the endless potential you have as a human being.
Quick Reference Recap:
- Repetition of habits make them easier to execute through myelination of your neural pathways.
- Find the meaning and enjoy what you are doing to create dopamine that speeds up neural connections.
- Don’t rely on your environment or circumstances to create your good habits.
- Inject work into the cycle of effortless dopamine release activities to make them work for you. (eg. Dietary cheat days)
- Limit and schedule time spent in comfort zones or they will fill in what spare time you have in your days.
- Create a habit of making habits to reach your full potential.
- Effortlessness means you are executing old habits and struggle means you are creating new ones.
- Don’t get caught performing for yourself.
- Learn to enjoy struggle by reflecting on your progress.
- Don’t be dismissive or make excuses for your mistakes.
- Leverage personal deadlines to increase time spent doing.
- Get started and correct course along the way.