Why is it so hard to study consistently, exercise regularly, stop using Facebook so much, stop (insert your bad habit here), (insert a good habit you'd like to have) frequently?
Why is it then to some people they seem so motivated and can study, work, exercise so much as if they have 60 hours a day?
The answer lies in habits. For better or worse, our lives are dominated and driven by habits, hence it is critically to take a good look at our habits, learn how they work, and how can we change them.
Before I give you the hows on changing habits, lets take a minute and have a look how habits works. This is from the book The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg, definitely recommend it if you like to learn more about habits!
How do habits work?
Habits are our silent driving force of our lives, or the autopilot program of our minds. Due to our conscious mind’s limited capacity to control every action of our lives, very often we have to rely on habits to navigate through our complex environment.
With that said, habit is our greatest gift, such allowing us to walk without focusing on it; yet it is also our greatest curse. Everyone of us have bad habits; like procrastination, being stuck onto the phone while hanging out with friends, overeating etc. Whether we like it or not, our lives are dominated by habits.
Relying on willpower alone to drive our behaviour is not enough, the sum of all habits will always beat our willpower. An analogy is the wind-sailing; the wind is our habits which pushes us around, while the sail is our willpower. No matter how good you are at sailing, if the winds are really bad, you’re going to have a tough time going where you want to go.
Fortunately good habits can be cultivated if you know how to and willing to put in the effort.
According Duhigg, habits works by the the following loop, or known as the habit loop:
A habit starts with a cue, something in the environment that signals that start of an action. For instance when we’re bored we habitually grab the remote of the TV, or when we feel anxious we hop onto Facebook.
The action bit’s self-explanatory. After action, reward follows, the pleasure of performing the action. The reason why a habit loop is formed is because of the reward, there’s always some sort of pleasure followed by the action. For example, watching TV when feeling bored, we feel entertained.
Once the cue, action, reward sequence’s done, it is implanted in our minds that if the cue arises again, take the same action to get the same reward. The loop gets stronger upon repetition, this is why the longer we have a habit, the harder it is to change them.
How to change a habit then?
Now back to your question on how to cultivate a good habit, say to study consistently or exercise regularly, everyday using the knowledge of the habit loop.
First thing first, identify a cue to get you started. If can be immediately after breakfast, the feeling of boredom, a time in a day etc.
Then consciously replace the action. Very often the cue you chose will lead to an action, ideally you want to replace an undesirable action with desirable one. For instance after meals I have a bad habit of surfing Facebook; so to get rid of that bad habit I’ll have to replace it with something productive, like writing on Quora.
It is important to realize that it is discovered that habits can't really be eliminated. The cue will always be present, and unless you want to use your willpower all the time to fight the habit, trying to get rid of a habit rarely works. This is why self-restraint is can be a very inefficient and exhausting practice. It is far easier to replace a bad habit with a good one.
Now comes to crucial part, the reward, and this is an important one. One of the reasons I’ve found many students find it hard to adopt a consistent study habit is that they beat themselves up after studying. After studying, it’s very easy to think ‘Ugh I still have so much more to study’, ‘Why should I study? This is so hard and unpleasant’ or ‘I’m still not good enough’. The more you do this, the more your mind will resist studying since it’s not even pleasurable. The same applies to any good habits you're trying to cultivate.
Instead reward yourself! You studied and made progress in becoming smarter! Ideally the reward should be intrinsic, really celebrate and congratulate yourself after each study session. This is why I love to study and can study everyday, I feel like I’m a step closer to my goals, and I visualize my ‘intelligence meter’ going up.
Dedicate a few weeks to cultivate a habit of studying consistently studying everyday, and before you know it, not only will be able to study effortlessly, you’ll also start to enjoy studying!
A Couple of Tips
Before I end things off, just a few more tips to help you better cultivate a good habit: