Introduction – Habitual Mastery (Series)

This is the first part of five in a series about how to change, improve and modify your habits easily and effectively. I have always been very interested in methods for taking control over these subconscious processes that run our life. A few of the more notable habit changes I have made include waking up at 6 AM every day, becoming a vegetarian, giving up television and exercising for an hour every day. I’ve reached a point where I don’t consider habit changes to be oppressive and sacrificial but exciting and fun. Using the techniques and concepts I’m going to describe in this series, you too can gain control over this incredible important factor in your life.

Series – Habitual Mastery

Introduction – In the article below, we’ll start on our path to mastering our habits. First we need to really recognize what a habit actually is. From there we need to develop the ability to become aware of these habits and our ability to seek improvements in them.

Conditioning – Conditioning a habit is the primary mechanism for installing it. In this article I’ll detail some of the methods I’ve used to condition new habits to make them an effortless part of my life.

Leverage – What do you do when your habit requires more willpower than you have? In these cases, understanding the power of leverage can allow you to take a small amount of willpower to push through an incredibly difficult habit.

Replacement – Habits can’t be removed. They must be upgraded or replaced. In this article I’ll detail how we can work on replacing habits to prevent some of the unwanted side-effects caused by massive habit changes.

Experimentation – Now you will know how to change your habits more effectively and easily, you can really start pushing the boundaries for what is possible. In this article I’ll give steps for what I feel is the fundamental key from taking your habits from average to excellence.

Our lives run on habits. We have habits for what we eat, how we dress and where we drive. Habits dictate whether we jump out of bed each morning or hit that snooze button… Just… One… More… Time. Habits decide what actions we take on a consistent basis. Since it is our consistent actions that determine the direction of our life, our habits ultimately decide much of the outcome of our lives.

January 1st seems to create a lot of enthusiasm for people desiring to make changes. But, after a few short weeks, these people revert to their old habits. So disappointing is this ritual that many people have completely given up on the idea of being able to change their habits. These people think that, perhaps, habit changes are only for those with a lot of willpower or drive. The few people that are able to make changes on their habits usually reserve that power for extremely critical changes. Is it even possible to gain control over our habits?

Yes! Habits can be changed and we can even reach a point where even dramatic habitual changes are fairly easy. Changing habits is a skill. Like all other skills it needs both practice and technique. Once you are competent with the skill you can use these techniques to conduct your own personal experiments. Instead of sitting back and theorizing what a different set of habits would be like to live with, you can actually try it out!

What is a Habit?

Our brains are created from a very complex array of neurons. These neurons receive input from our sensory organs and deliver them to the brain. Each of these neurons is connected to thousands of others. By carefully adjusting the importance of each neuron in relation to another, our brain forms pathways of these chemical impulses, processing and interpreting the massive amounts of information we receive from the world.

In order to free up our cognitive abilities our brains streamline common procedures. Some pathways have been used so much that our brain has set up these connections to run through them automatically. If you’ve ever walked into a room and forgotten why you were there, chances are you understand this process. Actions like walking and driving were incredibly complex and difficult for you to learn initially, but now you don’t even need to think about it.

Habits also serve as a mechanism for quick problem solving. Whenever we encounter pain, our brain immediately searches for a way to avoid it. Similarly, whenever we encounter joy or gratification, our brain stores those neurological linkages to benefit from that pleasure in the future. Some people use food or alcohol as a mechanism to get out of depression or boredom. The habits that are closely linked to our mechanisms for getting into pleasure and out of pain are often the most difficult to remove. Because these habits are so difficult to modify, they are often the very habits we are most desperate to change.

Think of your mind like a computer. Your computer does millions of calculations without input from the user. Some programs often require little or no input at all to function properly. Just like habits, these programs will often run completely without your awareness. Some of these programs are malicious and destructive, such as viruses and spyware. Like these nasty programs, destructive habits often run without our awareness of them.

Awareness Must Come First

Malicious programs usually must be detected by another piece of software, usually an anti-spyware/virus program, before they can be removed. Similarly, destructive or ineffective habits need to be recognized as such before any changes can be made. If you don’t feel that drinking several times a day is not a good habit, you won’t make any effort to change it. Awareness must always come first.

Chances are you already know a couple habits you have that you would like to change. Maybe it is something major like quitting smoking, alcohol or drugs. Perhaps it is a smaller change like avoiding the temptation to check your e-mail every ten minutes. If you already can think of some habits you would like to change, that’s great. The real problem is all of the destructive habits you have that aren’t so obvious. That is why we always need to keep a very keen eye on our own behaviors and be very conscious of the many patterns that we run without realizing it.

There are really two methods to becoming aware of habits that you need to improve. The first is through internal review and the second is external study. Use both of these methods simultaneously to get the best perspective on your own habits.

Internal Review – Basically this means self-reflection. Internal review is done by carefully analyzing your current behavior. While I am a big fan of the weekly review as a method for analysis, this process should really be done all the time. Whenever you see yourself doing something you don’t feel is a good habit, recognize it as such in your mind. When you pick up that donut at work, even if you can’t stop the habit, notice that this isn’t good for your health.
Another method for internal review is through measurement. By using an objective measurement system, often times our true behaviors will come through. If you aren’t sure whether you have some bad habits in an area, try measuring the habit. If you think you might have some bad eating habits, record what and how much you eat for an entire week. This kind of measurement allows you to uncover habits that you didn’t know even existed.

External Study – As opposed to internal review, external study is using information outside of yourself to gain insight into your own habits. Reading books is probably one of the best ways to do this. As soon as you gain more knowledge about a subject, you will become more aware of the habits you have that could be improved. More knowledge really expands your opportunities to improve your habits.

I know that before I had read a lot of material on the benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet, I was ignorant to how the meat I was eating was affecting my health. After several months with the diet I can attest to how powerful a change it has been. If I hadn’t pursued knowledge from outside sources, I likely would have never realized such a fantastic area for improvement.

Studying other successful people is another great way to find areas to improve your habits. By modeling the habits of success we can often recreate a lot of that success for ourselves. If we only look to our associates and peers for areas where we can improve ourselves and our habits, our potential for growth is going to be incredibly low. Conversely, studying people who have done very remarkable things can give us a lot of areas where we can improve our own habits.

Habits are processes that run in our subconscious. They are constructed as a way to free up our cognitive ability from common tasks. Habits are also used to form the quickest route out of pain and into pleasure. Because so many of these habits run without our conscious control, making habit changes has to start by recognizing the ones we already have. Keeping a keen eye on our behavior and having a voracious appetite for new information can always leave us with more opportunities for growth.

The next article in this series will uncover the methods to condition a habit. I’ll explore some of the various techniques and methods I have used to make habit changes in my own life. I will also talk about the role of willpower, and how we can minimize its impact to make the changes we want without all the frustrations of failure.

Series – Habitual Mastery

Introduction
Conditioning
Leverage
Replacement
Experimentation


  • Mind

    Thank you for the series, I read it “from cover to cover”. However, I don’t understand one point, why do you think, that:

    “Habits cannot be removed or added, they can only be replaced. This is a critical point. ” ?

    I think habits can also “fade away” sometimes, for example I used to play computer games, and now they aren’t interested to me, while I didn’t make any conscious effort to stop playing them.

  • Sean

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Lifecho

    A key factor, in all this process of changing the bad habits and reinforcing the positive ones, is the trust in yourself. Trust that if you really want to change a habit you CAN do it. The first step towards failure is doubt that you can do it.

    Great series, Scott!

    Good luck!
    Conn Stell.

  • Oldude59

    There are several ways I appreciate your insights. My concern with habits is a little bit more extreme – I’m the CEO of a behavioral clinic that treats mainly individuals suffering from chemical dependencies. The difference is in how one coaches and supports the retooling of habit A to habit B. Understanding is not always enough to change between habits adoption. The primary problem we face is the shifting our patients from fear based change to happiness.

    The question I have for is – does the epistemology foundation of mastery series require the adopter to stigmatize their current behavior?

  • Raju Mehta

    Dear Scott, thanks for this wonderful article. Hope to get rid of my bad habit of biting my nails thanks to your article.

    Regards,

    Raju.

  • Scott Young

    Mind,

    Ah, but you did replace the habit didn’t you? What do you do now instead of playing games? Just because you didn’t use the habit changing process consciously doesn’t mean you didn’t replace the habit. You must have a different process of receiving the benefits you got from your old habit.

    Conn,

    Self-trust. That is a whole article in itself, and yes I agree completely.

    OldDude59,

    Hmmm… Not exactly sure what you mean by your question. If you are asking that a person needs to feel ashamed of their current behavior in order to change it I would say no. Shaming your old behavior can give yourself leverage, but I’d be careful if that shaming of your habit transferred to shaming of yourself. Many habits I’ve changed weren’t out of shame at all. Still, understanding that the behavior is destructive is an important step.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  • Mind

    >>> You must have a different process of receiving the benefits you got from your old habit.

    Not necessary. It is also possible that I simply don’t need those benefits anymore.

  • Scott Young

    Mind,

    I think most of the needs we have as humans really filter down to just a few core needs and everything else is just an extension of those core needs. If you look at it from this level, unless your life is in a total sense of chaos, your core needs would have to be shifted from one habit to another. So although playing games might be viewed as entertainment, depending on the person it might also be viewed as contributing to your sense of control, because you can easily control the game world. In that sense, there are probably hundreds of different habits that you have that give you that feeling of control (perhaps reading this blog).

    You are correct though in that changing a habit can sometimes just fade in or out simply because the need for the specific habit diminishes.

  • loser jock

    ….. habbits can just fade away

  • loser jock

    nvm dude

  • Habittrainee

    Please give me some advice.

    I am trying to create the habit of studying 1 hour a day. I did it very well for the first 3 weeks. Before studying new section, I always revised what I have learnt from top to bottom. I was very happy because I nearly finish the book. However, after that 3 weeks and now, I feel scare of the subject when I think about the revision. Then I quit.

    Currently, I have two conflicting thoughts. First, If I restart the habit of learning 1 h a day, I must revise the lessons again, it scares me because it is too much. Additionally, 1 hour is just for revision and I feel there is no gain as there is no time to learn new lesson. Second, if I still restart the habit and not revision, I will lose all the knowledge I have learn.

    I feel very terrible now as I give up my habit.

    Any sharing?

  • Scott Young

    Habittrainee,

    I can’t give you really specific advice because I don’t know too much about your situation. If you are having trouble it might be because you are trying to do too much. Having shorter study sessions or breaking those sessions throughout the day might help.

    Furthermore I think the reason you find it hard to continue is because you dislike the study session. When you associate pain to studying you won’t want to continue doing it. If I were you I would try to search hard to find a way you could begin to associate pleasure and enjoyment to studying so that you will actually want to do it. You could do this by giving yourself a reward, listening to music or combining studying with another activity you enjoy. You may even want to try a different method of studying such as making a game with flashcards or having mock quizzes.

    Good luck and don’t give up, habitual mastery takes time!

  • Habittrainee

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your advice. I am booking the book “Unilimited power” of Tony Robins to learn more about ways to associate pleasure with habit.

    In the mean time, I am using the revise techniques from some other website(1 days/2 days/1 weeks/1 months/3 monthseâ months after the first time), they seem to work well now because it makes me feel less stressed when thinking about the quantity of revision I must go through.

    Thank you again for your advice. It makes me stronger to go ahead. Thank you … thank you ……..

  • Eric MacKnight

    Hi Scott,

    You and your readers may be interested in The Good Habits Blog, which focuses on the good habits students need to succeed. A free download of my book, Good Habits, Good Students, is included.

  • Darren Lee

    Good topic…. I particularly like to highlight that “leverage” is a fantastic tool that you can use to overcome challenges like bad habits.. If you tell a person to change (or you tell yourself to change), then the person could “try” but they will normally find the resistance to be quite high.

    Due to the nature of habitual effects, it’s normally bond with the person’s emotional, physical and mental state. That makes it even harder for change to happen due to the high resistance. However, what a person needs is more than just “will power” to change (even though people with high will-power can do fantastic things) – a person who wants to create enormous change in their life and in their daily habits will need powerful tools to overcome/overpower their resistance. In the invinsible and motivational term, we call it leverage.

    Where can we find leverage? You may find leverage in the most uncommon to common areas in life. Starting from a simple pen and paper to jot down your daily routine, challenges and habits to improve can help you monitor and adjust your daily habits gradually and progressively. That’s a simple leverage that you can do it right now!

    You can even find leverage in your friends… have you heard of “Mastermind” groups? You can gather a group of friends who are as motivated as you to meet weekly and discuss about motivation/success in life. In this group, you can share challenges and be accountable to each other in greater change in life. That’s a great leverage with collective individuals. And the list goes on… there is no limit to where you can find leverage in life… that’s why you won’t find a book stating a “complete” leverage 101. Just use your creativity and imagination, that will immediately jump start your day!

    Well, that’s just my 2 cents! Hope you will find my comments useful.

    Keep it coming,

    Darren Lee

    @ http://www.pursuitofsuccess.com
    – motivational blog and podcast

  • Scott Young

    Great ideas Darren,

    I agree with you that using people to motivate you is a good method.

  • Wang Dong

    Good job!

    But I want to know how to install a habit by changing the cognizance.

    For example:
    I want to walk an hour every day.If I can feel very happy instead of tired then it’s not hard to form the habit(actually most people feel tired,tired can be feeled easily).Is it possible,and how to?

    ps:
    I think bad habits are eternal,for bad is relative.

  • Scott Young

    Wang Dong,

    The simple answer is to follow your trial regardless of how you feel in the onset. If you feel great, all the better, but even when you feel lousy, stick with your plan.

    Mental rehearsal can be a way of changing your emotional state, but most of the time, why bother? Just installing the habit tends to make it neutral and automatic anyways.

  • Wang Dong

    I think your method is effective,and your method is something like behavior therapy in psychology.

    But cognitive therapy is later and better than behavior therapy in psychology,so I ask you if it’s possible to change the habit by changing the cognizance.If you can find a effective method in this way,your habit theory will be really great.

  • Scott Young

    Wang Dong,

    What you see is what you get. I’ve spent a good two years working on habits and while that far from qualifies me as an expert, I wrote about what I found worked. If you want to learn some more about habits, try Anthony Robbins, NLP, Steve Pavlina or just do a google search on it.

  • Habittrainee

    What is my problem?
    I intend to go study MBA next year and my goal is to get a GMAT of 720. I have plenty of time and I know that if I have use time effectively Im able to get the score. My target is to study 1 hour a day in 30days and then increase the time. However, I cannot keep myself on study for more than 15 mins, I am always attracted by the television and music, then start to daydream.

    What should I do next?

  • Scott Young

    Habittrainee,

    Almost all personal development starts by identifying where you are and then making progress in the direction you want to go. If you want to start studying more, figure out how much you can study and work to increase this amount. Get some leverage on yourself if you need to do it faster.

    Good luck,
    -Scott

  • davidvogt

    Your article is very informative and helped me further.

    Thanks, David

  • Sulaiman

    Hello & thank you Scott,

    That was an excellent topic.

    I know my question will sounds very different because it deals with changing the behavior of a large population of people at the same time.

    Question: – Can we utilize the techniques you have highlighted to change/improve our company employees’ driving habits? And if the answer is yes, do you see the below actions are sufficient to achieve it.

    • To establish a direct information channel with the traffic police to obtain violations given to the company employees and dependents.
    • Correct traffic violators’ act by warning them and if their records was without violations award them (leverage).
    • Develop a special film for all employees utilizing some of NLP tools on vehicles accidents, safe driving, employee’s driving image…etc

    Thank you and best regards

  • Scott Young

    Sulaiman,

    This process for changing habits is designed for your own personal development. I can’t say for sure how it would apply to organizational behavior. From what little I know, I suggest that it wouldn’t be quite so easy. Using this process to change habits requires a lot of internal motivation, without that you can’t create long-term change. As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

    Good luck, I’d love to hear about your results in this area.

  • Aimi

    I tried.

    Was having a hard time waking up early in the morning.. so yesterday i told my roommate “if everytime i do not wake up before 7:30am or, if you wake me up at 7:30am, i’ll give you 5 dollars.”

    and, trust me, 5 dollars is alot her and i, who are from Asia.

    Guess what? her alarm clock rang at 7:27am, i jumped out from bed and went straight to the bathroom. But she did not wake up.. apparently, sleep is more important to her than the 5 dollar notes. 😀

  • Scott Young

    Aimi,

    Great stuff! Pay $5 to wake up earlier. I should have thought of that!

  • the king of wishful thinking

    I believe that neurological associations are what habits are. If we learn to manipulate these associations, we can change habits. This is what that reward of $5 is doing for Aimi, Soon she will not require that $5.

    Anyhoos thank you for this and other wonderful articles you have posted always a pleasure to read.

  • Maggie

    Hi! I really admire your effort in writing issues as well as tips in many things… you are helping a lot of people. just like me as soon as i read your blogs… I was truly inspired with this….

    Based on your strategies/esperience which we may use like the Double your reading rate, and Seven Tricks to Stop Forgetfulness.

    Forgetfulness is really my problem and i was just looking around for a natural way on managing it aside from the pills, i’ve found out that ginkgo bviloba will help but i want a natural one.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Maggie,

    I’m not a big fan of supplements for supposed medical benefits, but there are plenty of techniques you can use to improve memory, of which I mentioned a couple in that article.

    -Scott

  • Bunsann Kim

    Yes, bad habits are like virus/malfunction software.

  • Mohammed

    Hi!
    First we make habits, then habits make us. Habits give shape to your personality!!

  • Dan

    Hi,

    For managing and tracking your habits you can use the checklists from Gtdagenda.com

  • Sharon

    Hi Scott,
    I am writing an article on becoming a vegetarian for a Dubai-based magazine and wondered whether I could use a few quotes and tips from your blog. All credit will be given to you and your book.

  • Scott Young

    Sharon,

    Go right ahead! Just send me a link to it (if there is an online copy) when it is published!

    -Scott

  • Will P

    So is the idea to use conditioning a a means to create new habits, and replacement as a means to ‘delete’ old habits? I ran into this question while making my desired and unwanted habits list. For ‘playing video games,’ the replacement is easy to conceptualize, just like you did with comfort eating. However for -adding- habits, I don’t know what to do. Replace ‘doing nothingness?’ That seems essentially the same as adding a habit. So the ‘replacement’ idea only applies to removing habits while conditioning applies to adding new habits. Is this right?

    Thanks for the excellent article. 🙂

  • Will Padgett

    So is ‘conditioning’ for adding a habit, and ‘replacing’ for getting rid of one? I know you said you can’t add or subtract a habit, but the ‘replacement’ technique only makes sense to me for removing a habit. So is ‘conditioning’ a different process entirely than replacing, in that you simply make yourself do the new action for 30 days? It doesn’t seem like it ‘fills in’ any gap necessarily.

  • Scott Young

    Will,

    Conditioning is the process of training a habit in place. Replacement is the process of finding alternatives for your current habit so there doesn’t become a gap in your life.

    -Scott

  • Joseph

    What about including friends or family in our external review? What do you think of asking input from other people about our own habits? Do you think they would be able to see them? If so, how might we encourage them to be open and honest with us, and not worried about upsetting us or damaging our relationship?

  • Chigchi Dahurbayar

    This is quite incredible that you wrote these articles before 20 I guess. I am now 30 and have only been starting to explore and experiment with habit mastering. I’ve seen quite many articles on this subject, and have found many overlaps of concepts and techniques. I guess it means there is a common working principle underlying many kinds of habit formation. Very informative articles, thank you for sharing.

  • Chigchi Dahurbayar

    This is quite incredible that you wrote these articles before 20 I guess. I am now 30 and have only been starting to explore and experiment with habit mastering. I’ve seen quite many articles on this subject, and have found many overlaps of concepts and techniques. I guess it means there is a common working principle underlying many kinds of habit formation. Very informative articles, thank you for sharing.

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