I have had poor habits for a very long time.
Since this year has been the year of learning, growth, and change for me, I decided it was about time I decided to tackle these bad habits of mine.
So I started studying the nature of habit formation obsessively, and just like with investing, a lightbulb went off.
That is when things got interesting.
Here is what I learned.
Our Habits Define Who We Are
This freaked me out a bit after really thinking about it.
When we as humans do a task over and over, our brain realizes this and tries to make performing that task easier. It does this by creating shortcuts or neuro-pathways in the brain that allow us to more effortlessly do these tasks.
The setback of this is that the brain cannot differentiate between a healthy habit and an unhealthy habit.
From the poor foods we eat to the tv shows we cannot wait to watch (ahem, Game of Thrones) our brains are constantly trying to form those shortcuts to save energy and time.
It is our responsibility to make sure our brains are forming habits that benefit us and make our lives more productive and bountiful.
Forming new habits greatly improves willpower
Willpower is an interesting thing. Some people have much more of it than others. Why is this?
Simple. Willpower is a muscle, and like all muscles, the more it is used the stronger it gets. The less it is used, the weaker it gets.
If you always feel tired after a shitty day of work, that is because you have used up all of your willpower for the day and you feel drained. When our willpower is drained we are often irritable, ill-tempered, and no fun to be around. It is not your fault really, you just need to work out that muscle. And a better job would not hurt.
^ He might have more willpower than I do. I can admit that.
To improve our willpower, taking small steps is best. That way there is no burn out when trying to make drastic changes in your habits.
For example, if you want to improve your diet, start taking pictures of every single meal you eat. Then send those pictures to a close friend or mentor (ask them first).
The act of taking a picture for every meal will become a habit over time, but will also make you more aware of the foods that you are putting in your body. This allows you to make judgment calls on what you choose to eat. You might really want the burger and fries, but you don’t want to show off a picture of burgers and fries to your friend or mentor, so you opt for a healthier option like a bowl of awesome from Chipotle.
You just exercised your willpower muscle.
If you are not a fan of taking lots of photos, you can always record everything you eat in a journal and share that with your friend or mentor at the end of every day. This is a LOT more work though, so I suggest just taking photos.
I’ll even show you a few photo’s my friends and I have swapped recently.
It’s can become almost a game. A “Who can create the most delicious looking meal for the day” type of competition.
It is a beautiful thing because the habit of taking the photo then builds willpower against eating unhealthy foods.
Some habits can wire the mind to pick up other habits
These are called keystone habits.
These are habits that by their very nature, make it easier to pick up other good habits. A common example of a keystone habit is exercise.
When someone can make a habit out of constant exercise a lot of positive things begin to happen. They begin to feel better due to the endorphins created during a workout. They will likely become more confident due to their workouts.
This confidence and sense of well-being are an extremely motivating combination. What is waking up 30 minutes earlier each day compared to working out each day? Not much.
Other habits seem much easier and achievable once a keystone habit exists.
Exercise is not the only keystone habit out there. In fact, there are quite a few. It really depends on what works best for you.
When trying to build new habits keep your eye out for any activities that are extremely rewarding to you, but also add value to your life. Going out and drinking might feel extremely rewarding, but it probably is not adding real value to your life. Not a keystone habit.
This is why exercise is so popular for many people. It is both rewarding and adds value.
Keystone habits will also give many “small wins”. When I eat clean foods consistently, I experience a ton of small wins.
Eating healthy foods is my keystone habit because I feel such a huge sense of accomplishment and reward when I continue it. I don’t get that same positive feedback loop from working out unless it involves sports or competition.
Try out a few of the habits I discuss in this post and see if any of them give you a greater sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
In the next section, I will discuss the habits I have undertaken in the past 2 months.
My new habits, the journey, and the results
I started eating better. Much better.
Around April 1, 2015 I finally decided I needed to eat better. I had just finished reading “The 4-Hour Body” by Tim Ferris and had a blueprint on how to lose body fat that I could NOT pass up.
So, around the beginning of April I stopped eating carbs and sugars. This meant:
- No more dairy
- No more fruits (fructose, natural sugar) except for lemons, limes, tomatoes, and avocados
- No more rice, bread, grains
- No Soy
- No sodas, beer, liquors
This meant eating primarily:
- Lean meats
- Vegetables (ton of spinach)
- Legumes like beans, lentils, etc.
This meant drinking primarily:
- Low/no sugar protein shakes
- Water by the gallons (lemon water in the morning)
- Red wine
- Coffee (no sugar, minimal to no creamer)
It was extremely difficult, but like I mentioned above, I saw results very quickly. This motivated me to keep it up and gave me the willpower to turn away all the shitty foods I loved.
The most important factor this new diet provided me was the willpower to easily add other quality-of-life improving habits to my everyday life.
(If you’re interested in reading more about the slow carb diet, please check out the resource section at the end of the blog)
Since I started seeing almost immediate results with the diet I decided to start working out again. I bought a personal training package at Gold’s gym.
I ended up going 3 times a week, getting my ass kicked consistently, and developed an appreciation for weight lifting.
I found that if I left my gym clothes out somewhere that I would see them around the time I would need to go to the gym, I would be reminded that my body needed a workout. I always found that if I ended up putting on the gym clothes, I would always go to the gym.
I became a morning person
I can now wake up at 5:30am easily.
I have never been able to do that. Ever.
I would even have trouble waking up before 8am.
Can any of you relate?
I was sick of this so I decided to start going to bed at 10:30pm every single night no matter what. It was an easy change. I already had the willpower to eat healthy foods and go to the gym. Going to bed early was too easy not to try.
It took about 3-4 days before I could wake up at 5am consistently. I started with 6:30, then tried 6, and then 5:30. I didn’t have an issue any of these days because I was getting enough sleep.
Here are a few images from my Jawbone UP band that show my sleep progression. Notice how important consistency was for sleep quality. If I was in bed between 10-10:30pm I slept really well. Any later than that and the quality of my sleep dropped off.
I created a morning routine
No one that lives in my house wakes up before I do.
This gives me several hours of blissful alone time to get some things done.
Since I was waking up so early I decided to make the most of it by putting together a morning routine.
It goes something like this:
- 5:30 – 5:32am: I wake up, use the restroom and splash my face with water.
- 5:32-5:33am: Head downstairs and turn on the coffee
- 5:33-5:35am: Drink a protein shake
- 5:35-5:45am: Stretch while the coffee is brewing
- 5:45 – 6:30am: Read from a non-fiction book in an area I am trying to improve on
- 6:30-6:40am: Write down the key takeaways from what I read
- 6:40-6:50am: Meditate. This is a new addition and has helped clear my mind and helped me focus on what I need to do that day
- 6:50-7:00am: Create short To-Do list and write down 10 ideas (about anything)
- 7:00-7:30am: Write
After that, I will make breakfast, shower and head to work. I get a lot done before 8am! It motivates the hell out of me to make the rest of my day productive.
A by-product of doing this morning routine is that in the month of April I was able to read 6 books. I was also able to come up with around 200 ideas (most of them bad)!
These habits grew from each other
All it took was for me to start eating healthy every day. That lead to working out consistently, which lead to my need of some quiet time in the morning. That consistent sleep schedule allowed me to set up a morning routine.
Now I am stretching, meditating, thinking of ideas, reading, and writing every single day.
All a ripple effect from making one important change in my life.
Some quick tips on getting started
The most important piece of this puzzle is figuring out what your keystone habit is. Like I said above, for many people exercise can become a keystone habit. For me, eating healthy became my keystone habit. You really just need to experiment a bit and see which habit brings you the greatest reward.
If you want to try to form some of the same habits I have been able to form, I will share a few ideas that helped get me started.
First and foremost educate yourself on what exactly you can and cannot eat for whatever diet, cleanse, etc you are on.
Once you have done that you need to throw out all the foods in you fridge or pantry that you cannot eat. This is crucial for removing temptation. If this is too hard for you to do on your own, enlist an accountability partner or a friend. If you share with them your goal they will have no issue with tossing the bad foods.
Now it is time to go shopping if you don’t have the right kinds of foods in your fridge. Make a list and STICK to that list. A grocery store is designed to have you buy crappy foods (not kidding). Bring your accountability partner to help you stay honest.
Keep it simple. Don’t try to go overboard with meal prepping or any activities you will make excuses not to do at a later date. Cook simple meals.
Send pictures of those meals to your accountability partner. Make sure they are on top of you for that. This might be the one tactic that will keep you honest!
Track progress. I tracked my body measurements. You might want to do the same. It helped motivate me each week to keep it up.
Working out or going out the Gym
The only advice I can offer here is to put down some money to get a personal trainer or bring along a dedicated friend.
Working out is more fun when you do not have to do it alone. It is much easier to make excuses to ourselves than it is to make excuses to our friends or our personal trainers.
If you have to go alone then send pictures of you entering the gym and of you leaving the gym. Yes, this can be faked, but if you would go through the trouble to fake this, you deserve to be out of shape :P.
For waking up early
I have a lot of little tips for this one since I have tried to master this for years.
- Drink a lot of water before going to bed. This will force you to get out of bed when you first wake up.
- Go to bed early! I chose 10:30pm because I typically need around 7 hours of sleep.
- Set an alarm across the room. Make it LOUD.
- When you wake up you will have to walk across the room to turn it off. After you turn it off, go to the bathroom.
- After the bathroom, splash your face with water.
- Ta-Da! You are now awake enough to go about your day.
Thank you for reading, just one step left
I hope this post has helped motivate you to make at least one positive change in your life.
With that being said, I am just a student learning from much more accomplished teachers. To really master habit formation, you need to become more knowledgeable on how habits affect the brain, and how we can use that to our advantage.
Please go read a few of the books below. They are kickass.
Further Learning: Resources to keep you going
Books on Habits & Routines
The book on the slow carb diet
Join Our Free Newsletter
Join to receive updates on articles, books, courses, and all content related to improving your life