“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” John C. Maxwell
Habits hold the key to achieving a strong, lean body full of energy and vitality. It is our daily routines that make us who we are. According to the latest research, we spend half of our lives performing habits, but very few people understand them. My goal is to help you better understand the power of habits and why they exist.
There are two characteristics of good habits that make them invaluable. First, we perform them repeatedly, which means their benefits will cumulate. Second, they are reflexive. They don’t require motivation or willpower to do. We don’t think about habits. If you are like me, you can recall doing something out of habit that made no sense at all, like reaching for your phone when it’s dead. Once we establish a habit, we respond to a contextual cue. It is part of the reason we don’t pay much attention to them.
Good habits automate good decisions, making them our default behavior. Many people mistakenly believe that they must do something dramatic to revolutionize their lives, but what would transform their lives are small, repeated actions.
“It’s the small habits. How you spend your mornings. How you talk to yourself. What you read and what you watch. Who you share your energy with. Who has access to you. That will change your life.” Michael Tonge⠀
Habits are things we can do without thinking, which is why we have so many of them. Pawning off repetitive behaviors makes sense, but it isn’t without its liabilities. Habits are reflexive. They fly under the radar of our consciousness. We aren’t thinking as much as reacting. We feel bored, and our hand automatically reaches for our phone, as if the body has become the mind. This automaticity makes bad habits difficult to break. Our best strategy is to increase our awareness of the cues prompting the behavior and then find something better to do. For example, instead of checking your social feed, you could read a book or listen to one on your phone. Breaking bad habits is simple, but it isn’t easy. The great news is that they do get easier and more automated the more times we do them.
Routines feel right; we thrive on routines. Chances are that today is much like yesterday was, and tomorrow will be a lot like today. We all fall into patterns of behavior. We tend to think the same thoughts, eat the same foods, and spend time with the same people. Without routines, our lives feel chaotic. The recent pandemic turned everyone’s habits upside down. It forced us to develop new routines. While most people gained weight during the pandemic, a lot of people lost weight and got fitter. What separates the two camps was the quality of their habits. Those that develop good eating and exercise habits lost weight, while most didn’t. Bad habits are easy to fall into, especially when we are worried and stressed out. Bad habits like drinking alcohol and eating junk food provide a temporary refuge from anxiety.
Developing new habits can be exhausting. It requires both our cerebral cortex and basal ganglia to work simultaneously. Our easily exhaustible cerebral cortex (“Conscious Brain”) is forced to do the heavy lifting while our basal ganglia go along for the ride memorizing the pattern. As the behavior becomes automated through repetition, the more resilient basal ganglia (“primitive brain”) take over, allowing our conscious brain to check out. Routines feel good because they provide a mental break.
Daily habits are powerful, but the results they produce are impossible to measure in real-time. It’s like trying to detect grass growing in your front yard. Their power lies in persistence, the accumulation of small incremental improvements. The best example of perseverance in nature is a stream. When a stream converges with a rock, nothing appears to be happening, but we know that the water will shape the rock the same way our habits will shape us, not through brute force but through persistence.
If you are not in shape, it isn’t because you don’t know something or aren’t taking the right supplements. It’s because of your eating and exercise habits. Our habits determine who we are. The quality of our lives is primarily determined by our ratio of good habits to bad. Ovid was right when he said, nothing is more powerful than habit. Logging your food and creating a 500-calorie deficit for one day will not seem to produce any results, but if you did it for six months, you would lose approximately 30 pounds.
If the effects of daily habits were immediate, everyone would adopt good ones. Unfortunately, our rewards system evolved with a strong bias towards immediate gratification. Food was the reward system’s original objective, which is why we are so responsive to the sight of anything yummy. You do not have to motivate anyone to eat a piece of cheesecake. Bad habits provide immediate gratification; that is why they are so easy to form and hard to break.
Cravings power habits. The more times we repeat a routine, the stronger our cravings become. When we experience an intense craving, we feel anxious. Stress and anxiety shift our brain into a reward-seeking state. We become convinced that the Reward is the only way we will feel better. Hyper-palatable foods, high in sugar, salt, and fat, can be as addictive as cocaine. People turn to these foods so often for stress relief that we now refer to them as comfort food. The ease of access and social acceptance of comfort food help explain the growing obesity epidemic. You’ll learn how food manufacturers and restaurant chains engineer their foods to produce irresistible cravings the way tobacco manufacturers add ingredients to make their products more addictive. If you are addicted to these types of foods, don’t despair. Your willpower challenge isn’t unique. Everyone struggles with willpower. It doesn’t mean you’re weak; it means you’re human.
The habit loop provides a practical framework for behavior change. Unfortunately, by the time we are adults, we rarely examine our habits. The neurological feedback loop, Cue, Craving, Routine, and Reward create our habits. Our subconscious brain is continually learning to link actions with outcomes. If the Reward is unsatisfying, the behavior is forgotten. If it is gratifying, the Routine is remembered and repeated.
This self-reinforcing characteristic of a habit is why it can feel like an unbreakable chain. Fortunately, like chains, it is only as strong as its weakest link. If we remove the Cue, we won’t be triggered. If we make the Routine impossible to do or replace it with a better one, we solve the problem. If we can find an alternative Reward that satisfies our Craving, we can improve our behavior.
Being able to identify and replace bad habits with good ones is a superpower. To create good habits, we reverse the steps taken to break a bad habit. We create conspicuous Cues to prompt the desired behavior. We shrink down the desired Routine and make it as easy to do as possible by removing as many steps as we can. We make the Routine as Rewarding as possible using temptation bundling, paring want behaviors with should behaviors. For example, listening to addictive audiobooks while working out. We also need to control the quality of our associations. We need to link the long-term consequences of our behavior with the positive results they produce. We need to equate a caloric deficit with losing body fat and the pain of lactic acid build-up with muscle growth, improved insulin sensitivity, carbohydrate partitioning, and a better physique.
I will teach you how to improve your habits by giving you some powerful execution tools, but I cannot guarantee your success. That is because I cannot ensure you’ll implement these proven concepts. There are two types of people. Those that read articles like this and achieve remarkable results and those that don’t. The former develops a comprehensive implementation plan that they make part of their daily routine. The latter doesn’t. Their lives don’t change because knowledge is no substitute for action.