Change Your Habits. Change Your Life.

Article Contributed by Guest Author Doreen Lima, MBA, EIC

If I had to choose one word that has the power to transform lives in meaningful and substantive ways I would choose the word habits.

I have an incredibly talented client who is recognized as an emerging star in his field. He’s never held a 9 to 5 job, punched a clock other than his own, or depended on a corporate salary. Grateful to have found his calling early in life, he’s enjoyed great success doing what he loves and has a natural aptitude for. In fact, in the early days of his career everything seemed to happen effortlessly. However, years of coping with last minute changes in the scope of work, client expectations, and deadlines led him to develop some self-defeating habits that affected his work and personal life. As a result his creative output became rushed, predictable and joyless. He said to me, “My muse used to kick in and inspire me to create. Where has she gone? Why isn’t she doing her job?”

Distraction Limbo

While his muse had not abandoned him there’s no question that it was difficult for her to be heard over the din of the distractions he had built into his life. Habits of thought and action were keeping him trapped inside a perpetual mind and behavioral loop, one I choose to call distraction limbo.

A typical morning would find him sipping a cup of coffee while reading the morning papers. Then he would get online to check his emails, but he wouldn’t respond to them, preferring to deal with them later in the day. Next he would check social media sites, online magazines, newspapers, and forums. Then some of the postings or information he read would lead him to look up word definitions, viral videos, trending topics, or an article that caught his attention. This would last for hours or once in a while, an entire day. In between there would be long winded phone calls or the occasional extended lunch. Engaging in these time wasters resulted in being last on the conference call, late to a meeting or forgoing trips to the gym and social engagements. Suddenly many of his projects were getting done in reaction mode, with little planning or scheduling taking place. Only when he was really pressed by a request or a deadline would he get down to execution, usually sometime late into the evening.

How Habits Are Formed

Helping people like my client overcome self-sabotaging habits requires some understanding of how habits become habits in the first place. We know that repetition plays a role but science and study have shown forming a habit is more complicated than just repeating something over and over again. There’s a lot going on behind the mental screen. Some of the keys to habit formation are emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness and self-regulation, coupled with a dose of brain chemicals that make us feel pleasure or avoid pain.

An excellent book that clearly lays out the science behind the formation of habits is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg, an investigative journalist and New York Times reporter makes the case that habits are the brain’s way of taking a break.

Duhigg’s assertion makes sense. A habit is basically an automated action that allows the brain to get on with the higher level business of dealing with more complicated and intricate endeavors like making a decision, doing math or thinking about how to solve a problem. And because they are automated, once we ingrain a habit, it’s with us for life whether we engage in it or not. The saying “falling into old habits” is not just a cliché. It takes vigilance and commitment to maintain new ways of doing especially if we’re looking to replace disempowering habits like the type my client had grooved.

Cue. Routine. Reward.

As discussed by Duhigg, there are three parts to a habit; a cue, a routine and a reward (positive or negative). For example, your dog wakes you up every morning at the same time with a bark. That’s a cue. His bark signals you to take him out for a walk. Pulling on your sweats, looking for the leash and walking over to the dog park for 30 minutes of playtime is a routine. The reward for practicing the routine might be that you meet other dog owners with similar interests. When your brain receives the realization of the reward, for example the possibility of expanding your social circle, your brain releases chemicals that make you feel good, which in turn reinforce the routine. The upshot is that the next day you will gladly get up to take the dog out for his walk.

Positive & Negative Rewards

As we know not all habits are derived from positive stimuli. This was true of the habits my client employed to enable and reinforce procrastination. Distracting himself by engaging in mindless activities helped him avoid feelings of anxiety and stress but also shut down his access to higher level thinking. Unfortunately the quality of his work suffered because he was paying less attention to it and this in turn fed the fear that he’d lost his talent. He hadn’t. His feelings of stress were further compounded when he had to argue with himself to get work completed. The inner dialogue that resulted from this self-argument began to blanket his life with a sense of malaise and futility. He was doubting his abilities because he couldn’t get on with the job of creating.

It’s to be noted that overriding a habit formed by negative stimuli is a little more difficult because of the way our brains have evolved over time.

Choice: The Midbrain or Prefrontal Cortex

To further understand the formation of habits it’s helpful to know that the midbrain, the epicenter of the rewards circuit, and the pre-frontal cortex, the place where reasoning lives, are often at odds with each other when we’re determining what course of action to take.

The midbrain is the place that drives us to search for things like food and shelter. This is where fear and anxiety hang out. The midbrain is older than the pre-frontal cortex and as a result, thanks to its more established circuitry, will often (but not always) triumph over reason.

For my client, the first step toward disabling his habits of procrastination was to pose and answer the question “what is the real cost of frittering away my time?”

Based on the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear he was experiencing, his immediate in-denial answer was, none. His choice to engage in mind numbing distractions like watching YouTube videos was deemed necessary to keep his anxiety at bay whether he was conscious of his decision or not.

The rational viewpoint on the other hand held that my client’s relationships, earning power, client base and creative projects were left wanting due to his increasingly time consuming habits of procrastination. He also suffered from insomnia because all of the feelings he was trying to tamp down during the day occupied his thoughts when he tried to sleep. In addition, opting to spend time on the internet in lieu of exercising had begun to impact his health. The consequences of his actions were measurable.

Answering the question about the real cost of his habits led him to fully understand and acknowledge the impact of his choices, but interestingly didn’t incite him to take action or make changes. If anything, it caused more anxiety because he wasn’t taking action.

When he explored a second question “what are you really searching for” he realized something he hadn’t considered. He was living a lonely professional life. There was no one to bounce ideas off of; no one to help sharpen his thinking. Although he employed a virtual assistant as well as the occasional personal assistant, they weren’t enough to amp up his game where projects were concerned, and because he passed some of his days without an in-person interaction of any kind, spending time commenting on blog posts, chatting in forums, and tweeting gave him a sense of belonging and connection. What he hadn’t counted on, what he hadn’t realized, was just how much he needed regular real-time, in-person connections with his peers to challenge and inspire him.

Learning of this need was the reason his pre-frontal cortex won the day. He made a deliberate and conscious choice to stop feeding the habits of procrastination. He sensibly concluded that if he found ways to increase moments of face-to-face contact with peers in his industry he could replace his “time frittering” habits with new ones that would empower him and bring him back to a more productive way of being.

New Habits

The key to establishing these new habits began with a support group. He brought together local professionals he knew or had heard of, working under similar circumstances. Since its inception, this group meets once a week for breakfast to discuss issues, workloads, ideas, and opportunities. The goals of the group are similar in some measure to the intentions and structure of a well-run mastermind group. In addition, every month two members pair off as accountability partners. They trade off calling each other on weekday mornings and speak for a total of 15 minutes (they set a timer) to review their daily agendas and share the previous day’s accomplishments. The buddy pairings have positively influenced and reinforced one of my client’s new productivity focused habits. The cue is the phone call. The routine is the daily agenda review. And, the reward is the ability to connect positively and constructively with another person every day. Good friendships and award-winning work collaborations have resulted.

Today my client still does some meandering on the net but it’s driven by professional need or scheduled as a reward break. Another new habit: twice a week he meets up with friends or participates in social, professional or community based events. Although this sounds like a relatively easy transition from one habit to another, it was not. His new habits are reinforced by a continued willingness to self-examine and remain self-aware, to look for solutions appropriate to the situation at hand, to engage the help of a support system, and to demonstrate a continued commitment to the routines required by his new habits of productivity. His rewards have been many and the voice of his muse has returned but my client is clear that his old habits survive in the crevices of his brain waiting to be called into action again if he so chooses.

 

 

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