A Matter of Habit

I want to introduce you to Bob and Jim (or Melanie and Stephanie for you gals out there).  

Bob (Melanie) is that guy/gal we all aspire to be.  He's built like a brick shit-house, ripped six-pack abs, highly successful, wealthy, has a huge social circle, crazy popular.  

Jim (Stephanie), on the other hand, is more like most of us end up - overweight and flabby, lacking focus, energy, and motivation, stuck in a job he hates paying off debts he's accrued, has a few friends but isn't leading the charge.

So what's the difference?  

Meet Bob - image courtesy of David Castillo Diminici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Meet Jim - Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why do some people end up like Bob while most people end up like Jim?

Lately I've been trying to figure that out to find ways to keep you focused on your training and eating regimes.  Without consistency - you can't reap the full benefit of either.  That led me to read two books, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  I hate over generalizing, but the reason Bobs become Bobs and Jims become Jims is likely a matter of habit.

SOME BACKGROUND ON HABITS

Your brain is wicked awesome and it's only been the last 15-20 years that psychologists really started figuring out just how awesome it is.  One area of study that I find fascinating as I try to instill positive lifestyle changes in people deals with how we form and maintain habits.

A habit is like a computer program.  Once it is triggered (or run) it runs to completion without intervention from the user unless it encounters a break point (or requires some user input).  There is no decision making or thinking required - and you aren't even aware that some of these things are happening.

As awesome as your brain is, habits form because your brain doesn't want to make a decision about every single thing you do each day.  You can look at your own day for proof of this.  Ask yourself if you make a decision about brushing your teeth or how to brush your teeth in the morning or whether you're going to get dressed or not.  You simply do those things.  In whatever morning routine you've worked out, these are habits that start running after you wake up.

Because some decisions are made automatically, they run unconsciously in the background allowing your brain to focus on making conscious decisions that actually do require your focus and attention like where you're going to go for your next vacation or how to deal with some big work project you've got going on.

You can turn anything into a habit.  Habits run automatically when they are triggered.  They become stronger the more times they are run.  They can change depending on what you need them to do.

Going back to Bob and Jim for a moment - Bob's life is different than Jim's because Bob's habits created his life just like Jim's habits have put him in his position.  It takes a bit of conscious effort to setup a system of habits like Bob's, but once that system is in place - it really is automatic - you'd have to consciously try to stop that success from happening to end up like Jim.

SEEM A LITTLE TOO EASY...?

Well obviously it takes some effort to get the right habits operating in your life otherwise we'd all be Bobs walking the beaches with ripped bodies and six pack abs.

As humans, we are inherently lazy.  We gravitate to what Shawn Achor calls the path of least resistance.  And it makes sense.  The science geeks can help me out here, but I'm pretty sure I learned something about energy that says systems will always attempt to achieve a state where they are using the lowest amount of energy.

If you take a look at Bob's life - it likely does not look anything like easy compared to Jim's.  Just some of Bob's habits include waking up early and exercising, preparing nutritious meals ahead of time, spending time learning skills, playing sports and generally just being on the go all the time.  Jim likely spends a lot more time watching TV, browsing Facebook, and eating whatever convenience foods are available.

But if you ask Bob - he'll probably tell you that even though he does all this in a day - it really isn't a whole lot of effort for him anymore.  It just happens.

And that's because of the power of habits.  They'll give you whatever life you've programmed them to give you.  It's up to you.

FORMING HABITS

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to create a habit.  Not entirely true.  The longer you stick to a certain set of actions, the more likely the habit is to form - but you can get them going in far less time than 21 days.  In my 12 week self-guided boxing body transformation program and coaching programs - I focus clients on maintaining a habit for 14 days which I've found to work fine.  I can get myself following a habit in a few days now without much effort. 

According to Charles Duhigg - a habit forms when you supply the trigger, the sequence, and the reward.

THE TRIGGER

The trigger is some recognizable event that acts as a cue to start the habit sequence.  It can be pretty much anything.  It can be a timing, the sound of an alarm, an action, a signal, a certain smell...it doesn't matter.  You just recognize it as the cue that starts the habit.  For example, most of us have an alarm clock trigger to start our morning habits.  When the alarm goes off, you roll out of bed and head towards the bathroom (or you hit snooze and wait another 15 minutes for the next alarm to trigger the next habit...).

THE SEQUENCE

The sequence is the set of actions that happens after the trigger starts the habit.  This sequence is the habit and it runs from start to finish unless it gets consciously interrupted or another trigger is encountered that starts another habit.

THE REWARD

The reward is the benefit derived from letting the habit run to completion.  It acts like an incentive to ensure the full sequence completes enough times to build the neural pathways in your brain that makes the actions automatic in the future.  Eventually the reward is no longer required to keep the habit going.

DON'T FORGET THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

Even when we have a trigger, a sequence, and a reward - habits can still be a bit of a pain in the ass to form.  

I can tell myself that when my alarm goes off at 0600 (trigger), I will get up, put on shorts and tshirt, go downstairs, put on Garmin watch, put on running shoes, workout (sequence), and enjoy the satisfaction of having done so (reward) -- but that doesn't mean I'll actually do it.  

If I'm just starting to implement a habit like this, it's more likely the alarm will go off and I'll start debating whether or not to hit snooze, which pair of shorts or t-shirt to put on, whether I need the Garmin as what kind of workout am I doing  - running or strength training, how far should I run, what should I lift, and so on...  Soon I'm back to sleep, exhausted from having to make all those decisions instead reinforcing the habit that once the alarm goes off, I just go back to sleep -- so much easier.

A critical component of starting a new habit is to make it as easy as possible to start the sequence (just like killing a bad habit means making it more difficult to start the sequence).  When setting up a habit, remove all barriers that might keep you from starting the sequence.  In my example, I can put the shorts and t-shirt I'm going to wear next to the bed (or even wear them to bed).  I can decide the night before what workout I'm going to do (or log in to my program here on Commando Boxing and see what training is scheduled).  As I've eliminated the decisions I have to make in the morning - there is no resistance to overcome.  The initial activation energy required is much lower.

WARNING: ONLY ONE HABIT AT A TIME

Studies show that people can successfully implement a habit 80% of the time if they focus on one habit at a time.  If you try and implement two or more the success rate falls dramatically - 30% and decreases the more you try to do.  So, when programming your life - do it deliberately and do it one habit at a time.  When it's running smoothly, introduce another.  It's a cycle of continuous and gradual improvement - but given enough time - you end up with a set of lifestyle habits that turns you into Bob and not Jim.

GIVE IT A TRY

Like I said, I introduce clients to one habit at a time and have them do it for 14 days straight.  I also ensure it is something the client actually believes they can do each day for 14 days.  One of those habits is taking a daily multivitamin .  So we'd set it up something like this:

  1. I have them buy a high quality greens supplement.
  2. I get them to set a trigger.  I usually suggest that the trigger be related to an aspect of food preparation or morning ritual
  3. We get the sequence down which in this case is super simple - get package, open package, mix in water, drink.
  4. We remove anything that might get in the way.  I tell them what brand to buy removing any decision the client has to have to make about what and where to get it.  We put the package where he or she can see it in close proximity to where they are going to make the food - and that's usually enough to lower the activation energy required.  Eventually when the habit is engrained, they can move the package somewhere else and it won't matter - the habit still runs fine.

14 days pass - we track that they were successful, then we implement something else.  Over the course of a year - 26 new optimal life supporting habits are working wonders in their lives.

And there you have it - now all you need to do is decide what habits you need in place to achieve your boxing and fitness goals and program them accordingly.  Good luck and Boxon.

    Coach Aaron

    Coach Aaron founded Commando Boxing in 2003. When he's not boxing, he's running ultramarathons or using data science/blockchains to create mixed reality HoloLens applications.

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