Developing Your Routine

Don’t throw yourself on the big prey. Start small. The secret is including small habits in your daily routine, and then developing them into units of your envisaged change.

How is it that “small habits” could be the key to your transformation? Habits make an important part in someone’s life. We may not realize this, but “(M)any of the things we do on a daily basis – stopping for coffee before work, reading the newspaper, taking a shower, exercising, watching TV, having a snack – are habits so programmed in our neurological pathways that we don’t even know they exist. We move through our day like a plane on autopilot, automatically responding to the happenings of daily life based on the habits we’ve learned over time.”1 Thus, by replacing one behavior with another and with the power of neuroplasticity, we can re-write these cerebral pathways by relying on the power of small habits to start with. They are just kickstarters which can lead to the kind of patterns one would like their life to be built of, to a more consistent lifestyle to the better liking of the person trying to foster and implement change. In his book, Akash Karia provides a list of small habits one can start with and perform on a daily basis to stimulate personal transformation. Small as they may seem, they have the power to lead to larger-scale and long-term improvement in your life. Start with whichever one best fits what you intend to achieve. Here it is:“Read for 10 minutes. Do two push-ups. The wonderful thing about such small habits is that they are easy to implement, and, by crossing them off a to do list at the end of the day will do wonders to your self-confidence, which may stimulate you to do more each day. “The beauty of small habits is that they remove the willpower issue from the equation. Their small nature allows you to accomplish them using only minimal willpower. This prevents your brain from obsessing over how challenging your new habit is, and leaves you plenty of leftover willpower to build upon these habits and continue to introduce new ones.”2“The second reason small habits work so well is that they allow you to achieve “small wins.” Rather than setting huge goals and failing, you can set multiple goals and experience success over and over. Researchers have found that when you achieve a small goal, you may actually experience a large sense of accomplishment that is disproportionate to the act itself.”3 This is highly beneficial, as no matter how small the task, “it is often highly satisfying to cross it off the list and savor your small win. Your brain associates that sense of satisfaction with the completion of your task and motivates you to complete even more.”4 This leads us into the third reason why the small habits scheme works so well: it is as if it is generating a ripple effect: one thing leads to another, and driven by success, you find yourself wanting more and doing more as a result. This can create a true identity shift, since your motivation will snowball as your perception of yourself changes, thus having you want to create stronger, more comprehensive habits that turn you into your better, more determined, stronger self. Thus, small habits have a great potential in helping out humans to work outside their comfort zone; the secret though is to start small and explore what you can handle, before you take any major decision that might as well bring you down and thus ruin your self-esteem before you actually get to do anything. According to Akash Karia, “The small habit concept is as much about implementing new positive behaviors as it is about learning how well your own brain and body respond to change.”5 This is in fact what often drives one to giving something up before they even begin doing it: in addition to poor willpower, often coupled with a lack of strategy, they simply feel at stress with the changes they should be undergoing as a result of their resolution and soon they give up rather than trying to find a way to succeed. So, unless you feel like adding to your list of failures, it is best to just take baby steps and try things out at a smaller scale.

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Going further now, beyond the level of small habits, we come to keystone habits, a concept explored by Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, – a small change in routine that can set off a chain reaction of new and improved behaviours.

What is the difference between a small habit and keystone habits? “When you perform a small habit—say, for example, putting on your running shoes every morning—you are successful as soon as you put your running shoes on, whether or not you actually go for a run.

A keystone habit, on the other hand, is only a keystone habit if it eventually leads to other behavioral changes.

While small habits certainly have the potential to breed other habits, they are not by definition required to do so.”6

“Once established, keystone habits can act as a significant catalyst for change in your personal and professional life.”7 – such as, for example: you make the decision of doing two push-ups a day; encouraged by your success in doing so – at the end of the day, you cross this off the list, and by the feeling it gives – the enjoyment of actually having achieved this goal on your list of minor things to start with in order to bring about a change in your life, you end up doing one more each day, and this can lead to healthier decisions for yourself, exercising each day, eating healthier. This is the very essence of a keystone habit, it has this ripple effect, it can be a catalyst for change in your life. “To provide an example of a non-health-related keystone habit, experts in the field have found that the simple ritual of making your bed every morning can trigger additional behavior changes. Have you ever heard the old saying, “the state of your bed is the state of your head”? Based on our understanding of keystone habits, small wins, and willpower, there is actually some truth to this idea.

When you make your bed first thing in the morning, you’re able to cross off the task and experience the satisfaction of a momentum-generating small win—all before you’ve had your coffee. Furthermore, research has actually linked the act of making your bed to other positive behaviors like improved productivity, happiness, and—according to Duhigg—even budgeting skills! As an added bonus, you’ve probably noticed that when you make your bed, the whole space seems tidier and more organized—even when the rest of the room is in disarray.”8Mr. Karia further quotes one example from Mr. Duhigg’s book to illustrate the power of simply disrupting one vicious circle and including one healthy habit: “In The Power of Habit, Duhigg includes a particularly interesting anecdote about how a simple keystone habit was able to make significant changes in a corporate workplace. In 1987, Paul O’Neill, the new CEO of Alcoa—or the Aluminum Company of America—was speaking to a large group of investors and stock analysts. To the crowd’s dismay, rather than discussing profit margins and other business buzzwords, he wanted to discuss worker safety. Worker safety remained his primary focus, and it paid off. Duhigg recounts a conversation he had with O’Neill:“‘I knew I had to transform Alcoa,’ O’Neill told me, ‘but you can’t order people to change.

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‘That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.’

In just one short year, the organization’s profits reached a record high, and annual net income increased by 500%. Just the single keystone habit of focusing on worker safety caused a ripple effect throughout the company—also encouraging workers to recommend business improvements and much improving communication.”9

How long does it take for one habit to become an actual part of one’s life and become solidified? Unlike the widespread belief that as many as twenty-one days are enough for a new habit to be formed, it takes more than 21 days though for an old image to depart and make way to a new solidified one. “[…] for many people, it could take much longer than 21 days for a new habit to become solidified. The most recent research on habit formation seems to support this concept as well.” 10 Mr. Karia quotes a research study carried out by Dr. Phillippa Lally a psychologist at the University College London, to find out how long it takes one to form a new habit. “Based on information reported daily by participants, the study ultimately found that on average, it took 66 days for the participants’ chosen behaviors to become automatic.” 11 As a result, and based also on the results of such studies, the author challenges us on a 66-day challenge to start implementing whatever new habit we may want to form and include in our daily routines. Because, instead of saying to ourselves that we want to make the bed every morning of the rest of our lives, the psychological burden is much lighter to say we want to do it for 66 days. And thus we can start a new routine based on small wins which may encourage us to do more. We are thus less prone to failure. We are not to take this 66-day timeframe for granted though, because it depends greatly on the person and the habit they want to form, as well as the circumstances under which such new habit is to be implemented.

What next? Baby steps is what the author advises. Choose your keystone habit and break it down into small, achievable habits, which you then build into your day-to-day life. Then create the mini habit, trying at the same time not to lose sight of the bigger picture, of what you are in fact trying to achieve. This is like a safety net: changes are not easy, and at some point during the process, your mind might put in some resistance. Even the 66-day strategy may prove to be quite difficult to follow for some. By bearing in mind the ultimate goal, you make sure that your mind will not win by succeeding to talk you out of the strategy. “Rather than dwelling on any inconvenience involved in performing your small habits, dwell on the overall outcome you are hoping to achieve. Say it out loud if you have to, because this big-picture thinking can be a strong motivational tool to have in your toolbox.”12 Another interesting point the author is making is that abstract thinkers will find it easier to succeed than concrete ones. Abstract thinkers were proven to exert higher self-control than the latter; he relies this observation on a study on factors influencing self-control. The author advises: in order for one to have better chances of succeeding forming new habits that stay with you in the long run, you should keep focused on what you are trying to achieve. Start small, but dream big. The next step on the agenda is to reward yourself. Based on the Pleasure-Pain dichotomy that underlies and governs all human actions, a Freudian find according to which humans are innately motivated to seek that which gives them pleasure and avoid that which causes them pain, it is the author’s belief that this principle greatly applies to the habit creation process: “So how does the pain-pleasure principle apply to the habit-creation process?

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Let me explain by asking you a few questions.

Why did you fail to achieve your New Year’s resolution to go to the gym four times a week?

Because your brain associates it with pain, and as we just learned, the brain is wired to avoid pain under most circumstances.

Why do you binge-watch Orange Is the New Black every evening until you go to bed instead of getting your work done?

Watching TV brings you pleasure, while your brain associates work with pain. Not only would you have to turn off the TV (a painful task in and of itself), but you would have to buckle down and be productive.

So if you’ve been experiencing some resistance in your attempts to build a new habit, one very likely reason is that you are associating the action with some sort of physical or psychological pain. As a result—although your new habit could improve your life—you avoid it like the plague.

The logical solution here is to flip that mental association from a painful one to a pleasant one by using a reward system. The reward you choose will help motivate you to execute your habit and increase the likelihood that you will continue to carry it out.”13

Mr. Karia goes on to give an outstanding example of how this principle can work to help someone achieve something:

“Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, put the pain-pleasure principle into practice when he was unfortunately infected with hepatitis C. To cure himself, he was instructed to inject himself three days per week with interferon. Lasting for 18 months and resulting in some severe side effects such as fever, vomiting, and dizziness, this particular treatment regimen isn’t exactly easy to stick to.

So what did Ariely do? According to his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, he used a reward system to help make his medication schedule more manageable. On the days he had to administer an injection, he would reward himself with watching one of his favorite movies. Because he was a movie lover, this strategy helped him to alter his mental associations with injection.

Impressively, after he followed through with his treatment for the required 18 months, Ariely’s doctors told him that he was actually the only one of their patients who had been able to take the medication regularly. The other patients were understandably unable to overcome the pain associated with taking the medicine regularly as prescribed.”14 Therefore, based on such a strategy, anyone can use the benefits of this kind of strategy by changing the mental associations of things we want to achieve with something which gives us pleasure in return.

Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Habits for a Powerful Day.