How to Change Your Habits

Our habits shape our lives, sometimes more than we realise. In The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson highlights how it’s the things we do (or don’t do) every day that ultimately make the difference between a successful, fulfilling life and a disappointing one. It’s rarely about the big break; success is built on gradual, regular plugging away at whatever moves us in the direction we want to go.

If your habits are not helping to bring about your vision of the life you want, change them!

But first, it’s crucial to be sure that vision is really what you want. If it’s someone else’s vision, if it’s what you feel you should do, rather than your heart’s desire, the supporting habits are likely always to be energy-sapping chores. Even if you can make yourself carry them out every day, you’re not heading for fulfilment, so you’re losing out twice, both now and later. If the vision of what you’re aiming at doesn’t inspire you to do what it takes to get there, you probably need to reassess your vision. The carrot is so much more effective (and pleasant) than the stick.

Once you’re sure you’re heading in the right direction, if you’re struggling to establish a habit, the next question is whether this activity is genuinely useful and not an assumption or a should. For example, a self-employed friend of mine wrestled for months with his habit of spending an hour or so avidly reading about news and current events every morning over breakfast. He felt this was a waste of time, that he should be breakfasting more quickly and getting down to work.

This is a tricky one because, particularly if you’re self-employed, it can be all too easy to persuade yourself you’re doing something useful when actually you’re procrastinating. Only you can know the truth and you have to be honest with yourself. But it’s important not to drive yourself too hard – not as the norm – partly because it’s unsustainable and also because life is for living as well as investing. We’re all different, with different rhythms, and you’ll be most productive if you work in a way that fits yours. In the end, my friend decided to embrace his news routine. It enhances his life and eases him into a day that is the more successful for his having begun it in a way he enjoys.

Society has rigid views about what we should all do, but don’t let that dictate how you run your life. Instead, get to know yourself and do what works for you. You don’t have to get up at 5 every morning and live on salad in order to be efficient and healthy.

To establish a good habit, keep your eyes on the prize: every time you do whatever it is, you’re moving one step closer to your goal. You may not feel the benefit today but after a few weeks or months you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come. If you resist doing it, what’s that about? Are you sabotaging your success because you don’t believe you deserve it? Or because you’re afraid of it? If you’re certain this habit would benefit you but you can’t make yourself do it, it may be worth doing some digging to find out what the psychological block is.

Look at the big picture. If the occasional day is too full to fit in your habit, that’s OK. As long as it’s genuine and as long as it’s rare, it really doesn’t matter; it’s the general trajectory that counts.

To change a bad habit, you also need to keep your eyes on the prize. Transform the whole thing into the positive: lose the stops and the give ups and replace them with what you do want. Instead of beating yourself up about what you’re doing wrong, shift your focus towards doing what’s right for you. The point about a habit is that it’s become wired into your neural pathways. It takes time and determination to change that wiring but the more positive you are about it the easier it will be. Discipline is good but being drawn towards the reward is nicer – and, ultimately, more effective.

I’m prone to eczema and sometimes I find myself bringing it on, as a strange cross between self-harm and a soothing sort of harsh massage. Scratching relieves my stress in the immediate moment, though more broadly it exacerbates it. I feel horrible with my skin all red and raw; it hurts in the shower; I feel self-conscious with clients, knowing I look off-putting and that my body is revealing my inner turmoil – plus, I get heartily sick of having to remove blood stains from my clothes and bedsheets. I hate it, yet telling myself to stop scratching has no effect.

After three or four months of this recently, I drew a line. I brought the whole issue fully into consciousness (you know how you can indulge a bad habit without even realising you’re doing so) and created my positive vision. My goal became beautiful skin, with a side benefit of waking up in the morning with no blood on the sheets. Because I’d been particularly scratching my arms, I put hair scrunches around my cuffs, so I couldn’t slide a hand up my sleeve without being consciously aware of it. Whenever I felt a bit itchy, I reminded myself the feeling would pass more quickly if I forced myself to ignore it (ie, focus on something else): the appetite grows by what it feeds on.

You have to pick your battles – if you’re fighting on too many fronts at once, you won’t have the energy to win them all. Set priorities and be realistic. And remember, it’s not really a war, it more of a voyage. Let anticipation of the joy of arrival keep you motivated, but enjoy the journey too.