The morning, just like the rest of the day, is full of routines. The mind might still sleep, but the body carries out the familiar tasks anyway. A shower followed by coffee, then grab the keys and lock the door. As adults, people might not even be aware of all their routines since they have become such a natural part of every day. And slowly, slowly, routines take over their life.
Daily rituals can be good; as the brain switches on autopilot it doesn’t need to make active decisions all the time and thus avoids information overload.
However, just as routines can be very good, they can also contribute to a feeling of stagnation.
Same route to work, same lunch hour, same way home. Life runs in autopilot mode, days become weeks, which become months. Soon a year passed and nothing really happened, unless you make an active decision to make a change.
The habit loop
Repeatedly people try to change something in their lives. “I’ll quit smoking, I’ll eat healthier, I’ll start running”. Repeatedly they fail. Bringing change into a life full of routines is not an easy task, but by understanding the process of habit formation, it can be made easier. No matter if the goal is to create a new habit or to change a bad one, the process is the same. In “The power of habits”, Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop which, based on neurological studies, consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. One example is a habit loop created by Claude Hopkins in the early 1900’s to get people to brush their teeth every day with Pepsodent tooth paste.
Cue: You wake up with a bad smell in your mouth/film over your teeth. Routine: Brushing the teeth. Reward: Feeling clean and getting the fresh tingling sensation from the toothpaste. Repeated over and over, the cue will cause the brain to anticipate and crave the reward. That’s when the habit is formed. To change the habit, it is advised to keep the cue and reward and only to change the routine.
How long does it take to form a new habit?
Although the habit loop is easy to understand, translating the knowledge into action requires determination. Every time you do something new, your brain forms new connections between neurons. With repetition, the new connections grow stronger whereas old, unused connections become weaker. The more times you repeat your new routine, the easier it will be.
Habit formation goes through three phases: the first phase, “the honeymoon”, is perceived as easy and inspired. Then “the fight thru” begins, which requires persistence and fighting before it shifts into the third phase “the second nature”. Though it is very individual, the average time for a behavior to become automatic is a little over two months, and not 21 days as the myth says.
It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it – John Steinbeck
Excuses like “no time” or “too complicated” discourage changes and promote the predictable and comfortable status quo. Change is scary. It opens up for failure and surprises. However by not making the change, where will you be in a couple of years? Let’s say someone eats junk food every day. Staying in the comfort zone feels good in the short run (food is cheap and fast), but can be painful in the long run (health effects). It is a question of perspective: do you want short- or long-term pleasure?
A common mistake is to undertake too many or too big changes at once. Therefore it is often advised to start out small, e.g. by forming mini habits. Small changes have the advantage that they seem manageable, thus it is easier to start. Once started, they are also easy to scale up. For example, if the mini habit is to do one sit-up a day, doing it is no big deal and while already on the floor, one can easily do another one. And another one.
Another change could be to learn something new (e.g. a language, an instrument, to paint). Did you know that you only need 20 hours to become relatively good at it? It is never too late for change. People change careers all the time. Even in the later phases of life, change is not off the table. After turning 60, you can still translate your diaries and sell them as a book or become a model.
Who’s in charge?
You can do small changes, big changes, dramatic changes… Like Ian Usher, you can also sell your life. What ever you do, big or small, do something new. Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone, if even only with your toes. Make sure that your life is run by YOU instead of your autopilot.