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“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” – Warren Buffet
In Baltimore, Maryland where I live, speed cameras are installed to promote safe driving habits. Attached with a $40 ticket, the association of speeding (habit) with a ticket (consequence) makes us more likely to slow down the next time we are in the vicinity of a speed camera.
Breaking bad habits or building good ones carry a high degree of difficulty. Bad habits tend to provide momentary satisfaction on the front end while the consequence happens way down the line. For example, no one starts smoking to get lung cancer or develop heart problems. Smoking may provide the instant benefit of relieving stress, but the consequence of cancer or heart problems come much later in life when the habit is automatic. No one plans to be with enslaved financial debt, but credit cards provide the satisfaction of meeting expenses in the interim but after accumulation, the burden of debt becomes a reality.
Author Marie Kondo observed, “Changing lifestyle habits acquired over many years is often extremely difficult.” The quick return from habits especially bad ones drives the urge to repeat what we know is not good for us in the long run. In short, what is rewarded is repeated. The automaticity, coupled with the instant gratification, can keep us locked into a habit even when it goes against our better judgment.
Good habits, on the other hand, require sacrifice and discipline on the front end with the payoff coming much later on. Going to the gym or eating healthy today may not show immediate results, but over the long haul and with consistency, the results will be evident. In principle, whether for better or worse, we reap what we sow, more than we sow, much later than we sow.
I agree with prolific writer Steven Pressfield who said, “We can never free ourselves from habit, but we can replace bad ones with good ones.” But staying consistent with good habits is often the greatest challenge of life. Here are two ways how:
1. Create Mainstay Habits
In his best-selling book, Make Your Bed, Admiral William H. McRaven (Navy Ret.), recounts how the simple act of making his bed as a Navy SEAL demonstrated discipline, attention to detail, and served as a reminder that although small, he had accomplished a task well. It then led to cultivating more good habits.
This is the essence of mainstay habits. Originally coined as keystone habits by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, they cascade into other habits. For example, my wife and I pray together every morning before we begin our day. The prayer is not always long but it happens. I found it is difficult to fight and argue with someone you pray with every morning. Our communication benefits from this simple act. Our relationship flourishes. We are transparent with each other and quick to apologize when we make a mistake.
I noticed that it is easier for me to resist the temptation to eat French fries when I am involved in daily exercise as opposed to when I go for days without working out. Just like praying together, exercise is a mainstay habit that leads to healthy eating habits, better sleep routines, waking up early, and having productive days. With such a domino effect, I am even more motivated to exercise again and repeat the cycle.
As a rule of thumb, a mainstay habit should be easy and able to repeat on a consistent basis due to its impact on your life. What are your mainstay habits? Here’s a hint: you are probably already doing it. You just haven’t leveraged it enough. Now that you know what it can do, I hope you will use it to the fullest.
2. Develop a Priority Box
Have you ever played the word association game? For example, if I say a word, you would respond with what comes to mind first in relation to the word. Here are three words:
- Food –
- Money –
- Future –
What words did you immediately associate with each word above? Likewise, a priority box is a way to create associations between your habits and meaningful commitments. I have provided a brief sample of my priority box with associated habits to show what my good habits are tethered to:
|Priority||Associated Habit (s)|
|Relationship with God||Daily Prayer and Bible reading, weekly church attendance|
|Relationship with my wife||Praying Together and Date nights|
|Relationship with our daughter||Daily storybook reading and playtime|
|Relationship as a family||Dinner together three times a week|
By listing what your priorities are, you can form healthy habits around them and simultaneously eliminate the bad ones. You simply won’t have time for anything but cultivating good habits because you are focused on your priorities. Eventually, those good habits will translate into a successful life.
Testimonial: In keeping with building good habits, here is a testimonial from my friend, Samson, who has been working on excellence:
“Thinking of excellence as a habit is not a thought that I grew up with. A few years ago, I observed a certificate hanging on my mentor’s office wall. Upon closer examination, I realized that it was a certificate of excellence awarded to his wife, Dr. Caroline. At the time, I never knew what impact that certificate would have on me. In the past year or so, I have found myself desiring, thinking, and finding ways to be an excellent person. This has placed me on a path that I never walked before. I call it the path of excellence. What I have observed is that I am daily building excellent habits in everything I do. Most importantly, I now realize that excellence can be cultivated like any other habit. As for the certificate, I now see its impact; it birthed the desire for excellence in me. Excellence is a journey of always putting your best effort the first time and then continuously improving.”
Final Thought: A mental script is etched in our minds each time we perform a good or bad. Author James Clear call this habit voting. By our daily decisions and actions, we cast votes in the good or bad ballot box. As with an election, the one with the most votes wins. Be it safer driving, quit smoking, eating healthy, eliminating financial debt, exercising, or cultivating excellence, may most of your daily time be dedicated to your priorities and casting votes in the good habits ballot box.
Keep on Keeping on!