This is a guest blog post from a frequent commenter under the user name “recent graduate” he may change his name in the future and has noted he will answer questions on his post.
There is a reason why motivation won’t turn a regular person into a winner. Or why a regular person won’t suddenly turn into a winner. The reason is habits. Habits are what your body automatically does without much thinking.
Habits occur in our “lizard brain”. It is not until relatively recently in our existence as human beings did we develop the ability to think and reason. The thinking part of the brain – called the Neocortex – is a separate part of the brain where our habits lie – the Basal ganglia.
This means that you can’t entirely control your habits by logical thinking. Habits, negative and positive, are actions performed automatically by your lizard brain.
Habits are started by triggers – objects or feelings that remind our lizard brain how to act. Since the habit performing part of the brain is not the same as the thinking part of the brain, often times we will perform a certain action without much thinking. For example, when we get bored – we check our phone automatically, without much deliberation.
Therefore, the best solution to controlling negative habits isn’t simple willpower or logic. Rather, it is simply blocking their triggers.
Use block lists for short term negative habits
A block list consists of triggers that activate your negative habits. Every time you catch yourself in the middle of a negative habit, write down the trigger that started it so that you are aware of that particular trigger next time around. Here are a few practical examples:
1) Web browsing
To curb mindless web browsing, I installed a program that blocks any websites that distract me from doing work. It’s called “FocalFilter” and it’s free (no affiliation). Every time I go to a useless website when I’m suppose to be doing work, I’d add that website’s url to the block list on FocalFilter. This way, I can’t access the websites that will make me browse mindlessly. I even block Google.com sometimes.
Whenever you try to do new things, you’ll probably come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t start. Making excuses is a negative habit that you don’t even think about most of the time. For example, you want to start a new website, but then every time you sit down to start, you make excuses, such as, “I don’t have time”, “I don’t feel like it”, “I’ll do it tomorrow”, “It’s not as important as xyz, blah blah blah.”
Excuses block list: get a Post-It note to write down your excuses. Write out the excuse every time you make one, and force yourself to never use the same excuse twice. Pretty soon you’ll run out of excuses and you’ll have to use your thinking brain to come up with an excuse. Once you activate your thinking brain, you’ll realize that believing in your stupid excuses is a negative habit, and you’re more likely start.
Another example of excuse block list: In trying to be more confident, you are trying to approach girls. You see a girl walking by and you didn’t do anything. Excuse #1: “She’s out of my league.” Okay. You see another girl and you choked. Excuse #2: “She seems busy.” Okay. You see another girl and you froze. Excuse #3: “She’s too tall”. Okay. Now you see a girl and this time, you looked over your excuse block list and saw how stupid excuses have been. Well, you just activated your logical brain and now you’re more likely to approach her. Keep writing down excuses in your excuse block list until you realize you can’t think of a new excuse and then start.
Sometimes your surrounding is your negative habit trigger.
This one is especially true for me for waking up early and getting ready to do work. Back then, I’d wake up half asleep, read on the iPad or blog post that I don’t need to read, then get out of bed after lying there for 1 or 2 hrs after realizing it’s time to go. I realize that the bedroom itself triggers “bedroom” behavior, i.e., I would be in sleep and relaxation mode.
Solution: I now have two alarm clocks – one close to the door and one outside the bedroom, half way to the bathroom. The alarm that’s outside my bedroom is set 1 minute past the one inside my bedroom. This way, when I wake up to turn off alarm 1, alarm 2 rings outside my bedroom and I’d have to open the door to close alarm 2. Thus, I’d be outside my bedroom already so I’d just walk a few steps to the bathroom where I’d brush my teeth to wake up completely – saving myself an hour or two everyday.
The main idea is that the bedroom is a symbol for sleep and relaxation. The location itself is a trigger.
Do you have a location that is counter productive for you? Sometimes it isn’t yourself to blame but your location. Maybe you’re more productive in one location than another. Find out what’s wrong with the particular location and get rid of triggers or move away.
Summary: The main idea is to add resistance to your negative habits by blocking its trigger and activating your thinking brain. Your thinking brain will then be able to decide logically and rationally and stop yourself from deliberately pursing your negative habits.
Say a 10 yr old has a choice between playing video games and learning a skill. He tries both but at the end, he plays video games. His brain enjoys playing video games because there’s very little resistance to the reward that video games give – pure fun. But when the boy is learning a skill, he doesn’t always have fun so it is a much harder habit to stick for him.
Our brain is very adaptive and always try to go with the most efficient way of getting a certain reward.
To tackle this problem logically, you simply increase resistance to negative habits while decreasing resistance to positive habits. The first part of the post talks about ways to increase resistance to negative habits, mainly, by removing negative habit triggers. But that will only take you so far because the time you gained from not performing these negative habits needs to be filled up with a positive habit – or else your body will find another negative habit to stick to.
How to Decrease Resistance to Positive Habits.
Our brain’s efficient nature means it prefers instant gratification. If you were trying to exercise to lose 10 lbs, but exercising isn’t your habit, chances are it is very hard to start an exercising habit in this particular context. Your brain wants it now and if exercise doesn’t show immediate results, your brain isn’t going to remember it.
Therefore if you want to lose 10 lbs, for example, it’s best not the care about the 10 lbs, but to care about the journey to losing it – that is, how to enjoy exercising and/or how to make exercising instantly gratifying.
The Two Type of Positive Habits
So you are committed to performing positive habits to improve your life. However, you may have realized that some habits stick but some don’t. You can blame your willpower and discipline all you want, but taking a closer look at these habits and you’ll realize that there are two different types of habits: vitamins and painkiller habits.
Vitamin habits are those where the reward isn’t felt immediately. Painkiller habits are those where the reward is felt immediately.
If your habit is a vitamin, chances are, it isn’t going to stick very long. If your habit is a painkiller, chances are, your brain will remember the good feelings and you will stick to it.
The problem is that most positive habits are vitamin habits and thus, you will forget and give up easily.
If you want a vitamin habit to turn into a painkiller habit, there are a two ways:
1) adding the vitamin habit into an existing habit routine
2) changing the way you think about the vitamin habit
Since vitamin habits don’t offer instant gratification, the best way to make them stick is to add these vitamin habits into a routine of an existing habit.
Take for example, juicing. (Hat-tip Mike Cernovich)
Juicing is the ultimate vitamin habit (pun intended) – you know it’s really good for you but it takes a lot of time to juice and clean up plus after you drink it you often don’t feel a huge different (vs. a cup of coffee for example). You can set up a calendar, force yourself to juice 4x a week or whatever, but you’ll probably abandon the pursuit after a few weeks, since it doesn’t offer an instantly gratifying reward.
To turn juicing into a painkiller habit, simply pair juicing with another habit routine with the result being that juicing will enhance the routine. The best one is exercise. Whenever you exercise, try to think about your heart pumping immense amounts of blood throughout your body. Then tell yourself this: “There is no better time to drink juice than now because when your heart rate is up, blood is pumped more efficiently and your body can benefit the most from the nutrients in the juice. You don’t want to waste this opportunity, do you?”
What happens when you think like that is that you just added a pain point (not wanting to waste the best opportunity to nourish your body), effectively turning the vitamin habits into a painkiller habit.
Another great example is exercise itself – a vitamin habit until you find a pain point.
There are many ways to pair exercise with a current routine. For me, I pair exercise with morning work sessions. Before I started exercising regularly, I often find myself easily distracted and my mind unable to focus on the work I’m trying to accomplish. After realizing that exercise increases the heart and breathing rate which increases the amount of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, I exercise hard enough to get my heart rate up before I sit down and work. Immediately, I would notice a difference. My focus is sharp and intense plus I’m now able to get more work done for a longer period of time.
The other way to turn a vitamin habit into a painkiller habit is to change the way you think of the vitamin habit, specifically, change enough of your thinking until the vitamin habit turns into a painkiller habit. Usually the most effective way to change your thinking is to find alarming facts about something that can be cured with the vitamin habit. Here are two quick examples:
1. Sunscreen is a vitamin habit – until you learn the truth. You probably know that UV rays from the sun causes skin damage. Did you know that 90% of our wrinkles are caused by UV rays? Whether or not that statement is correct is not important. What’s important is whether or not you want to implement the sunscreen habit. If you do, then never try to disprove that statement – just every time you see the sun, wear sunscreen out of fear that the sun will give you irreversible wrinkles.
2. Maybe eating healthy is the vitamin habit that you’re trying to turn into a painkiller habit. Find facts that will change the way you think about eating healthy. Did you know that acne is caused by a diet high in processed carbohydrates? If you want to stick to eating healthy, don’t try to disprove that statement and simply eat healthy out of the feat that you’ll get acne if you don’t eat healthy.
1) Habits and thinking do not come from the same part of the brain so use your logical thinking brain to control the triggers that start the habit, not the habit itself.
2) You don’t need extreme determination and motivation to stop a negative habit. For short term, simply intentionally add resistance to stop negative habits by blocking or removing its trigger. For long term, you have to replace negative habits with a positive habit.
3) For positive habits, there are two types of habits: pain killer and vitamin habits. Be honest if the positive habit you want to implement is a vitamin or painkiller habit. Vitamin habits are hard to stick because the rewards are not immediately felt. Painkiller habits are easy to stick to because the reward is immediate.
4) To be consistent with vitamin habits, integrate them into common habit routines or change the way you feel about vitamin habits. Fear or insecurity is an excellent trigger to turn vitamin habits into painkiller habits.
Thanks for reading! Hope this helps. Since this is my first article ever, clarifying questions are ok and comments are absolutely welcomed.