Well, if you were relying on your will power to create this new habit, don’t beat yourself. Let’s quickly review the connection between your neural wiring and your habits.
This is the reason we’re able to perform the majority of our daily tasks automatically. Think about it, from the time we get up, we play nearly the same program each day from all the tasks involved with managing our morning to brushing our teeth before bed at night. Think how exhausting it would be and how much longer it would take to get things done if we had to make a conscious choice about every action we took each day! Instead we run mostly on auto-pilot, letting our habits take us through the day, not calling on will power and debating the pros and cons of eating breakfast or starting up the car to head to the office. I imagine you can see the benefit of being bundles of habits, as Mr. James described humans.
Habits become hard-wired in the brain. This is where those programs we rely on so heavily reside. Remember, anything you practice regularly will become second nature as the wiring in your brain strengthens to accommodate it. And again, thank goodness. This is why we can run mostly on autopilot and why we become more skilled at activities the more we practice them. It stands to reason though, to change a habit, you’ve got to change that wiring. Easier said than done, right? I just explained why humans have a biological need to take the path of least resistance.
This explains why so many people are stuck in their negative habits. When you think of the myriad of tasks each day that require use of will power from sitting still and attending in long meetings, to focusing on a work task, to resisting the sugary treats someone offers you, it’s no wonder that so many of us still have that annoying ring tone our cell phones came with or have inboxes full of junk mail that takes just a bit of effort to unsubscribe from. We lack the will power to make desired changes because our reserves have been depleted by more immediate needs. It’s no wonder, human nature takes us down that path of least resistance, keeping us firmly rooted in those patterned behaviors.
So what’s the solution? How do we rewire our brains with new programs? It comes down to what Mihaly Czyksemahali refers to as activation energy. In physics, activation energy means the initial spark needed to catalyze a reaction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, for humans to kickstart a new habit, they need to summon the mental and physical energy needed to initiate the behavior. And beyond just initiating, we need to activate this energy daily for at least 30 days, and often longer to ensure rewiring.
This depends on whether you want to eliminate an unhealthy behavior or create a new happy habit. Positive psychologist, Shawn Achor, recommends lowering the barrier to change by at least 20 seconds, regardless of whether you’re creating or eliminating a habit. To eliminate an unhealthy behavior, you increase the resistance you must overcome to engage in it. One example he shares is of a client who was losing hours of the day to repeatedly checking his emails and following the shiny objects he found there. Can you relate? To eliminate this time-sucking habit, he started by keeping his email program closed while he worked, but this wasn’t enough. It was still too easy to access his email, so he then disabled the automatic login and deleted the shortcut to his email program; he hid the application icon in a digital folder within a folder within a folder. He created a path of high resistance to access his email. Let's apply this strategy to another scenario: Maybe you want to watch less television? You might take the batteries out of the remote control and bury them deep in a closet on the other side of your house. Then, when you want to go plop your bottom on your sofa and flip on the tube, instead of exerting the energy to go dig out those batteries, you may pause and come up with something more productive or healthy to do and actually do it.
Similarly, to create a new habit, you put it in your path of least resistance and make it as inconvenient not to do it as possible. Having to pick up your journal--with a pen already tucked into it-- to move it off your pillow might be all it takes to encourage you to open it up and write in it. Sleeping in your workout clothes with your shoes in a location that you’ll trip over in the morning might be enough to get you starting your day with exercise.
Combined with additional strategies, managing your activation energy might be the most effective way to change your longterm behavior! Of course, your activation energy strategies need to stay in place until you successfully rewire, and you'll likely need to revisit them on occasion to reinforce the neural wiring. Remember that you are changing programs that have likely been running for years in your brain!
Let me quickly reiterate the benefits of creating happy habits in your life. Remember happy people have higher levels of intelligence, creativity, and energy allowing them to experience more success and satisfaction. I've created a Happy Habits card with some simple suggestions for increasing your happiness advantage, as well as a reminder that will power is not the ticket to long term change. Post it somewhere you'll see it often and use your activation strategies to incorporate a new happy habit into your life!