A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. They’re reliable solutions to recurring problems. Your brain loves them because they require very little thought or effort on its part. In fact, that’s the ultimate purpose of habits: to solve the problems of your life with as little energy and effort as possible.
But do your habits make you happy?
My job, like yours, is pretty stressful. And my commute is awful. On a good day, it’s around 50 minutes each way, but on a bad day… my PW (personal worst) is 3 hours and 7 minutes, one way. Over time, I developed a habit that helped me to cope with a stressful job and an unpredictable commute: wine.
I’d arrive home from work – tired, grumpy, hungry and stressed. I’d drink wine. I’d feel better. I’d unwind from work and enjoy my evening. But over time, my behaviour changed. One small wine while I cooked dinner became one rather large wine, and sometimes it was dinner! Wine isn’t food. It doesn’t contain all that many vitamins and minerals. It isn’t the basis of a balanced diet. And if you pour generously, you don’t necessarily feel better the next morning!
Back in September, I arrived home, after a pretty good day, and caught myself in the act of opening nice new bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc. I realised I actually didn’t want any wine. But the journey from front door to fridge had become so habitual that I was pouring it without even thinking. I decided it was time to replace what had become an unhealthy habit with a new, healthier habit.
How to change a habit
In Atomic Habits James Clear says that what we crave is not the habit itself, in my case the wine, but the change in state it delivers. For me, drinking something took the edge off my hunger and helped me to switch off from work and relax. Thinking about it like this helped me to realise that in order to break what had become a bad habit, I needed to come up with an alternative to the wine that would still allow me to switch off from work and relax.
My first thought was that I’d simply substitute water for wine. Easy. It may not surprise you to hear I was not successful! Our brains are reward detectors and unless it’s really, really hot and you’re really, really thirsty, water isn’t that exciting and it’s not much of a reward.
I realised that what I needed to focus on wasn’t the wine, but the goal – the end state of feeling less hungry, relaxed and disconnected from work. I tried a few different walk in the door routines, but this is the one that stuck: have a glass of water and a handful of honey roasted cashews (much better!) and then meditate for 10 minutes (Hi Mum – yes this really is me writing, and no I haven’t been invaded and taken over by a body snatcher! Promise.)
It works because it’s quick and simple and it achieves my desired change in state. The combination of sugary nuts (something I’m looking forward to) with water (something that takes the edge off my hunger) and meditation helps me to switch off from work and enjoy my evening. All up it takes about 15 minutes. It also comes with side benefits: nuts are cheaper than wine so I’m saving money and I’m consuming a lot less empty calories! I’m also happier. I’m happy because I’m proud of myself for having substituted what had become a bad habit with a much better one. I’m pretty sure I’m also healthier…but that’s for another newsletter!
Habits and happiness
If we want to be consistently happier, we need to be honest about the choices we’re making. Are we prioritising what feels good in the moment or are we choosing what will help us to feel good in the long run? And are we willing to put in the effort that’s needed to create habits of happiness?
It’s relatively easy to come up with actions you can take that have the potential to create your desired state, it’s much more challenging to make those behaviours your new normal. For that part of the process I’d like to share with you The Seinfeld Strategy!
You may or may not remember Seinfeld (I loved it. Elaine was my favourite.) the 90s American comedy about four fairly dysfunctional New Yorkers. Jerry Seinfeld is the lead character, he co-wrote the show and is also a successful stand-up comedian. When he was asked about the secret to producing such a well written show, he said that the key to good work is consistency. He makes himself write something every day. No matter what. So if you want to build a habit that sticks, try this:
Small changes big impact
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shows how small changes, implemented over a 21 to 28 day period, create new neural pathways in the brain which make it possible for you to replace your old routines, behaviours and thoughts with new ones. Know that building habits takes time, effort and persistence. Don’t be put off if you don’t see any change in the short term.
Remember learning to drive? I certainly do! It seemed totally unachievable and I was completely in awe of people who seemed to do it without even thinking about what they were doing – checking their mirrors, using their indicators, changing lanes, changing gears, steering effortlessly, actually staying in the lane all while nagging me about the fact I had not tidied my room!! (Hello again, Mum!) Impossible. Too many things to think and do all at once. But like so many other people I can now do all of that and I think it is completely natural and not at all remarkable. If driving can become a habit, so too can many other things.
For now, focus more on the number of red crosses you’ve got on your calendar and less on your current results. You’re wiring your brain for change, even if you don’t realise it.
“Most people know that they really want to change, yet they just can’t get themselves to do it.”
Happiness, habits and school
It is precisely because habits are so automatic that we rarely stop and think about the enormous role they play in shaping our behaviour and our lives. After all, if we had to make a conscious choice about every little thing we did all day, we would likely be overwhelmed by breakfast. You’ve probably heard the anecdote that states Barack Obama deliberately only ever wore blue suits (I think it’s blue) so that there was one less decision he had to make every day.
Happiness comes from good habits, habits that automatically pay dividends, without too much effort or extensive use of willpower on your part. The key to creating those habits is ritual: repeated practice until the actions become ingrained in your brain’s neural chemistry. It might seem challenging in the moment, but if you stick with it, you get the rewards.
Get out a piece of paper. Think about the behaviours you want to change at work. It might be things you think, say or do. Now go through the following process of reflection:
Good luck! Send me an email to let me know how you get on?