Long ago when I was in the Air Force one of my first Superintendents was what we called a workout monster. He was in his early 50’s but ran a handful of ultra-marathons each year and could do more pull ups and pushups that any of the 20-year old Airmen. He was the model of military peak fitness. I had no idea that ten years earlier he was 50 pounds overweight, smoking two packs a day, and experiencing a heart attack in his early 40’s.
While it was a light heart episode, it proved to be an effective wake up scare. He knew he needed to change his life to preserve it but didn’t know how to make a 180-degree transformation. Then he started reading into micro habits.
He knew that he had to fix three things: diet, exercise, and to quit smoking. Also he knew that he was in bad shape and had to take small steps. He couldn’t jump too fast into self-improvement and risk another heart attack. But he could start with changing his focus. He started with walking, just 10,000 steps per day on his pedometer. He struggled at first but then it became easier, then he pushed for more steps.
Next was his diet, his first habit was to just have a salad at lunch. This led to a decrease in calories and a lessening of his hunger urges and overall eating less. Last was smoking, he went through nicotine patches, but had to create a habit that would replace the urge to smoke. He rewired his brain by walking during the periods when he used to smoke. A year later, he had lost 75 pounds, was no longer a smoker, and his heart had recovered. Ten years later, he was a marathon champion.
The first instinct for many when hearing habits is to think of smoking or possibly eating snacks. Our minds associate the word habits with a negative connotation of poor behaviors. Habits can be good and bad; they are just something that we do repeatedly.
Our brain falls into patterns of reptation. This consistency makes us feel comfortable and brings normalcy. It leads us to falsely believe that we can predict the future because it provides a nice and predictable pattern. This is where habits can be used for your advantage.
Good habits are simply behaviors that we repeat which produce long term positive effects. For example, this could be running daily, reading 30-minutes a day, or saving your change each day in preparation for a family vacation. Athletes, turn a development activity into a habit and then consistently repeat that habit until they’ve mastered it.
Habits additionally excel at mastering complex tasks. A person breaks the process into small steps and then learns each step individually. They then repeat those steps until it becomes automatic.
For example, years ago when I was a forward air controller in the Air Force. A key aspect of our role was to operate five secure radios seamlessly to coordinate air strikes. Each radio was different and connected to a unique stakeholder. Going through training each student would set up and operate each radio and then move onto the next. This process would repeat daily throughout my career until it became habitual. Years later, when in combat while being shot at, operating the radios were automatic. I no longer had to think about the process or how to set them up. The radio set up process was mentally automated while my mind focused on not getting shot.
Habits are how the brain learns complex behaviors and focuses attention on other things by storing automatic responses. That automation turns it too mindless. This then opens the brain up to focus on something else.
Building positive habits first takes time to identify what outcome you are looking for. What is the result to gain? Then what actions or habits would lead to that result. Simple cause and effect, however this comes with the realization that you may need more than one habit to achieve the result.
When you know what habit, you want to practice you then need to determine how you can build repetition. Each occurrence adds to pattern establishment. Habit mastery comes from repetition not perfection.
To do lists are useful in the process of setting new habits up. You can track completion daily to spur you into repeated action. Establishing a self-rule to not break the streak of completion adds to the internal drive to follow through with habit building. Within weeks the habit will have become automatic and ingrained into your psyche that it is just another thing that you do every day.
Piggybacking is another approach to developing habits. This is where you take one of your current habits and then associate another habit with it. Micro habits start with a ridiculously small habit and piggyback it on a regular habit. For example, you want to create the habit of taking a multivitamin every day, you pair it with brushing your teeth at night.
When building habits, you will have good days and bad days. Going back to my earlier example of my Superintendent that change his health after a heart attack. It eventually got to the point where he would go to the gym. His self-rule was that he would go every day. He would sometimes not feel good or have low energy days. He would still drive to the gym, walk inside, and then get back into his car and drive back home. What was important to him was the execution of making sure he made it to the gym each day, that was 90% of the battle of keeping his health.
You will get a positive sensation when completing a habit. This will help fuel you. Yet, the double law of habit repetition strengthens tendency to act but weakens the sensation. As the rewarding sensation dissipates the automation takes over.
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