By Jennifer Rockwell – February 2023
As we get settled in another new year, it’s a great time to evaluate our habits, re-establish routines we’ve let slip, and establish new, positive behaviors.
Human beings are creatures of habit, and we all have those behaviors which serve us well and those which don’t. When looking to positively change behavior to improve our performance or wellbeing, making small changes can have big payoffs down the road. As author and researcher James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits, “All big things start with small beginnings.” Regular routines and habits allow our minds to be freed up to focus on other important matters in our lives.
How do habits form?
As we discuss in our PEAK Performance Seminar, when we have thoughts (both consciously and subconsciously) our brains activate billions of neurons to establish connections called neural pathways. These neural pathways create patterns in our thoughts and our behaviors, which drive our results at the end of the day.
Many behaviors are unconscious, like blinking, breathing, or walking. Other behaviors are conscious, like the act of pouring and drinking your first cup of coffee or tea before your brain comes online for the day. Many of these behavior patterns took years to develop and can be difficult to change because the act of doing one thing, over and over, for an extended period creates robust, sturdy neural pathways—a habit.
How can I change a behavior and create a new habit?
Let’s say your goal is to live a healthier life to positively impact those around you. You know you’ll have to change behaviors to get there, but where do you start? First, closely examine the goal you’re trying to achieve. What are your motivations for change? How will the new habit change you? It’s important to consider what motivates you individually and intrinsically.
Your habits are for you, not for others. Examine your personal motivations while avoiding statements like “I should…”, “I have to…”, or “I need to…” These thoughts are red flags that your motivations are for others and not for yourself. Identify the key motivations that are unique to you and are what you truly want. For example, “I want to have greater energy to keep up with life’s demands. Being physically fit and having increased mental clarity will make a positive impact to me and those around me.”
Next, start small. What is a simple, specific thing you can do now to get started towards your goal? Instead of committing to an entire new workout routine right away or signing up to meditate 30 minutes a day, what is one specific action or commitment? You may choose to get up at 6:00 instead of 6:30 every morning—no pressure to workout to start, just taking that first action to get up earlier. From there, notice that you have extra time in the morning to dedicate to the next small step toward achieving your goal. The habit is establishing the specific action.
Another method is to attach an action to an already-established habit for greater effect, which is called “habit stacking”. By doing this, you’re establishing a cue to remember and act on your new habit. For example, if the first thing you do in the morning is brush your teeth, commit to spending those few minutes being mindful of what you’re doing. Focus on the brush moving across each tooth, feel your toes on the ground beneath you, and notice your posture as you brush. You’ve taken an ingrained habit of brushing your teeth and added an opportunity for mindfulness. Once you’ve established that stacked habit, you can continue to add actions, such as a 5-minute meditation before or after you mindfully brush your teeth and take another step toward achieving your goal.
Lastly, check in with yourself. Are you noticing any changes within you or around you as a result of your new habit? Have you encountered any barriers? What strategies can you employ to help you overcome your barriers? Are there tools to help, such as a habit tracker, reading resources, or an accountability partner? Is there another specific action you can take?
Emotions are the glue that bind our habits, whether positive or negative. How does your new habit make you feel? Notice the emotions that you feel when you do your habit and when you don’t. Let them motivate you to continue or help you decide what you want to do next.
A Stop At Nothing client and VP of HR for a Fortune 50 company recently shared a learning from her own experience with creating new sleep and exercise habits, “What makes my habits stick are the negative consequences of not doing them. When I don’t sleep well, it makes my anxiety skyrocket, I make bad decisions and I’m not approachable. When I don’t get daily exercise, I am unable to focus in the morning and that is usually when I am able to get my most valuable work done. Exercise helps jump start my system.”
My Own Experience With Habits
Several years ago, I was in a challenging place both professionally and personally. I realized my attitude and outlook were negative, and I reacted with anger when my buttons were pressed both at work and at home. I wasn’t the most fun to be around, and in turn, I felt exhausted and physically drained at the end of most days.
I wanted to change my behaviors. I took the first step and examined my own individual motivations. Through my personal awareness journey, I knew that when I practiced gratitude, my mood improved, which improved my outlook, which then positively impacted my attitude and actions. The impact was especially powerful in the moments of high stress when my mind wanted to react with anger rather than respond with calm and clarity.
It was time for me to turn it into a more regular habit instead of a spontaneous, inconsistent action. If I could commit to the habit of practicing gratitude, I knew my relationships and work performance would improve. From there, I attached the habit to something I did every day.
On my way to work, I pointed out three things I was grateful for that morning. I found it difficult at first and only picked small things. I was grateful to have a seat on the train, I was grateful for the sun shining during my commute, and I was grateful my daughter woke up happy that morning. Over several weeks, I realized my mood improved dramatically before I even walked through the door at work.
I slowly expanded my practice. I already had a habit of reviewing my calendar for the following week on Friday mornings. After I did that, I tacked on another 15 minutes to write down what I was grateful for that previous week. I started to notice the people I was grateful for, and more importantly, I told them—a hand-written note to someone on my team, a quick email to a business partner, a text to my husband, or a phone call to my mom after work.
Over time, I found my energy increased, which allowed me to pursue other healthy changes in my life such as changes to my diet and more consistent exercise. One small step of attaching a gratitude practice to something I already did every day slowly evolved into an established habit. Through consistency and repetition, the habit became a more permanent, natural behavior, and my brain’s neural pathways rewired themselves with each passing day.
The Next Steps
Now it’s your chance. Make that small change that could transform into something bigger. Evaluate your habits, re-establish a routine you’ve let slip, or establish a new, positive habit. You have the power to rewire your brain and change your behaviors—you just have to take the first step!