“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.”
Duhigg, Charles: The Power of Habit
In our last blog, we looked at how New Year resolutions, more often than not for many of us, are an annual, repeated experience of setting them only to defer back to the same old routine. Even if we follow the seemingly all pervasive convention of written, SMART objectives, we still fail because there are key problems many of us simply overlook whilst gazing beyond to the new you standing on the resolution podium sporting gold!
And that problem is the fact that many of us set goals having little, if any, idea of just how realistic – and therefore, achievable – they actually are. And, perhaps more importantly, we massively underestimate the tiny, incremental, day-to-day, often done without thinking, behaviours – or habits – we either do, or don’t do, which make or break our chances of ever achieving grandiose New Year’s ambitions.
Instead of looking at the big picture, and obsessing about the results, we must first re-evaluate the importance of the decisions we make on a daily basis.
Because as James Clear puts it, “Becoming the type of person you want to become...is about the daily process you follow and not the ultimate product you achieve."
Just 1 Degree of Deviation can see big change
Let us consider a theoretical concept to help us understand the power of small, incremental change.
Another reference to Mark Manson, who I am a fan of; is his analogy of two people set off down a road or path, with just 1 degree difference in their respective directions of travel. That’s it, just 1 degree. Which initially, is so small, as to be hardly noticeable.
But as he argues, keep going long enough and before you know it, the distance becomes both very noticeable and significant.
How significant? Well, after 1km, the gap would be around 17.4 metres; just shy of 60 feet. That’s something in the region of the width of a motorway.
Now, that’s a fair old gap after what? 10 minutes walking for the average person, for example. Or drive, say, 40mph for the same amount of time, and it turns into a whopping 1,100 metres – more than the height of Mt Snowdon.
After a very small amount of time and distance, a gap of some significance appears. And obviously, the further we walk/drive on this angle of deviation, the bigger that gap gets.
Just 1 degree can make all the difference.
Apply the same argument to say…swimming; hit the pool and add one 25 metre length per week to your routine, increases your swim distance by just shy of a mile within a year. That’s not too shabby a workout. Add 1 press-up to the amount you can do every week, sees an additional 50+ on top of what you started out doing. How many people do you know who can bang out 50+ press ups? Reduce the 2 sugars in a 4 cup of coffee a day habit by just 1 teaspoon reduces the amount of calories consumed over 12 months that equates to just shy of half a stone fat loss over 12 months.
None of the above results can be sniffed at. And although they take a year to manifest, the changes we make to achieve them are minimal, incremental, and seemingly inconsequential – at least initially.
But the counter-argument, and it is a very good argument, is the fact that life is rarely, if ever, linear. Work, life, relationships, weather, you name it……the ebbs and flows, ups, down, highs and lows of life conspire to thwart. And can often seem to do so at every turn.
But we also need to understand, and accept responsibility, for the fact that we as humans are very good at adopting bad habits, and pretty pants at cultivating good ones.
This is because, as scientists have found, when there is a reward at the end of a habit, especially those pesky pleasurable ones, even those with the greatest of willpower in the world can find their weapons useless! But worst still; the reward drives us to further crave more.
The Habit Loop
This glitch in our human make-up is called the Habit Loop. By deconstructing our habits, we can identify both how our bad habits are formed, and more importantly, how to swap them for good ones. This ‘loop’ comprises of three major components, which are;
Cue – a trigger, or once we crave the reward, a reminder, that kicks off the habit process
Routine – This is the action, behaviour or ‘habit’ that results as a consequence of the cue
Reward – although this may seem like the final stage of the loop, it is in fact, the key driver and is fundamental in causing a habit to become stuck like superglue
And if the reward is powerful or pleasurable enough, this can drive cravings which drives the whole loop.
There are so many pleasures out there that can ensnare us into bad habits which, if not controlled, run the risk of becoming vicious cycles undermining our health and wellbeing; booze, caffeine, sugar, fast-food, that comfy sofa and an epic session of Sons of Anarchy on boxed set – enjoyed with copious amounts of booze, caffeine, sugar and fast-food.
And the argument is that the more pleasurable the reward is - and let’s face it, after a crap day or week at work, even worse commute and a total lack of energy come Friday – it’s just too damn seductive to resist, and so becomes ever-more ingrained.
In their book The 28 day alcohol-free challenge, Andy Ramage & Ruari Fairbairns compare the brain to a vinyl record; each time we repeat the process of whatever habit loop we adopt, the groove in that record gets slightly deeper, making it easier and easier for the needle to find that groove the next time. And with time, that groove becomes deeper and deeper until it is so deep, trying to put the needle onto a new groove becomes a serious undertaking.
So, if those bad habit grooves - like two too many coffees every morning, or that large glass of wine turning into the whole bottle being necked watching Sky Movies – are deeper than road-side drainage ditches, or, you’re an old sweat combat vet of failed resolutions year on year, then you’ll know all too well how hard it can be to form better, healthier habits.
But it can be done. One degree at a time. And in our next blog, we will give you some pointers on how to kick some new habits off.
Manson, M., (2011) The ‘do something’ principle [online] at www.markmanson.net; 26th December, at: https://markmanson.net/do-something?utm_campaign=mmnet-habits_05c_motivation&utm_medium=email&utm_source=mmnet-habits&utm_content=read-do-something
Duhigg, C., (2012) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change [Kindle Edition]
Scott, SJ., (2017) Habit Stacking: 127 small changes to improve your health, wealth and happiness [Kindle Edition]
Ramage, R., Fairbairns, R., (2017) The 28 day alcohol-free challenge Blue Birds Books for Life; London
Manson, M., (2016) Your goals are overrated [online] 7th January, at: https://markmanson.net/goals