Have you ever had the experience of starting to eat a piece of cake, and then having second thoughts? You tell yourself: “I really shouldn’t be eating this,” and put it back down. That’s because your brain has two competing desires – one for immediate gratification (the cake) and another for long-term health and well-being (not gaining weight).
The problem is that our brains aren’t wired to listen to either voice very loudly. The desire for immediate gratification speaks with a louder voice, while the desire for long-term health speaks in whispers. So what can we do? How can we get our brains on the side of our long-term goals? One way is by creating new habits that will give us more power over our brains, and the voices in them.
So why is this important? Let’s say that you wanted to create a habit of exercising every single day. The desire for immediate gratification threatens to sabotage your long-term success by making it easy for you to put off your workout until tomorrow. The long-term motivation of wanting to be healthier and fitter doesn’t do much to help you get started today.
This means that, if you’re trying to create a new habit in your life, and it’s not happening yet – don’t worry! It takes time for a new behavior to become automatic. And part of what makes it take time is the fact that you’re battling with your brain’s desire for short-term gratification and its relatively weaker desire to follow a long-term plan.
Every new habit begins by overcoming that battle. The good news is that, once you get past the initial stage of forming a new habit – it gets easier! Your brain slowly begins to prefer the new behavior over the old one. It becomes easier to do, and you don’t have to expend so much energy convincing yourself that it’s a good idea.
So just remember: if you’re trying to create a new habit, give it time! Each day requires an investment in willpower – but as you build up your ability to do it – it will become easier.
Here are 7 things you should understand before creating new habits:
The brain is wired to want immediate gratification
The brain is wired to want immediate gratification. What that means is that your brain wants you to eat that cake right now, not tomorrow. It doesn’t care what will happen to you in 10 years, it cares about what’s happening right now.
That means that when you try to create a new habit, it takes effort and willpower every day for a long time before it becomes automatic. That’s because your brain has two competing desires – one for immediate gratification (the cake) and another for long-term health and well-being (not gaining weight). The problem is that our brains aren’t wired to listen to either voice very loudly. The desire for immediate gratification speaks in a louder voice, while the desire for long-term success speaks in a whisper.
That’s why, if you want to create a new habit, you have to be ready for the long haul – and understand that it will take some time before your brain is willing to accept change. You need to be motivated enough about the long-term goal of being healthier or richer or more successful than you are now. And that motivation has to be stronger than the voice of reason telling you to go for the cake right now.
You need a stronger desire for long-term success
The other piece of this puzzle is understanding what drives your behavior in general. When people try to create habits, they often describe multiple motivations – like wanting to be healthier or lose weight, but also want to spend less money at Starbucks. So they say “I want to do this because it’s good for my health and cheaper in the long run.” They have multiple competing desires. And what that means is that on any given day, they may be more tempted by immediate gratification (e.g., eating that piece of cake) than by longer-term success. And that’s why they fail at creating new habits.
You need to think about what is most important and have the strongest motivation for changing your behavior in the long run. In other words, you need to understand what motivates you the most and shift your energy toward that goal – because if your brain is going to accept change, it needs to be because you really want that change. It’s not a matter of just finding willpower and forcing yourself into it – your brain will see through that pretty quickly.
When you create new habits, they take time before becoming automatic…and even then, it’ll still take effort every day
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the problems with our brain when it comes to creating habits is that we often don’t listen very hard to the “voice of reason.” What’s worse is that sometimes we don’t even hear the voice at all.
When you try to develop a new habit, your brain doesn’t immediately jump on board and start supporting you. It takes time for your brain to accept change, and it won’t accept change just because you say “okay I’m going to do this now.” In fact, there may be a period of resistance where your brain fights against any changes in behavior at all – whether it’s doing yoga every day or spending less money on Starbucks.
That’s because your brain has a lot invested in the habits you already have. When you learn to do something, whether it’s driving a car or playing tennis, there’s an investment on both conscious and subconscious levels – that effort leads to skill (and we like skills). Because of that effort, it becomes automatic. And anything that resists that process is seen as a threat. So when you try to change your habits, your brain will push back at first. You have to listen to that voice of reason in order to achieve new goals, and it’s not easy.
The goal isn’t just willpower – the goal is understanding why you want this change in the first place
When people try to create new habits, they have a goal in mind. They want to do yoga or go running every day because it will help them lose weight. And that’s great – but the problem is that understanding why you want this change isn’t enough on its own. You have to understand what motivates you, what drives you, what makes you want to succeed on a long-term basis. And that will help you figure out what kind of new habits can work for your lifestyle and personality.
You don’t have to break bad habits – instead, replace them
Another problem with creating new habits is that people look at their behavior as all or nothing – they think that in order to create new changes, they have to completely break all of their bad habits. And while that can be true with some things (e.g., if you want to stop smoking), it’s not true for everything else. In fact, it would be impossible to do – if you think about how many habits we have, going cold turkey is a pretty impossible dream.
Instead, try to take one or two bad habits and replace them with good ones. For example, if you’re someone who constantly wastes time on the Internet, consider making it an important part of your day (e.g., while you drink your morning coffee) to read something every single day. And then, keep reading more and learning new things.
Take what you already do – try to find a good habit in there, and then replace one or two bad habits with that positive change. All at once, it may be too much of a challenge to make everything happen, but bit by bit is even easier than going cold turkey. And eventually, you can replace other habits with good ones. And then the new habit will be ingrained in your consciousness and completely automatic.
It really helps to set up triggers for creating habits…but that’s not enough on its own
Triggering is one of the most important parts of changing our behavior, according to psychologist BJ Fogg. To understand triggering, think of your behavior as having a switch.
So, for example, let’s say you want to exercise more often. If your schedule doesn’t permit it every day, you can run that trigger like this: “Every time I finish eating dinner (the trigger), I’m going to go out and do at least five pushups or sit-ups (the action).”
But it’s not enough just to have the switch and the trigger alone – you also need motivation. That’s why, even if you set up triggers, you’ll still want to try to reinforce new habits with other elements, like rewards or customizing the environment. The idea is that it should be easier to do what you want to do, instead of the opposite.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. It’s better to use what works for you
One of the biggest problems with trying to establish new habits is that people just look at it as some kind of science experiment – they think in terms of “what will work best?” when really they should be thinking “what works best for me?”
Sometimes, it really does make sense to try new things or learn about different methods of habit creation. But if you’ve tried something and that thing doesn’t work, don’t just keep trying to do it over and over again. If you have a goal but the one method isn’t working, try different things until you find the one that works best for you.
Not sure where to start? Don’t worry – pretty much everyone has habits that they want to change. If you want some more specific advice, let me know. Or, you can check out some of my other blog posts on self-development!
The key point to remember when creating new habits is that it’s not about finding the willpower to just change yourself; but rather, deciding what you want to be and then becoming that person. When you set out to create new habits, it’s important to understand what motivates you and how your brain works. While all of this may sound intimidating, making a change in your life is really as simple as understanding yourself and then creating the new habit that fits.
You don’t need to do everything at once – instead, start with forming triggers for the habits you want to create. Once you get started, see where else you might be able to improve in your life. And then use small, subtle changes to your environment or even your schedule to get you where you want to go.
You can do it – just remember that all actions are preceded by thoughts; so, the most important thing is to decide what kind of person you want to be, and then make that happen.