Rewire your Habits


I’ve finished listening to Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit. Why we do what we do and how to change’ and it’s great insight into how habits are formed and what we can do to change them. I’m a big believer in how habits shape who we are, as you might tell from this post and I would absolutely recommend this book. It’s worth spending the time to think about how your own life is composed of habits and which of those you would want to change for the better.  Having read it and analysed my own habits, especially the bad ones, here’s some takeaways:

Habits are formed from the unconscious mind and therefore you should emotionally detach yourself from the bad ones

Studies have been done on individuals who have suffered brain injuries to the memory centres or the pre frontal cortex (which is where much of our conscious thinking arises) but not to the basal ganglia.

basal ganglia


The basal ganglia is responsible for the automated nature of habits. There have been individuals who have lost all short term memory, so much so that if they feel the need to use the bathroom, they are able to do so, however, if you were to ask them where the bathroom is, they cannot tell you.  These studies demonstrate that habits are developed and maintained in completely separate parts of the brain compared to memory and conscious thinking.

We are creatures at heart and our evolved, thinking brain still coordinates with the survival mechanisms developed during our cave-man days.  Habits are one of those mechanisms, where tasks that are simple and don’t require complex processing, are off loaded so that our attention can be directed towards more important tasks. When we create habits, like eating junk food, these become engrained in the basal ganglia and so we almost subconsciously follow them. If we attach negative feelings of our self worth or confidence to our bad habits,  we should realise that they are products of our human nature and not of our developed brains.

A habit is made up of a cue, craving, routine and reward. Understanding this structure and breaking down our bad habits accordingly, gives us power over them.

Habits are made up of components and the routine and reward are primary ones. For example, if we have a habit of eating a hot jam donut on the way to work, then the routine is going to Krispy Kreme, purchasing it and the reward is the pleasure of the doughy and warm sweetness. Anyone hungry yet? In this example, the cue  might be walking past Krispy Kreme on the way to work and smelling the baked doughnut or the sweet smell of jam. When we get a waft of that, we start thinking about that pleasant swell of emotion when we bite into the donut’s soft centre, and that becomes the craving.

krispy kreme jam donut

If we can accurately break down our bad habits, then we have the power to change the routine and make it a better or healthier one. For example, the type of  breakfast I have is laden with fat and sugar, it’s peanut butter and honey on toast with banana and a sprinkling of chocolate powder. It’s pretty good, you should try it! If you make it just right, you’ll have crispy toast with a gooey, sweet middle and biting into that, is definitely the reward. The thought of that gives me a craving, even as I write! The cue was simply getting up and walking into the kitchen and obviously making and it eating it was the routine. I was able to change that to a far healthier breakfast which gave me a similar reward.

Belief is required for long lasting change.

We never really lose our bad habits because they sit dormant in our mind, so they can return quite easily if the cue arises. But these bad habits can be fought off and long lasting change can occur if we have enough believe. Studies were done on individuals who attend Alcoholics Anonymous and they had shown that those who believed in God or a higher power, were far more likely to stay sober.  In the same vein, individuals who join dieting groups, like what you might find on Facebook, have a far greater chance of keeping the weight off because they believe if others can do it, so can they.

Developing a single habit can lead to great change.

The type of habits which can achieve this, are ones that create a framework for other new and positive habits. These habits, known as keystone habits,  create ‘small wins’. These small wins give people a small advantage which trigger momentum for other small wins. A good example of this is waking up early in the day, especially to do exercise. This habit can empower people because it makes them feel productive that they’re awake whilst everyone else is asleep. That feeling itself is a small win. Then using that time to do exercise creates a number of small wins due to the various benefits of doing exercise: improvements in mood, energy, a slimming body shape, a better mental body image etc.  Other small wins are created as well, for example it might free up time later in the day like at lunch and after work.  All those things can amount to a pretty big change in a person’s life.

There is one other aspect to habits which I think is really powerful, but i’ll leave that for another day. Stay tuned for that!

Habits are a huge component in our day-to-day lives. They can kidnap our brain into doing things we know aren’t good for us, but because we enjoy the reward so much, it feels like we don’t have a choice. We shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves because of where some of our bad habits lead us because the development of them is just human nature.  However, we should seek to understand what the cue and reward is so we can change the routine for the better.

What’s a bad habit you want to change?

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Why we do what we do

Tony Robbins discusses the “invisible forces” that motivate everyone’s actions — and high-fives Al Gore in the front row.

Another inspiring video from Ted Talks.

The Road Trip to our Goals

Do you set goals? If you fall short of them, how do you react? We should think of them not as ends to themselves, but more like lights on an airplane landing strip.  In this post, I want to encourage you to reflect on how you review whether you achieved those goals or not.

The way I see it, there are three main parts to goal setting. How we set them, how we strive towards them and how we review them. I think we’re quite familiar with the first two and there are plenty of strategies on the Internet that focus on them. However, what is missing from many of these articles is the thinking process we should have when we achieve them or not. It can be very easy to feel disappointed if we don’t reach our target, and setting goals that are S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based) certainly help. However, it’s inevitable that we’ll fall short of our goals, even if we invest time in accurately setting them. If we miss our target, we shouldn’t be disheartened or feel like a failure. We should critically and unemotionally, analyse why we didn’t achieve that goal and take corrective action.  We need to understand that setting goals and striving toward them is an iterative process and whether we achieve them or not, we are still on our way to where we want to be and we can learn even from the lack of success. If we have achieved the goal, then definitely give yourself a pat on the back but your focus should swiftly move on to the next goal, the next landing strip light. 

Setting and striving for goals is very much like going on a road trip. You’ll set yourself an end destination but you’ll want to stop off at various places along the way. If we happen to miss our turn off, all is not lost, we have still inched closer to the ultimate destination but we do need to get back on the right path.  Next time you fail to achieve a goal, think:

  • Why didn’t I achieve it 
  • What are the corrective steps

And don’t ruminate on any subjective feelings.

Let me know your thoughts or share if you liked it! 

Becoming a Time Thief

As I get older I realise what little time we actually have. When you have a full work day made up of 7 to 9 hours, how much time outside that do you really have? You might have a couple hours before work and a few hours after for side projects but somehow these times get chewed up and whole weeks can fly by if we aren’t mindful of how we use this time. If you have kids then I imagine you get squeezed even more so. So how do you claw back time for the things you want to do? Here’s my thoughts on stealing time back.

When I look at my typical day I realise that there’s a fair bit of what I call ‘idle’ time. Moments where you’re performing a rather mundane task like scoffing down breakfast or you might be walking to work on the last part of the commute. For me these are times to take advantage of. Before I had noticed these idle times I would be off with the fairies, wondering what I would be doing on the weekend, noticing the ridiculous tie on the business man who just walked past or recalling the time my friend wrapped himself up in toilet paper for a Halloween party. Yes these times are typically filled with meaningless thoughts that I know is my brain just doing what brains do, daydreaming. These are the moments that something more productive can be done. When I’m sitting on the bus, I’m usually mindlessly watching the houses and buildings zoom past but now it’s a perfect time to blog. When I’m walking from the bus stop to work I usually just people watch but now I get my headphones out and start listening to an audio book. When I’m having a coffee break and reading up on news at work, I now organise my personal calendar. When I’m walking back from a gym session, the headphones are put on and the audiobook comes out. Whilst some of these moments might only be a few minutes long, they all add up to actual progress in whatever you’re trying to work on. There are moments like this all throughout the day. My tips to identify these times:

  • Take a macro view of your typical week. How is it usually spent? Break it down day by day with what you do.
  • You’ll find that you repeat the same things each day like commuting, going to work, lunch etc. 
  • Look at each activity and determine if it’s something that requires your full attention and focus. If it doesn’t then it’s a perfect candidate in seeing how that time could be better utilised.

 Ultimately, thinking you’re time poor is a limiting belief. There is time if you look for it and if your priorities are right. Steal the time back and get some traction on your projects.

How do you optimise the time you have?

A problem well defined

I thought this was so true. In my day job, people come to me with problems but they don’t really understand what the exact problem is. A lot of noise clouds the underlying problem and so having a clear and precise statement of the issue makes solving it so much easier.

John Dewey, American philosopher and psychologist. You eloquent son of a gun.

How does this statement agree with you?