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Making Habits Into Highways: Steps for Real Behavior Change

Jeff Coleman Nov 30, 2020 3:41:11 PM

As we look back on 2020, most of us have had to figure out some strategies or make some behavioral changes in order to make it through the year. We’ve had to let some things slide to make time and energy for other things. 

Letting things slide can mean different things for each of us. In our personal lives, it could be things like slowing down on our exercise routines, letting our diets slip, or allowing our kids a bit more screen time than we’d otherwise deem acceptable. With work, it could be things like crossing the boundaries that we originally set around our time, breaking our agreements to keep our weekends a work email-free zone, and putting things off we would otherwise prioritize. On one hand, we can justify the reasons for our actions (year-end quotas, “It’s the holidays,” flexible work schedule….a global pandemic), but on the other, what we’re really doing is forming habits. 

To be clear, the habits we fall into with work and life can be a benefit and help us achieve our goals. However, they can also work against us and put up hurdles, inhibiting us from getting into “deep work” flows, being present and enjoying our non-work pursuits, and being the effective leaders we have the potential to be. We need to be intentional and reflect on what habits are helping or hurting us achieve our goals.

Once we do that, how do we make or break the habits that are driving us closer to our goals or shuttling us in the opposite direction?

If you want to make real behavior change, you need to make your habits into highways. 

Here are two hints on how to do that:

1. Accept that breaking bad habits is impossible  

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. If you have a bad habit, you have it for life. As a survival mechanism, our brains create insulated pathways between synapses which represent our habits. It’s part of a process called myelination which neuropsychologists now explain is one of the major contributors to performance automaticity. Essentially, the first time you do something it’s like carefully driving on a decrepit dirt road. But if you repeat it often enough, it becomes a wide-open, familiar highway requiring no thought at all. Our brains work this way so that we don’t have to devote mental resources to recurring stimuli; allowing us to focus on more urgent and important ones. 

For example, this is why I can type on this keyboard while deeply considering my message and also why elite basketball players can convert shots while driving to the hole through traffic. This process that creates automaticity, unfortunately, does not distinguish between productive and non-productive habits. What this means is that undesirable habits such as the urge for a piece of cake after dinner, shrinking into the background in social situations, or tendencies to get overly emotional when your child makes a mistake are all real highway connections in our brain. And once formed, they are always there. You can’t delete connections between synapses. 

There is good news though! In order to survive, human beings have the capability to adjust and adapt. The process of “breaking” old habits is actually a process of forming new habits. As you practice new productive habits you are strengthening new connections between synapses and the old connections slowly become weaker. The old connections will always remain, it’s just that you create a new bypass highway. The old highway falls into disrepair and a brand new shiny road to success is revealed! The first step is to accept you will always have the old road, and it will take time, motivation, and effort to build a new highway.

2. Create an action plan for your new habit 

All new highways need a plan. First, a warning: You may be feeling anxious about the habit you want to change or a goal you want to achieve. That’s a good thing! If you do not feel this way, then either it’s really not that important to you or it’s not nearly difficult enough. Anxiety can be energy. The only effective way of exhausting that energy is to put every bit of it into your action plan.

Once you accept that habits are with you for life, you must consider them when building your new ones. All pathways have a beginning and an end or, in other words, a cue that leads to some result. You must decipher what are the cues to your bad habits so that you can plan for them. If your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight and your action plan is to eat less, you are doomed to ultimately fail because you haven’t considered the many signals leading to undesirable behaviors. Even if you do lose weight initially, it will only be through sheer willpower toward some extremely motivating force. The old habits will always reappear without new ones to take their place. 

Take the after-dinner cake example. It’s not about eating less cake. Every time you have even a little bit of cake, you are reinforcing the old habit, strengthening that signal between synapses. You need new directions, new cues… new actions! Through reflection, you might become aware that you have an urge for dessert at a certain time each evening after dinner. You can then either make sure you have healthier options available or create a new routine where you engage in something else you find personally rewarding after dinner to replace dessert time!

When creating habits through a deliberate action plan, consider the 5 Ps:

  1. Precise: Describe exactly what you are going to do and when you are going to do it.
  2. Positive: Keep focused on what you can do rather than on avoiding previous habits.
  3. Personal: It must consider your specific needs and limitations. Habits are not one size fits all!
  4. Present: This P could also be for process. Describe what you are going to do today, focus on the process rather than the outcome.
  5. Powerful: Your actions must match the fear and anxiety of change. You must be willing to push yourself and be uncomfortable.

One last thing: We all hate highway construction. The traffic and delays produce thoughts like, “When will this ever be done?” “It feels like they have been working on it for years!” As you embark on your new habits, be prepared for the inevitable detours, and recognize there will always be new stretches of highway to work on. Reflect on your action plan daily, and adjust your actions as needed. Over time you will find the right path, and with repetition, you’ll have that highway that gets you to your destination faster than ever!

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