Habits are repetitive behaviours that stem from fixed ways of thinking and feeling. We are compelled subconsciously to do them.
Procrastination, for instance, is a problem that’s faced by many people. To oversimplify a little bit, the basic sequence of thoughts and actions that lead to putting off work might look like the following: you plan to complete a project, you then think that you can put off the task for a little while, go downstairs and watch some TV (behaviour) and feel relaxed and entertained. Thus you have a pattern of thought and behaviour that isn’t conducive to your ideal self – it’s a bad habit.
So improving self-discipline is about changing your behaviour, and the thoughts and feelings that underlie it, so that it’s directed towards the achievement of your best self.
The way to instill new habits is through practice. Once you’ve decided on a set of goals, you use willpower to force yourself to engage in the tasks and behaviours that are necessary to meet them. After enough time has passed, the behaviours will become automatic and you won’t meet with so much inner resistance.
But why is it so hard?
There’s a lot of reasons why establishing new habits can be difficult. On the one hand, you’re trying to change neurological pathways. Overcoming behaviours that you’ve practiced and are good at, in exchange for new ones which you can’t do seamlessly, is always going to be frustrating.
In a sense, it’s like learning a new instrument. It takes time to be able to play with ease and fluidity.
Another understanding of why habit formation is so hard is that it can involve a pretty deep identity shift. We define ourselves through our actions – we see ourselves as compassionate if we help others, as hard-working if we consistently put in the hours, as fit and healthy if we get to the gym regularly and have a good diet.
If you look at yourself closely, you might find that you’re attached to your current unhelpful identity more than you think. Do you find it difficult to work because you actually think that the 9-5 grind is really for losers and you want to be a free spirit? Or find it frustrating to stick to a diet or exercise programme because self-restraint is for boring, self-denying Puritans?
Seth Godin, for instance, suggests that “it’s possible that…goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you—the shift in daily habits that would mean a re–invention of how you see yourself.”
Finally, there’s the issue of negative emotions. Because it’s so easy to seek out instant gratification, we’re often ill-trained to accept the bad feelings – boredom, frustration, stress – that are part and parcel of the activities that move us towards our goals. Again, practice is something that can help us with that.
But how can we practice in the right way? Onto step number four…
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