Habit Formation – The only way that works

We have all wanted to be consistent with one thing or the other at least once in our lifetime.

We have all had new year resolutions. Most of us have had the same resolutions every year coz they didn’t work the year before.

Most resolutions work until January 7th, or at the most January 15th of the new year. And most of us break even before that.

Do you know why this happens? There are three most important reasons.

  1. Your expectations are too high.
  2. You have put up multiple resolutions and you are trying to follow them all at the same time
  3. You succumb to your mind’s tricks.

First we make our habits, then our habits make us

Let us go through those reasons our expectations are too high.

1) Your expectations are too high

This one is a clear bummer. When we set higher expectations for ourselves, it’s very very good. But not when we try to achieve it all from the very first day. Let’s say you want to go to the gym and get to a level of bench-pressing 250 lbs. You can’t really start with bench-pressing 250 lbs right from the beginning. Let’s say you want to bench-press 150 lbs from the beginning, but your body weight is itself 170 to 180 lbs. You have never ever been to a gym in your life. Only now, you are starting. In such a case, you have set your expectations too high. You will have to first start by going to gym consistently. Going to the gym consistently is in itself a Himalayan task for people who have never been to the gym. Making it a consistent habit is difficult, let me tell you. I am not going to sugarcoat things. I am gonna call it like I see it. When I started going to the gym, for four months, I was able to drag myself to the gym only once a week.

Your mind will give up a thousand times before your body does. You will have to learn to overcome your mind’s temptations. Then you will win.

That was my story for the first four months after I decided to go to the gym. It was frustrating. Every week, one way or the other, I ended up going only for one day. I either overslept, gave up or just didn’t feel like going, and succumbed to that feeling. There was a reason for this. I will get back to that reason in a bit.

So, you have your expectations set high. What does this do to your mind? It overloads your mind. It overworks your mind about following and sticking to your resolutions. And if you fail for even ONE DAY, your mind will want to stop, it will want to give up. Your mind ends up feeling BAD, you end up feeling WEAK. See the underlined part – YOUR MIND ends up feeling bad. YOU end up feeling weak or I’d rather say, YOU end up FEELING “WEAKNESS”.

You see, you are not your mind. You are the soul. You have a body and a mind. Most of the people in this world think they are the mind. They can’t distinguish between themselves and their mind that, most often, when their mind feels something – they perceive it as the way THEY ARE FEELING. That results in their becoming a slave to their mind.

So, high expectations from the beginning without any prior experience – bummer.

2) Multiple resolutions at the same time

Let’s say that you don’t have high expectations from the very beginning for yourself. But, you do have multiple resolutions and you are trying to be consistent with them all, wanting to achieve all of them. What happens in this scenario?

You trying to follow all of your resolutions – all at the same time is going to overload your mind. You are going to keep trying to have success with all of them at the same time. You will do great for the first two days, probably for a maximum of five days. For most people, within 3 days, one of their resolutions starts to fall apart. They tell themselves that it’s okay. They try to keep going. The second time they let one or the other resolution fall apart, they let their frustration get to them. Then one after the other the resolutions start to break. Within 30 days, all of your resolutions are out in the air. Most people keep trying to do one or the other, two or three things at the same time, again and again, throughout the year. 95% of them give up within the first month. Out of the remaining 5%, 90% of the people give up within the first 6 months. Only 10% of those remaining people make it until the last month, out of which only 1% actually make it.

You get the picture, right? Even trying to follow multiple resolutions all at the same time is in itself going to overwork your mind. Also, breaking even one of your resolutions is going to make your mind wanna give up – and you usually identify with your mind, feel the frustration, and you end up doing what your mind wants you to do.

3) You succumb to your mind’s tricks

As I said, your mind will give up a thousand times before you would actually want to. It will play so many tricks to get you to succumb to its ways. For instance, most of the times, when my mind wants me to give up on something, it usually makes me feel the temporary pleasure I would feel in doing or avoiding something. Sometimes the feeling is so pressing that I end up succumbing to it. For ex: Back in college, when I had to go to gym, every morning at 6, I had to wake up at 5.30 AM and complete my early morning works, and then get to the gym. What my mind did is, when I woke up every day, most of the times, it gave me a glimpse of the feeling that a cozy bed would give me if I slept for an hour more. Most of the times, I ended up succumbing to it. But, not anymore. How? I’ll come to that soon.

So, if you’re like most people, you end up succumbing to your mind’s tricks.

If you’re like most people, you end up having all the three of these above-mentioned reasons play you together.

So, what is the one and only proven way to make something a habit and make a resolution work?

ONE habit AT A TIME.

As you know, it takes 21 days to make something a habit – 21 days of consistent practice. Most people, after reading about that research, think that they can take up multiple things at a time, practice them for 21 days, and make them all a habit within a month. That’s where they are bull-pooping themselves.

We have all heard the age old adage that sun’s rays can burn paper or anything in its way, only when it is focused consistently for quite a good amount of time. The same is applicable to the process of forming habits. When your mind’s focus is scattered all over different resolutions, trying to form different habits, there’s only so much it can do to stick to those resolutions before they start breaking apart, one after the other. On the contrary, when you focus all your might and energy onto making one particular practice a habit, and also in making it stick, it works.

You can choose to believe me or you can test it yourself. I have found that out myself, the hard way. I was bombarding myself with different resolutions.

  • I will go to gym every day.
  • I will stop using WhatsApp once and for all.
  • I will not eat anything that contains sugar.
  • I will eat a light dinner.
  • I will wake up at 4 in the morning every day.
  • I will complete one book every week.
  • I will go to gym at 4.30pm everyday in my office.

These were some of the resolutions I had tried to make happen, all at the same time. These were not all. There were few other resolutions too. And guess what?

Yes, you guessed it right. I ended up doing NOTHING. One day I’d stick with one thing, and the other day I’d lose it. It went on for two years, from Jan 2013, until Jan 2015. At the end of January 2015, I took a decision on a day that I hit my lowest. That I will stop caring about everything else, start small and slowly build myself up from the scratch. I decided to take it one day after the other, one resolution after the other. So, from the end of Jan 2015, I decided to take up one resolution every month, make a habit out of it by consistently practicing it everyday. My first resolution was to go to gym everyday. I took it upon myself to make it a habit for this month of February because the way I look at my body, and the way I feel in my body makes a huge amount of difference in my confidence level. I am athletic and fit. But I wanna be better. I wanna eat better, workout, become actually herculean. I know I will. It’s only a matter of time. But, it requires a start.

The popular opinion is that, for you to achieve anything, starting is important. According to that, if you don’t start, you won’t get anywhere.

What I am going to tell you is something different.

Starting is not the most important part. Usually people like me, people like us, we face two troubles. Most of us are blind to it.

  1. Starting trouble:

    We face a huge resistance from our mind when we want to get out of our comfort zone and make our lives better. The mind just doesn’t like to get out of its cozy little comfort zone. If you are going to try to pull it out, it’s gonna put up a huge fight. It will do everything possible to sabotage your efforts to change and get out of your comfort zone, even a teeny tiny bit outside of it.

  2. Progressing trouble in the middle-ground:

    Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
    Middle is like a little bit around a few days to few months from the start depending on the timeline set for the goal and on the time available at your disposal. This is around the time where the mind starts trying to play its tricks. What the mind usually does is, after putting up some fight, it will let its defence down, a little bit. Once that happens, you will find it easy to stick with it every single day. This goes on until one day, due to circumstances around you, you are gonna have to break it for that day alone. So, from that point onwards, one day becomes two, two becomes ten, and ten becomes forever, with your putting up some effort to get back into the groove in between. Sounds familiar? You’re not alone.

    I sent this article to Mrs. Buck, for her to review it and let me know if I can make any improvements. She had the following words to offer about this perspective with respect to the trouble in progressing.

    “The key is to start often, not just once. It is okay if you hit a low every now and then. We all do. But, the trick is to keep asking yourself why you should do it and what you stand to lose if you don’t start again. Doing such a simple thing as asking yourself that question will help you keep up the momentum.”

She nailed it right there. Progress is nothing but choosing to start what you want to make a habit of, every single day, as if it were your first day. The trick is to consider every single point of low as a start that you need to give yourself again.

This is usually the mind’s trick to get you to LOWER YOUR DEFENSE and play you in your way, playing your game better than you.

Your mind actually puts up an initial fight, a very hard one at that – and once it finds that you are not going to give up without a fight, it lets you have your fight, and it gives you an impression that you are winning. It does that by letting its defenses down, and that results in your believing that you are actually making progress. In reality, your mind is making its play stronger. Definitely, we all have days when things don’t go as we planned. One thing breaks apart, and one after the other we let everything go to hell. You believe you’re making progress, but in reality, you are only playing it the way the mind wants you to play. It makes you believe that you are making progress, and you end up letting YOUR DEFENSE DOWN. What does that do to you? Well, you’d have figured it out by now. Yes! Exactly when your defense is down, a bad day happens, and your mind takes over, without you even knowing it.

In my experience, I’d say that keeping your defense up and keeping yourself alert and conscious at all times, once you get started – is the only way you are going to end up becoming successful in making a habit stick, or in achieving anything at all for that matter.

Thus, starting is not the most important thing. It is very important, mistake me not. But, what’s more important is you keeping your guard up, keeping your defense strong, and keeping at it, no matter what the hurdles are. 99% of your troubles are going to be of your own mind’s making. Rest of the 1% is what your thoughts and feelings end up attracting into your life, when you identify with your mind.

So, what’s the best way to make a habit out of something? Practice it for a month, consistently, every day, IDEALLY AT THE SAME TIME every day. Why the same time every day? Have you heard of muscle memory? Musicians, sports people, and people from few other fields refer to that all the time. You repeat a physical action of yours, it causes your brain to recognize it once it gets trained by your repetitions, once it forms the neural network (network of neurons that fire when you perform that action) related to that action. Similar to that muscle memory, there is something called as TEMPORAL MEMORY. You do the same thing every day, at the same time, and it gets registered in your mind and after a particular point, it becomes effortless for you to do it. You go to sleep every day at 10pm for one month, you’ll find out that you start feeling sleepy around 10pm after those 30 days. You eat your breakfast at 7.30am every day, you will find out that you feel hungry (provided you eat your lunch and dinner the same way every day) at around the same time every day. These are all examples of temporal memory in action. Waking up at the same time, studying at the same time, sleeping at the same time – like this, doing anything at a particular time every day will create a temporal memory that will make it effortless for you to do that particular thing once your mind gets used to that and forms a memory of it.

Hence, the three keys to forming habits:

  • Consistency
  • For a month
  • Same time – every day.

Take up only one thing for a month to make a habit of. Focus all your energy on it. Focus all your strength on making it stick. Journal your feelings as you go through that journey.

You know what I did? I took up this gym thing, right? I took it up for the month of February, now. I went to the gym the first day in the month of February, in my office. When I worked out, I felt great, I felt like I had accomplished something. My inner critic asked me to not rejoice at my success, for, I have always dragged myself to the gym for only one day every week and that it was probably that day of the week.

My mind started bullying me. “You’ve never made it to a second day. You are going to fail.”

I laughed at my mind and told it to shut itself up. Well, it didn’t, that’s a different thing. The next day, I had trouble lifting my hands and I had trouble walking, both because I lifted weights the previous day. That’s exactly when my mind started playing tricks on me. When I went to the office and thought about going to the gym, I told myself that I am in pain. Taking this as a chance, my mind intervened and fondly reached out to me, telling me this. “You don’t have to go through this pain. Take rest today. You can go tomorrow.”

You know what I did? I recognized that fondness. It’s the fondness that my mind showered on me every second day of my journey to the gym. This time though, I was intelligent enough to recognize the mind’s trick. I was going to play my mind this time. I stopped thinking about the pain. I started thinking about what I’d accomplish if I went to the gym that day. I realized that I’d break the 5-month long streak of going to the gym only for one day every week. I also realized that it would make me feel pretty good. But I didn’t immediately resist my mind’s fondness and call its bluff. I turned my attention away from that issue and started focusing on my work. At around 4.20pm, I took my dress, shoes, went to sixth floor, entered the gym, went into the changing room, changed to the gym dress, went to the rowing machine and started rowing. I was feeling holy smokin’ amazing! That I had finally broken the jinx of my own making was something I rejoiced for that one hour of working out that day.

That day, when I showered and came out of the gym, I had an epiphany – that, this would exactly be the way that I’d make it work; that, this would exactly be the way that I could make it stick. I decided to take it one day after the other, one day at a time. That led me to 8 15 continuous days of gym now. I am sure I will make it through to the 30 day mark and that I’ll make it stick for a lifetime. And now, I have the awareness of what it takes to make a habit stick.

What are you going to do? What is the one thing that will improve your overall confidence, the one resolution you badly want to manifest? What is the one thing you think will change your inner self totally? What do you think is the one thing that will make you a badass at be(com)ing great?

Take that one thing. Stick to it with all your might. Repeat it every day, preferably at the same time. Consistency is the key.

Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Good post.

    I want make a habit of waking up early and failed all the time.

    After reading this I know I should try to escape the reasons thrown by my mind to follow my resolution. Let’s see by Feb 10 it should have become a habit. Will update you on my progress.

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