Humans are creatures of habit. Maybe you’ve never thought about it but many things you do are habits. Do you always have a pint after work? That’s a habit. Do you check your phone first thing in the morning? Habit. Do you always take the last wagon on your daily commute? You guessed it. It’s a habit. These are not the best habits but they have become part of your life through repetition and some kind of motivation.
Habits are repeated actions that we do without even thinking about them. ‘Within psychology, the term habit refers to a process whereby contexts prompt action automatically, through activation of mental context–action associations learned through prior performances.’ (Gardner & Rebar)
So looking back at the examples: finishing your workday triggers your brain’s craving for a pint. When you go into the tube station, you automatically go to the end of the platform. When you wake up, you grab your phone. Your brain is always being triggered by these associations in time and place.
If this system works to maintain non-desirable action, it also works to maintain positive behaviour. We’ll dive a little bit deeper into the benefits of good habits and the psychology behind it.
Top 3 benefits of good habits:
- Habits help maintain positive actions even when motivation is low
- Good habits have the ability to replace bad habits
- Habits make you more productive
Benefit 1: You can maintain desirable behaviour at all times
Sometimes we wake up and we’re just not feeling it. We don’t feel like working out, we don’t feel like cleaning our room and we just don’t feel like going to work.
However, when actions gradually become habits, we’ll start doing them automatically. We will no longer have to decide to do something. Our context will trigger our actions for us. Therefore our actions will require less cognitive effort and willpower. So even when motivation is low, it comes naturally to us to do them. The action has become part of us.
It’s a simple yet very effective cycle. First, we feel very motivated to achieve a goal (read more books). That encourages us to start some positive activity that will get us closer to it (read 20 pages per day). As time passes, it becomes a habit (we read every day before bed without thinking about it). Motivation might fade after a while because the novelty has gone. However, as we’ve acquired the habit of reading every day, we’re doing this activity automatically. That’s how good habits help us to get closer to our goals.
Good habits keep you on track even when motivation is low.
Some habit ideas:
- Simple habits to start the day
- Good personal habits for an overall productivity boost
- End your day well with this evening routine
Benefit 2: You can replace bad habits
When we are in a difficult situation or facing a productivity problem, we naturally think about adding a new habit to solve the issue. Sometimes, the better option is actually to take away a bad habit. This is called via negativa.
So next time you are looking to improve your life with better habits, ask yourself what you could stop doing instead of what you should start doing. You could stop using Facebook before bed. You could stop checking your mails every hour. Or you could simply avoid soft drinks and have a glass of water with your lunch instead.
When you’ve become really good at this, take the next step. Take away a good habit that actually prevents you from doing a better one. Maybe, you’ve always wanted to write a book. Stop reading at night and start writing instead.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. Just like good habits, bad habits become ingrained. It’s hard to get rid of them just like that. Have you ever tried to stop smoking? Habit substitution, or replacing a cue that leads to a bad habit with a cue that leads to a good one, makes things a lot easier.
If you usually smoke while drinking, you might want to consider eating a snack or fidgeting with something instead. Some fruit or veggies might be better, but who takes greens to a bar? Better even is to avoid triggers. If your friends go outside for a smoke, stay inside. And the best? Never start. D’uh.
In short, all habits are caused by cues. Around a certain time or place, our brain is triggered to carry out a habitual action. Because this action has become part of you, it’s difficult to get rid of it. So, instead of trying to erase the cue from your memory, replace the triggered bad habit with something positive.
Use the power of good habits to replace negative ones.
Benefit 3: You will be more productive
One of my favourite benefits of good habits is that you will master your productivity.
Habits automate our lives. They are unconscious decisions triggered by impulses or cues. Habits eliminate the need to make active decisions. For example, if you always have a coffee and croissant on the way to work, you don’t have to decide what’s for breakfast. Even though it’s a futile decision, it might make a difference by the end of the day.
Your decision-making power is like a battery. As you make decisions during the day, your battery slowly runs out. You’ll need to relax or sleep to recharge. Deciding what’s for breakfast might only cost 1% of battery power, but many of those small decisions quickly add up. Stop wasting energy on easily automated decisions. Save it so you can make quality decisions at speed to boost your productivity.
As actions become automated, you’ll also lose less time. You’ll win at least the time it takes to make a decision. The reasoning behind this is very similar to the previous battery metaphor. Some decisions might only take one minute, but add them all up and you’ve lost yourself one hour. Moreover, doing the same action repeatedly, makes us more efficient.
Finally, habits get you closer to your goals. As you set good habits, you’ll be using your time actively to pursue valuable activities that will help you reach your goals. Creating habits is a good way of dividing your goals into actionable steps. If your goal is to learn a new language, ‘being fluent is 6 months’, sounds very daunting. However, practising 30 minutes every evening is a positive habit that you can easily adopt.
How do productive work habits benefit you? More decision-making power, more time and a higher probability of reaching your goals
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The advantages of good habits will change your life
In conclusion, habits are magical. Once we acquire a habit, we no longer need motivation or willpower to complete the desired action. This is especially beneficial for action that is rather dreadful in the short term but will provide long-term benefits. Think about working out. However dreary repetitive actions might seem, the benefits of good habits are endless.
So start building some good habits!
Sources and further reading about the benefits of good habits:
- Benjamin Garnder, Amanda L. Rebar, Oxford Research Encyclopaedia — https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-129
- Brett and Kate McKay, Art of Manliness — https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/via-negativa-adding-to-your-life-by-subtracting/
- Farnam Street — https://fs.blog/2017/06/habits-vs-goals/
- Galla and Duckworth, APA PsycNet — https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fpspp0000026
- Wood and Rünger, Annual Reviews — https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033417#_i15