“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new” – Socrates
A habit is a routine behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously i.e., we do not give it any conscious thought usually. Ever come home late at night, flipped the switch, and then realised that the light bulb stopped working yesterday and needs to be replaced. When you flip the light switch, your behaviour is a result of the desire for a state of illumination coupled with the belief that a certain movement will lead to it. The very context of having arrived home in a dark room automatically triggers your reaching for the light switch. We know that the bulb needs to be replaced, yet our habit persists.
It is common knowledge that our brains are responsible for everything that we do. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all complex behaviours. According to neuroscientists habit-forming behaviours belong to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a large role in movement control, emotion, cognition, pattern recognition and reward-based learning. The first time that you do something, it is being controlled by the prefrontal cortex but over time with enough repetition it will eventually be controlled by the basal ganglia. It is kind of learning a new skill but one day with enough practice, you can do the same thing without even thinking about it. In the 90s, researchers from MIT found that when a certain behaviour or response is performed repeatedly, our brain eventually encodes a habit response. Once these pathways are created in our brain, they are always there. So, if you feel like your goal sucking habits are impossible to break, stop beating yourself up, because you are right.
Automatic behaviours are beneficial because it frees up the mind to be able to think and do more complex things. Habits, therefore, are an essential part of living. They help the brain save energy by automating behaviour that need to be repeated over and over again. But wait, there is a catch, the brain does not know the difference between good or bad habits. Once a behaviour is filed under the automatic category, it is hard to get it back out.
We have all heard the saying that a journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step. Despite this many never even take the first step towards starting the journey. There could be several reasons for this, the journey may seem overwhelming, sometimes it feels like a lot needs to be done, we are not sure how to go about achieving our goals or we want immediate results (common malaise of the modern world). However, it is possible to change your response by creating a new routine. It will take time and effort, but by consciously working towards replacing your old habit with a new one, the new, more useful habit can become your default habit. Just as we have limited decision making resources, we are also on a limited willpower budget. For most of the population it is not possible to will their bad habits into submission with willpower! Instead, we need to work our brains to develop alternatives.
If I want to change a habit, I like to break it down into small steps towards a big goal. These small steps are usually not onerous and require little to no willpower, only a minor tweaking of my routine. As such these steps are more like SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). This creates minimal resistance and eventually creates a new habit for me.
I remember weighing myself in January 2014, my weight had ballooned to 84.6 kgs. Just to give you a perspective I am only 167 cm. tall. My ideal weight should be between 68-71 kgs. I first noticed my weight going up after the birth of our son in 2008. Did I do something about it, absolutely not. In fact I picked up bad habits along the way. I was working long hours so I would have a lunch of biscuits and tea at 3pm and grab a kebab on the way home at 10pm. In between I would snack on all kinds of unhealthy foods and drink copious amounts of tea and coffee. Do not even get me started on my sweet tooth. In the back of my mind I knew I had to do something about it but wasn’t sure where to start. Around 2013 I started reading about the various diets. I remember that sugar and carbs were the major culprits at the time in popular media. So, I decided to cut down my sugar and carbs intake. I have an emotional connection to food so I decided to wean myself slowly.
- My first step was to change my goals, instead of trying to lose 15 kgs I decided to lose 1kg. I told myself that once I have lost the first kilogram, I will set a goal to lose another
- After doing a lot of research (almost a year), I chose a low carb diet. Problem, I am Indian, rice is a big part of my diet, so I decided to do anoint Tuesdays as my low carb day. At the same time, I quit dairy and moved to soy milk
- After 2 months of low carb Tuesdays, I started following my new diet on Thursdays as well
- Cravings came back and things got a lot harder. Sunday night became a cheat night, allowing myself to binge during one meal was a massive relief
- Started running
- After about 6 months of this routine, something shifted, I started enjoying my new routine and I was following my new eating regime almost five days a week.
- In October 2014, I weighed 66.2 kgs. I had lost 18.4 kgs over 10 months. Everyone said I looked emaciated, so I had to put on a few kilos back on
By setting a goal of losing only one kg and making small changes to the way I eat, I was able to lose my excess weight. My eating habits have shifted since and I am usually within my weight range of 68-71 kgs. In 2020 I am vegetarian and have reintroduced some carbs and dairy in my diet. I am much more aware of which foods work for me and which do not. I still have not conquered my sweet tooth the way I would like to though.
Running a full marathon has always been on my bucket list. Problem, I had never been a long-distance runner. The best I could do was run a terribly slow 400 metres.
- To improve my running, I decided to run for time instead of speed and distance
- I started with 15 minutes, twice a week. Every second week or so I would increase my time by 5 minutes until I hit the 45-minute mark
- Once I got to 45 minutes, I started working on my speed. I am not overly quick, but I am not super slow either. I also started experiencing “runner’s high” at the end of the run and running started to become addictive
- I was on track towards running a full marathon in 2014. However, I tore my right ACL whilst running my first half marathon in July 2014 and my running plans for the year had to be shelved
- I have had my knee reconstructed since and have started running again. I have run two more half marathons but the full remains elusive
In 2020, as Australia went into lockdown and yoga studios closed, I found myself at home without any work. So, I decided to run 1000 kms for the year. My previous best was 853.7 kms in 2015. As I completed 200 kms in June, I decided to change my target to 1500 kms. At the time of writing this blog I have run 1,381.9 kms for 2020 and I am on track to achieve my goal.
Habits whether good or bad are sticky and I personally find that making small changes is a much easier way to changing them rather than trying to put pressure on ourselves by making wholesale changes. Once we repeat our new behaviours, we can form new and positive habits. Sooner than anticipated we no longer need to think about doing the behaviour. It becomes automatic. Embarking on a journey to change a well-entrenched habit is not easy so please remember:
- To not be too hard on yourself to make the change. Self-compassion is extremely important
- Keep the “why” in mind. Remembering why you are trying to make the change will make the new routine more sticky
- Recruit someone to make yourself accountable. This could be a friend or a coach
- Patience is the key. Good things never happen overnight
- There will be small or big setbacks along the way. Do not be too harsh on yourself, pretend as if nothing happened and restart your small changes
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness brings you back to the present moment and makes you aware of what you are doing and thinking. Once you become aware, you can make choices about how to respond to automatic and unconscious behaviours
- Celebrate the small wins, keep track of how far you have come
I understand that a lot of us want to make big life changes after what we have endured in 2020. But making these changes is hard and requires not only a huge commitment but also immense mental strength. As we look to 2021 with renewed optimism, it seems like a great time to start thinking about something that you can change by identifying and implementing small changes towards bigger goals. These small changes will result in a major difference over time.