Why Habits are the Bedrock of Transformation
This story might sound familiar to you:
You reach a point where you decide something must change. You see a part of your life that you want to transform, so you make the choice to behave differently. At first, the momentum of the new decision carries you, making the first few days easy. You feel like a new you. You’re making progress. Your eyes are set on a better future.
Then you have a bad day, and your mental train derails. You relapse into your old routine. You might bounce back once or twice, but eventually you give up and think to yourself, “Maybe next year.”
Perhaps this has happened to you with an exercise program or with a diet, or perhaps some version of this story even played out in your career.
It begs the question, why is it so hard to stick to our goals and in the process to form good habits? Simpler still, why is change so hard to achieve? If you are reading my books or my blog, you may have thought that you really want to be healthier and improve your overall life, yet it seems so hard to make any progress.
Change is difficult because our brains are programmed to resist it.
Our brains process over 10 million bits of information each second, and yet of these 10 million bits only 50 are developed at a conscious level. We are, for good or ill, biological machines, and our interaction with the world works best when we keep things simple. It leaves less room for chance, mistakes, or a breakdown.
We operate on automatic almost all the time.
10,000 years ago, that automaticity was an imperative part of our survival. Without it, our voluntary behaviors could have resulted in injury or death. Today that same automaticity leads us to many behaviors that are not in our best interest, but we have forged those behaviors into involuntary, automatic habits over years of repetition.
That’s why when you start a new exercise routine, for example, you might feel a tractor-beam-like pull dragging you back to the couch in the evenings or to sleep-in instead of going for your morning run.
The science of habits is a deep topic, and we explore some of it in my free e-book Stop. Challenge. Choose. For this particular article, however, I want to focus on the idea of equilibrium. When you make a big drastic change, like suddenly going to the gym five days a week when your previous routine was to never go at all, you radically disrupt the equilibrium of your life. And then your programming fights to restore that equilibrium.
Think of it this way: If you want to move a big bowl of water across the room, do you run, or do you move slowly and carefully? If you run, you will spill the water, and then you have to go right back to the beginning to refill it and try again (after you clean up your mess). In the moment, going slow might feel like you aren’t covering much ground, but in the long-run, you suffer fewer spills and make more sustained progress.
When you change habits slowly, your equilibrium will not feel violently disrupted, making it easier for you to make the kind of changes you desire. This is why the Habits of Health System advocates small changes over time using microHabits of Health (mHoH). Instead of flipping tires and swinging sledgehammers right from the start, add 200 extra steps to your day, even if that just means a few extra trips to the water cooler during work hours.
This small but positive change in your routine is sustainable. Your equilibrium won’t feel disrupted and therefore won’t fight you, and you can find micro versions of virtually any kind of change you want to make. This means that you can harness your programming to work for you instead of against you.