Motivation is fleeting, habits are solid.
We all have habits. Unfortunately, most peoples daily habits are highly arbitrary. I know mine used to be.
Anything can become a habit.
If you think negative thoughts every day, soon enough it will become a habit. If you never miss a day of brushing your teeth, that too will become a strong habit. If you drink a liter of water first thing in the morning, every morning, a habit will form.
The human mechanism is incredibly complex. There are so many different ways to move and think, so many different things to do. So a part of our brain power goes into discerning what actions we need to do most frequently, and allows us to sort of set it on autopilot.
That’s what allows us to drive a car without consciously thinking about it, or sing in the shower. It’s way more efficient that way, because conscious action takes effort.
The brain makes it easier for us to do those things that we do a lot. That’s why it’s easy to brush your teeth with your right hand and almost impossible to use your left. Switching hands like that will require a conscious effort on your part.
But it also becomes easier to actually make the decision to brush our teeth, as long as we’ve done it every day for the last three years.
This is all pretty common knowledge. We’ve all heard of the notorious 21 days required to instill a habit. But that misses a crucial aspect of habit building, which is reward. You can poke your hand with a needle for 21 days and be absolutely ready to drop the habit the next day, because there’s no inherent reward in that action.
The most powerful thing you can do when trying to build any positive habit, is to clearly discern what the reward will be. Visualize it, make it so that every time you do the action, you see yourself reaping the inevitable rewards.
Exercise is a good example. I like calisthenics, or body weight exercises. When I’m actually in the middle of doing the exercises themselves, I’m normally not enjoying myself too much. But I keep the image of a stronger, healthier version of myself in my mind the whole time. And it pushes me through the times when I have little motivation.
Or going out for a run. Sometimes I just don’t feel like it, but when I weigh the rewards, like the wonderful feeling of runner’s high, or being out in nature, or better sleep from burning off excess energy, I go out anyway.
In my experience, the most difficult habits to cultivate are the habits with the most intangible benefits, like meditation or keeping a journal. Although we’ve all heard of the increased focus and calm tranquility from daily meditation, it’s hard to imagine the benefits when you haven’t actually experienced them.
What worked for me was to break those habits down to the smallest possible amount of work. So with meditation, I would decide to meditate for just 5 or 10 minutes at a time, once a day. It’s such a short amount of time that you’ll only experience a tiny fraction of the possible benefits, but at least you’ll experience something.
With journaling, you would start with a paragraph a day. Or even just a sentence. Just to get a feel for it, and for the possibilities hidden within that particular action. Sooner or later you’ll start to actually want to write more and more. I’m up to 3-4 pages a day, and I’m not sick of it yet!
That’s the real starting point. You really need to know where a habit will take you before you can convince yourself to go all in.
That’s all well and good, but what about our bad habits?
Those are more tricky to navigate. Sometimes they’re so subtle that you won’t even notice them at all before someone points them out to you.
I used to have incredibly negative thought patterns. Pure habit. As far as I knew, everybody’s thoughts were negative like mine. Well, that was a major misconception. Many people think negative thoughts habitually, but many more think positively. And it’s a way more enjoyable way of life.
We may not always be able to control the thoughts that come up in our minds, but we can choose which thoughts to cultivate. We can choose where we direct our attention.
Awareness is the first step to overcoming a bad habit. If you don’t know that you have a bad habit, there’s no way to break it.
Of course, there is a big difference between a bad habit and an addiction. Quitting nose-picking is quite a different beast from quitting heroin. Addictions most often have an intense biochemical factor.
But breaking a habit of negative thought patterns for example, doesn’t have to be too much of a challenge. Recognizing the habit is half the battle.
In the case of negative thoughts, what was most beneficial for me was replacing the negative patterns with positive ones. Enter affirmations. That’s all affirmations really are, replacement thought patterns.
The only reason negative thoughts have such a hold on the mind is because of repetition. You’ve repeated the action of cultivating negative thoughts so much that it’s become like brushing your teeth: automatic.
So it stands to reason that if you allow yourself to repeat positive thoughts often enough, the will eventually replace the negative ones. I urge you to try it.
Awareness is the most important ingredient for building habits consciously. The power of awareness really can’t be overstated. Awareness is the difference between a human being and a machine.
Cultivate your awareness, expand it, and be grateful for this incredible opportunity to reach for the stars.