“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” — Mike Tyson

“We think our external environment is conspiring in our favour — that is, helping us — when it is taxing and draining us. It is not interested in what it can give us. It’s only interested in what it can take from us.” — Marshall Goldsmith

I have forever been intrigued with our tendency to do things that are at odds with our longer-term aspirations and our well-being. I am sometimes a total sucker in this department, so this may have something to do with my interest.

When we set goals in the future, we are envisioning the life we want in the future. But when it comes to making decisions in the present moment, our brains become overwhelmed and turn to instant gratification. And most times, this is at odds with the course of action that is required to achieve our goals in the future.

Achieving Our Goals is Not an Information Issue. It is an Action Issue.

We can all rationalise what is needed to achieve our goals. For instance, we know how to drop a couple of kgs: eating the right balance of protein, carbs and fibre, and exercising regularly; or how to improve our knowledge in a particular field: we can read about the topic, or book personal time to take courses. In most of these cases, knowing what you need to do is not the problem. Acting on that information tends to be the real issue.

But, are we in control of our actions? Unfortunately not. According to“The Power of Habit”, by Charles Duhigg, 40% of our daily actions are based on automatic habitsThings we do with minimal conscious brain input. Have you noticed how we conduct ourselves around certain people? Or how helpless we feel when we are urged to check our smartphone notifications in the middle of a meeting? Or how we insist on eating at certain times of the day even when are not hungry? Even our physical location affects how we behave. I know the feeling well, it is part of human nature.

The fact is that we are constantly — and helplessly — triggered. Sometimes we behave more like puppets and less like rational human beings. A fact of life which is well known and exploited by our dear friends in marketing.

The Path Between us And The More Effective And Productive Version of Ourselves is Made of Better Habits.

If we are what we do, and what we do is mostly determined by automatic behaviours, then to become more effective, resilient and productive we should focus on building the right habits. This provides the largest (and more immediate) return on investment when improving ourselves.

With that in mind, let’s define a simple framework for improving our awareness.

Step 1: Understanding The Mechanics

All habits are made of 3 key components: cue, behaviour and reward.

When replacing habits, the cue and the reward do not change. For instance, someone trying to quit smoking cannot replace the cue (the urge to smoke after lunch, or in a social setting having a drink) nor the reward the behaviour will achieve (the typical drop in anxiety after smoking a cigarette).

What the person can do is to alter the behaviour. To do that, he or she needs to be able to catch himself (or herself) at the right time: when feeling the trigger, the cigarette can be replaced by a nicotine chewing gum, with food (a well-known consequence of quitting is in fact weight gain) or a brisk walk. All of which deliver a similar reward from a psychological perspective: anxiety reduction.

This process is a constant in all habits. The difficulty lies in identifying the cue that triggers the habit and the reward from doing the behaviour, as they are not always obvious. Getting this right requires a little experimenting.

Step 2: Knowing Your Habits

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” — Peter Drucker

If you want to understand what habits define you, I invite you to try this out.

For a week, have a notepad or your notes app handy, and write down the times through the day in which you feel triggered into automatic behaviours: for example, the way you behave around certain people or in certain places (versus others), or when you feel like checking your phone on a meeting, or biting your nails, or the urge to stand up and walk when you talk on the phone.

Just write a line or two when you catch yourself getting dragged into something that could be described as a habit, good or bad. Describe the scene and the potential triggers, the behaviour itself and how you felt after acting in such a way. After a few events, you will find patterns, and you will become aware of how the habit loop works in your particular case.

By measuring that 40% of automatic actions that define us (our “puppet side”) you will be taking a key initial step towards regaining control of your daily choices.

Step 3: If You Must Fail, be Prepared to Fail

“ We do not appreciate inertia’s power over us.” — Marshall Goldsmith

Mother nature made our brains prone to habits, so we can deal with the overload of information and decision-making we need to cope with in our daily lives. If we combine this neurological setup with our tendency to prefer short-term gratification over longer-term well-being, we are left with substantial psychological resistance to let go of bad habits.

But now we have tools, and we can hedge. We know at this point 1) how habits work and 2) which habits define us in practice. This means that we can use awareness to interrupt the vicious circle and develop, over time, a different reaction to specific triggers.

This has two implications:

  1. We can now maintain consciousness when triggered: we can now make a conscious decision and not an automatic one. Yes, we will sometimes be dragged into the automatic behaviour regardless, but over time this new awareness will sink in, prompting behaviour change. We will start to question our behaviour.
  2. We can now hedge the habit in advance. When a habit is too difficult to manage when triggered, we have an alternative. We can remove ourselves in advance from the trigger (if I can’t stop smoking when drinking socially, then I won’t go to the bar). Alternatively, we can define in advance how we will react to the situation itself (if this person says “this and that”, I will keep my cool and be constructive regardless”). Sometimes it is worth writing these instructions before specific events or situations to fix them in our brains, to reduce the anxiety levels once the moment comes. Knowing what to do in advance provides us with a sense of safety and control.

The Choice is Yours

You are in good company with your bad habits. I have plenty of them. I have realised (after experimentation and a lot of research) that working on our behaviour patterns is a fundamental piece of any self-improvement journey, regardless of the area of focus: sports, physical appearance, professional effectiveness, productivity, social relationships… you name it. Just keep in mind that knowledge alone won’t trigger change. Only acting on the knowledge will.