Building Strong Habits: Where to Begin?
If the people you spend your time around don't say brilliant stuff that makes you stop and think, get yourself some new friends.
On Tuesday, I was at the gym, thinking of how to introduce this article, and I overheard a conversation between Karl, our head coach, and another member about how mentally tough the previous day's workout was. What caught my attention was Karl's comment that "exercise is a transferable skill".
That throwaway line got me thinking. In my line of work, a transferrable skill is an existing attribute that, if harnessed, will help you learn new things faster and more confidently. When my partner taught me how to use a sewing machine, there was a lot to learn, but controlling the foot pedal was the easiest part because I've been driving for years.
The habits we build are critical to achieving our goals, but to learn them from scratch is tough. Thankfully, some habits, once they take root, have a tremendous impact on our overall behaviour.
Root Cause Analysis: Finding the Right Habits
To find out your root habits - the repetitive behaviours that are the most effective for you, there are some questions that you can ask.
As an example, this guy was me, about seven years ago. There's about 150kg of Brendan to love there, which is great, but not exactly sustainable.
These days, I'm about 35-40kg lighter (depending on whether we're in winter or summer), and it's because of a few questions I answered about six years ago:
1. What do you want to achieve, and why?
I wanted to lose weight, specifically because I had been signed up for a Tough Mudder event, and basically wanted to shift as little bulk over the 20km course as possible.
2. What are the habits that you need to build in order to achieve the goal?
So there was a lot here, but the big behaviours were these:
- Regular running in order to be able to complete the course
- Eat well to lose weight
- Parkour or climbing training in order to negotiate each obstacle
- Sleep at least eight hours each night to recover
3. Which habit, if developed first, will make the rest of the habits easier to achieve (or better yet, unnecessary)?
This took a bit of thinking and research, but I figured out that the habit that would make the most difference was clearly the running.
The running would be much harder for me than the obstacles, and no matter how much weight I lost, it wouldn't matter if I didn't have the miles in the legs to make the running possible.
Also, exercise helps us sleep better, so my habit became simple: run every day, and let the eating, sleep and climbing fall into place around it.
And it worked! I survived the course and completed all but one obstacle.
Furthermore, that habit of exercise was what eventually got me into CrossFit, where I became the guy doing the pullups there, met my partner, and gained the confidence to develop a mental fitness protocol, which is the reason why you're reading this!
Examples of Root Habits
There are some root habits that, if focused on, help other habits to form. These vary from person to person, but here are the ones that work for me.
Exercise has already been discussed, but it bears repeating because it's basically the best habit ever. The brain chemistry of exercise is fascinating: working out every day helps you eat better, sleep better, make friends better and have better sex. Just do it.
Making your bed every morning is a great quick win. And those little victories add up throughout the day. My morning and evening routines make it easier to sleep, easier to work, easier to plan my week and easier to make decisions.
Working for two hours before checking email is the best thing I've discovered for getting things done, feeling like I'm top of my workload, and making better decisions. I've also noticed that my coffee intake dropped as soon as I started doing this, and I have no idea why.
For those of you with families, have dinner with them every night. Learning about each other's day and what's been going on helps keep families on the same page and correlates positively with your kid's school results.
Finally, when I keep a food journal, I eat better. It's the act of keeping myself honest that changes my eating habits. It takes about two weeks to kick in, and I don't always keep the journal, and we'll talk about why next week (and what we can do about it).
Over to you. Look at what you want, consider the habits you need to build, and find out which will make the rest easier or unnecessary. Good luck, have fun, and you'll hear from me in a week's time.
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(By the way, if you want to read more about habits, my favourite book on habit formation is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He tells great stories, and refers to "keystone habits" as those that, when developed, make it easier to change other habits. This is similar to our root habit concept, except his novel focuses much more on changing habits rather than building new ones from scratch.)