Think HBR

Changing our habits

Grace McLean
When you woke up this morning what did you do? Put the kettle on, suit up in gym gear, make a cuppa, go for a run, check your phone, or jump straight into the shower? Usually, we have a morning pattern that we follow that kick starts our day into gear.
This pattern is a habit, a daily routine that either we established or was passed down to us.
In his book ‘The Power of Habits’ Charles Duhigg explains that our habits control a majority of our life, in fact, “a paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits."
This would mean in a 24-hour period if we get at least 7 hours of sleep, 10.2 of the hours left of our day are routines we follow.
No wonder time flies – working from our habits is a like a robotic action! We just function, we are not consciously participating in what we are trying to achieve.
Changing a habit uses up a lot of energy and staying as you are often easier but can often mean we lose the will to grow or learn new things. I have heard Tony Robbins say that when you set New Year’s resolutions, they are usually put in the too hard basket by January 15.
This statistic rings true for many, but most of us don't really think much about why. We would save ourselves a lot of money and lost time if we understand how to push through the barriers that hinder us from sticking to our goals.
We live in a quick fix-it type of world, and one of the things I’ve noticed people say in my planning sessions is that when they set goals and don’t accomplish them, they feel like they are constantly letting themselves down. Unmet goals and targets deflate us, they make us feel like a failure, and we might find we stop setting goals altogether, so we don't set ourselves up to fail.
Sound familiar? Not all is lost, here’s why. Once we realise what goes into forming a habit and what our brain and body are doing, we might be a little less hard on ourselves when we 'fail' because we know what's going on mentally and physically when we try to change a habit or create a new one.
Our brains take up 2% of our body mass and 20% of our energy trying to process new information. We feel stupid when we don't understand things, but the ‘stupid’ feeling is just our brain trying to create new pathways of understanding and collating the information so that it makes sense to us. Our brains are innately lazy and want us to live out of the part of the brain from where habits come from (the amygdala). It’s the place of least resistance.
So how do we start to change our habits?
Firstly we need to identify the habits we have the good and the bad, then decide which ones we want to keep and the ones we want to change.
To make any definitive change, we must try and start to work from our Thinking Brain (prefrontal cortex) and be mindful that to change a habit is like building a muscle, it needs time to form and build strength so it can override the old ones.
In his book 18 minutes Harvard Business Graduate Peter Bregman writes “The key is cognitive control of the amygdala by the prefrontal cortex,” Dr Gordon told me. So I asked him how we could help our prefrontal cortex win the war. He paused for a minute and then answered, “If you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response.”
It only takes a breath to move from reactive thinking (emotional response) to proactive thinking (a practical thought based response).
Yep, a breath; that sounds simple enough, so first, we have to learn to take a breath.
When trying to create new habits, we will naturally get distracted and move back into old habits but the more we become aware of what we’re doing, we have a better chance of being able to pull ourselves up and bring ourselves back to our preferred outcome or goal that we have set for ourselves.
Instead of just living from a robotic state, think about what you want to change, this gives you an opportunity to start to create boundaries and ultimately get more focused about what we want to accomplish in work and life. You now know you can start controlling your life, not your life controlling you!
There is a newfound confidence in knowing when you’re trying to change an aspect of your life and you don’t quite get there, remember that it takes a while. So instead of giving up and feeling like a failure, we now have permission to fail until we get it right, one breath at a time.
To contact Grace about her planning sessions and workshops on time and self-management email
Grace McLean2 Grace McLean
Grace McLean has dedicated her career to working within not-for-profit (NFP) and charities. With ten years of fundraising and building community connections under her belt, Grace realised there was a gap between how charities, business and community talk to each other and in 2015 established NFP Connect, a regional model to fill the disconnected gap.  NFP Connect, an organisation that supports charities to work smarter with businesses through leadership and education and work with businesses and the community for mutually beneficial partnerships that grow the community. Grace was named Lake Macquarie - Local Woman of the Year 2016,  Citizen of the Year 2015 and BGC Young Person of the Year 2014 for her work within the NFP sector.