Although luck may have a lot to do with success or even a productive life, there is a lot within your control. You may just not know what those factors may be.
One day a few months ago, after being sick of feeling the same old way — energy and sleep depleted during my first year as a parent; suburb-bound; angst-ridden and hormones swelling — I battled for a change. There was no real reason for feeling the way I did. But feelings are labelled as such because that is their nature: void of reason or rationale. But, this whole cycle was a habit.
I didn’t know this at the time until I picked up a book: The Power of Habit by New York Times writer, Charles Duhigg, and it rocked my world. It was what I needed to hear at the exact time I needed to hear it: usually the formula behind anything clicking.
First it revealed that habits are more than “bad habits,” like smoking. Do you remember which sock or shoe you put on first today? According to one Duke study, over 40% of our day is done on autopilot, like getting dressed, commuting, even getting in the car, turning it on and pulling out are all on autopilot for most of us. Scary thought. No wonder there are so many accidents.
The problem with autopilot is that you are completely shut out to the present moment and all that it may contain: dangers, opportunities, insights, connections, warnings, and solutions. The book gives some ingenious solutions to individual and national problems that were not obvious but made complete sense once the habit loop was identified.
The habit loop isn’t just willpower; it is physiological. The brain actually changes; it has a center for storing your habits. Your autopilot button. This includes tragic things like kids or teens being told they are failures or unloveable or stupid or fat. There’s one thing most successful people like Tina Fey, John Travolta, Abe Lincoln (reading his bio now), Steve Jobs, Bill Gates have in common: their parents and caretakers thought they were the next best thing to sliced bread. And they acted on that belief. Granted talent was involved but not the only thing.
So don’t hate on yourself too hard for not quitting a habit. You’re hardwired. Duhigg doesn’t say it but for me the first real step is to forgive yourself about engaging in a behavior before you can do anything else.
The good news is that habit isn’t destiny, to quote Duhigg. You can change habits but the hard truth is that you have to fight for it. The brain has stopped participating and you have to reprogram yourself at the neurons level to reengage your conscious self. Each step is hard. Even figuring out something is a habit is hard.
I kept getting the same results and feeling the same way until I realized, as per Einstein, to keep doing the same thing and expect different results is insanity. I HAD TO CHANGE. It took a while to even realize what were my habit loops.
Next step: identifying which cues come before which actions. You can’t get rid of a loop, you can only change the routine you engage in when a cue kicks in. And you have to have your reward. Your brain will expect it. That’s why salad diets don’t work. There is no taste reward and we are not programmed to function and engage in activities with no rewards.
And build or find a community. It takes a village. That’s what Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, and hundreds of other programs (mainly borrowing from the AA model) have in common: providing community. Get people to call you out; get cheerleaders for your goals; get rid of those disrespecting your intentions. Have a friend you always text when you’re about to drop back into bad habits. I have someone to call me out on my deadlines. My own Sgt. Foley.
There is a caveat which the book only touches on (in his chapter about addiction/AA). As well-intentioned as cultural, psychological, or self-development books are in terms of self-empowerment, there are limitations. We are our bodies, we are our moods which are subject to genetics and hormone imbalances. If habits are embedded in the brain, there are all sorts of problems that can prohibit change. For example, you can have all the willpower in the world to change and maintain a changed routine, but if you have hypothyroidism, it will be impossible to lose weight in addition to depression and hair loss.
However, even if you need medication for an illness, changing habits will drastically reduce your dependence on medication (including homeopathic and alternate medicine). Changing habits will not lead to the same results that will cause you to engage in behavior that continues familiar patterns and cycles. We are not defined by our habits but we are not defined by our genes either. Both simply have different solutions.
Yesterday, my post about barely making the Slamdance deadline was actually listing the result of habitual behavior. I had been aware of a deadline three weeks ago. Despite my best efforts, I still manage to miss a deadline here or there. Yesterday, I barely made it although there was no reason for coming in that close. When I sense the cue (looming deadline), I do the routine (polish a final draft), but there is no reward. The key here I realized is that I have to find a reward for myself whether it is bought, bought at the terms I’d like, wins anything, or whatever. Writers, actors, entrepreneurs, have to find a reward for themselves because any external reward from others depends on too many factors out of your control.
So, I’ll hunt for a reward and keep you posted if the habit loop has changed next time a submission looms!
What are your habits that you’d like to change? Do you have a habitual way of procrastinating? Do you have a habitual way of reacting to rejection? To success? To pitching? Small changes lead to huge results. If eating a few less bites a day can lead to over 20 pounds of weight loss in a year, where would the ability to write one more page per day lead you? Would love to hear your thoughts and stories. Community, after all, is one of the pillars to make successful habits stick.