American philosopher Will Durant once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Therefore, being excellent is not a single act, but a habit. Have you ever questioned how you choose to spend those precious 24 hours we receive every day? I bet you have. Most of us flirt with the idea of becoming more productive, satisfied, and successful in our daily activities.
However, most of the time, we fall short. We don’t check off the many things we’ve compiled on our to-do lists, let alone our bucket lists. But why? It turns out, no matter how much you plan and think about your goals, if your habits don’t align, you won’t reach them.
Habits start in the subconscious mind.
Neuroscientists agree that habits are primarily formed in our subconscious mind. They’re triggered by the brain’s limbic system, which is the same area that controls our emotions. This means that the way you feel indirectly dictates which activities you decide to carry out at certain moments during the day—without you even realizing it.
Here’s an example: You’re driving home at rush hour. If a car suddenly swerves into your lane without signaling, and you’re in a bad mood, chances are you’re going to get angry and start honking at the driver, even before you realize what you’re doing.
Another example: You come home exhausted from a difficult day at work. You need to compensate for that feeling of exhaustion—and frustration—so you decide to raid the fridge and grab a big piece of chocolate cake to get an instant reward and “feel better.”
See how your emotions could influence your habits?
Let me give you another interesting insight about habits: The primal, reptilian side of the brain, in combination with the limbic system, also trigger the formation of our belief systems. Therefore, habits are the result of our deepest beliefs.
What does that mean?
If you believe, at your very core, that you’re inefficient or unskilled, your unconscious mind will act as if it’s following your mandate. You’ll put off what you “can’t do” and develop procrastination as a habit.
If, on the other hand, you deeply believe you can reach a specific goal—let’s say, you want to lose weight, and you really believe it’s possible—you’ll end up developing habits that will eventually set you on the right path.
Knowing this, what does it take to nudge your brain along and exchange your bad habits for good ones that will help you reach your goals?
1. Develop a strong faith in your capability to reach your goals.
If your faith is strong enough, your belief that you can “make it happen” will send signals to your limbic system about what needs to happen next. It’s like our inner voice whispers and does its magic through the open channel of faith.
2. Become aware of your behaviors and actions.
If you really want to know yourself, you need to look at yourself with your eyes wide open. Observe—without judgment—what behaviors and emotions are driving your actions. It sounds simple, but it can be quite challenging in the beginning.
We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s easier to fool people before you can convince them that they’ve been fooled.” I think this equally applies to what we do to ourselves when we develop bad habits. We prefer to deny them or find excuses about why we can’t change them.
But if you pay attention and become consciously aware of your habits, you access your inner power—your perceptions and belief system—and from there, you can change anything you desire.
3. Start micro.
In his book The Little Book of Talent, sports adviser and author Daniel Coyle emphasizes the importance of taking, and repeating, small steps to reach the highest levels of excellence. If you start micro and keep at it, you’ll likely end up mastering the activity.
That’s the secret of many elite athletes. They repeat their endurance trainings daily for several hours and make slow but incremental changes until they master their art.
4. Repetition is king.
Repetition creates long-lasting habits. If you want to change a habit that’s not serving you, then you need to consciously repeat the desired activity until it becomes part of your unconscious repertoire.
Remember: It takes conscious effort to detect patterns of thought, behavior, and action, but once you notice and change the targeted trait, you can use repetition and incremental steps to completely change your habits.
5. Fall in love with your self-identity.
Many people don’t recognize themselves anymore. In a world where we’ve overloaded with information, it’s challenging to keep our attention on the things that are truly relevant to us.
Habits that help you reach your goals should get priority over everything else. If you struggle to understand your priorities, you might be the victim of racing thoughts, which suppress your capability to think in a clear and orderly way.
So, what’s the remedy? Slow down. Make a conscious decision to do less. Commit to more meaningful activities. Look for those things that add real value and meaning to your life, and then build a set of habits that support those activities.
What might this look like? Well, do you love nature? Does it inspire you to do great work? Then make a conscious habit of spending at least 30 minutes of your day in direct contact with nature: a walk in the park, a quick swim in the lake, or some gardening.
Life is for living, not for imprisonment. Don’t let your habits imprison your self-identity. Instead, use your habits as a gateway to find yourself and what makes your life meaningful and worth living.