In 1903, The American Journal of Psychology defined a habit as the following:
“as more or less a fixed way of thinking, willing or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience”
In other words, from doing something over and over it becomes routine. Whether that be mental or physical. In other, other words, thinking, feeling or willing concretes in your life by repetition.
For that very reason, habits are so interesting. Once they are embedded they become almost automatic and they end up forming a huge part of your life. It presents a huge opportunity to logically hack your cognitive system to become whoever you want to to be.
They set out the path of your life. Think about your morning routine or your night-time routine. The activities you do, I’m assuming, don’t wildly change. You get coffee at the same or similar time, you read the news or think for a period of time, you probably shower around the same time every day.
Whatever it may be, you have a handful of habits that make up a subsection of your day. They are the foregone conclusions of your life. They are the things that you know for sure will happen today.
You’ll have lunch at a similar time, watch TV when you get home from work, listen to the same podcast on the way into work.
The way I think of a habit is as a system. It’s as if we choose which things warrant enough time to do them over and over again every day. Once we choose, we embed them and do them enough times for them to become automatic. Once automatic, we have a system or a process that allows us to achieve the desired outcome.
Your habits are the sum total of your output. In other words, if you want to get something done, create and embed a habit around it. If you want to become something, create a habit that will allow you to get there. You quite literally become whatever you do most days. You are that person that writes every day, you are that healthy person that exercises every day.
“ We become what we repeatedly do “ Sean Covey
We Become What We Repeatedly Do Even if We Don’t Notice
I think it then interesting that we become what we repeatedly do when we are not consciously aware of what we are doing. I think the most obvious example, perhaps because I used to do it a lot, is negative self-talk.
After a meeting, you think about the four-hundred and one things that you didn’t do or didn’t say. You think about how a certain person said something and that made you feel like you were inferior and that you didn’t know what you were talking about. You get angry with yourself because you knew the answer to that question but you didn't feel confident enough or smart enough to say it.
Then you find yourself doing that after most interactions, you find yourself always in a defensive state as if the world of work is trying to prove you aren’t capable of being there. What a wonderful thing imposter syndrome is. And then you realise it’s probably the right time to take a little bit of time off to readjust, maybe you just need a break.
Essentially, you’ve made a habit of being horrible to yourself.
A habit can sometimes go unnoticed by the person displaying it because it has become an embedded system, so much so, it required no thought. If we look inside ourselves (metaphorically of course) we can ask ourselves some questions that might reveal some of our unconscious habits.
- How often are you worrying that you’re not where you’re supposed to be?
- How often are you comparing yourself to other people?
- How often are you saying what you have isn’t enough?
- How often are you criticising yourself?
- How often are you praising yourself?
It can be quite revealing to ask yourself those simple questions — maybe it will tell you something about your unconscious habits.
We are, in general, pretty bad at knowing ourselves. It sounds quite silly because well you are you, so how would you be bad at it. If you think you are pretty kind to yourself but then find yourself answering yes to those first four questions and no to the last one — you might not be as kind to yourself as you think.
When Habits Work
There are millions of examples across the world that prove habits used correctly leads to great success.
Top athletes don’t just rise to the top of their careers through luck and chance. Tiger Woods was working 12 hours a day on his craft. Michael Phelps trained for between 5–6 hours a day. In the run-up to her 2018 headlining Coachella performance, Beyonce was rehearsing up to 11 hours per day.
This kind of routine isn’t isolated or anomalous. They are the norm, for years. To become successful you need to make a habit of working hard.
It’s not a coincidence that by following a strict diet and workout routine you can achieve the body of your dreams. It’s not a happy accident that by writing day after day for years Benjamin Hardy is making a cool million every day.
When you are clear on what your goal is you can start to work backwards to understand what daily practices you need to complete in order to get there. Once you understand what you need to do daily (and it needs to be deliberate practise) you can work on creating a habit around it so that you reliable do it each time.
How Habits Reduce Mental Energy
Dr Ann Graybiel, PhD, is a professor of Neuroscience at MIT. She is considered an expert in the basal ganglia (a part of our brain) and she wanted to study the cognitive load it takes to create a habit. As it turns out (in my very simple terms) the more we do something, the less thinking time it takes. She happened to put over 150 sensors on a rat brain and study the cognitive function over time as these rats were dropped into a simple maze. The maze was one run with a piece of chocolate at one end (diagram below)
Once the rat was dropped into the maze the door would lift with a click and the rat was free to roam. In the early hours of the experiment, when the rat was new to the concept of the maze, there would be a lot of activity. The sensors would be lighting up all over the place, the rat was clearly thinking a lot. However, once the rat had become familiarised with the environment, it no longer took such mental capacity to understand what was going on and most importantly, where the chocolate was. In order words, the short walk to the chocolate had become a habit.
What that means, quite brilliantly actually, is that regardless of the thing you choose to become your habit:
If you do it enough time, it requires little to no thought, it just becomes part of your day. Essentially if you can repeat something enough time it becomes automated. What would your life look like if you didn’t have to contemplate going to the gym… you just went? What about eating better? Or dedicating some time to that project?
Our habits are what we become, they are who we ultimately are. So there is a tonne of value in looking at where you are today and asking yourself what is it that you do every day… right now.
Sometimes we think we need to create seven new habits to become wildly successful. If we could only be more confident, eat healthier and be more proactive we would definitely get that pay rise or be the person we want to be. Aside from the fact, there will always be another pay rise and another ‘something’ too chase, I think there is something much more valuable.
What if we took stock of what habits we have today.
If you want to be more confident and have just found yourself answering yes to all those questions above and no to the last one… maybe you just need to hack the habits you already have. And that starts with being conscious of them.
If you want to become something different than who you are today, start by looking at what you do on a day to day basis — does that match up with your aspirations? If the answer is no, understand which habits you do have that could be hacked to get you to where you want to be.
Whether it’s good or bad if it becomes a habit, it’ll become a foregone conclusion. In the words of Sean Covey, “we are what we repeatedly do.”