When the announcer said his name, he stepped on the starting block and then stepped down, like he did before every swimming race. He swung his arms three times, like he had done before every race since he was twelve. The, he stepped on the block and took his stance. When the gun went off, he dived.
Instantly, he knew something was wrong. Moisture seeped inside his swimming googles. He hoped things wouldn’t turn bad. But by the third and final lap, he couldn’t see anything. Water had filled his goggles.
It was the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing. Most swimmers would panic if they lost sight during an Olympics race.
Not Michael Phelps.
As he began his last lap, Phelps estimated the number of strokes it would take to complete. Nineteen or twenty. Maybe twenty one. Midway through the lap he increased his effort – a key technique to overwhelm opponents. He could hear the crowd cheering. But since he was blind, he had no idea whether the cheers were for him or someone else.
His twenty first was stroke a huge one. His outstretched arm touched the wall as he glided towards it. Perfect. He ripped off his goggles and looked at the scoreboard.
It said “WR” – World Record – beside his name. He had won his fourth gold medal that week.
As a child, Phelps’ energy levels would drive his parents and teachers crazy. He started swimming at the age of seven to burn some of it. But he found it difficult to calm down before races.
How would that child become one of the most decorated Olympic swimmers of all time?
Phelps has a long torso, big hands and relatively short legs – perfect for a swimming champion. But every person who competes at the Olympics has a borderline perfect muscular system. What makes Phelps so remarkable?
The answer lies in the edge Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman gave him – forming the right habits.
“All our life – so far it has definite form – is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote in 1892. Most choices we make feel like well-thought decisions. But they are just habits.
What Are Habits?
Technically, habits are defined as follows:
The choices we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.
“Each habit means relatively little on its own. But over time, the meals we order, what we say, where we save and spend, what we eat or drink, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have an enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness,” bestselling author Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit.
Habits make a behavior automatic. For instance, what is the first thing you do when you wake up? Do you check your phone? Brush you teeth and eat something? Pick the newspaper up or walk into the kitchen? Do you exercise or meditate? Or drink tea or coffee?
You don’t think before following your routine. They are part of your habits. One paper published by a Duke University researcher stated that more than 40 percent actions people perform every day are not decisions, but habits.
How Habits Are Formed
The brain comprises of various layers, like an onion:
- Prefrontal Cortex – The outermost and most recently developed part of your brain. It’s associated with logical and complex thinking.
- Temporal Lobe – One of the four major lobes of the cerebral cortex. It’s responsible for visual memory, language comprehension and emotion association.
- Basal Ganglia – A part closer to the brain stem, where the brain meets the spinal column. It is an oval of cells responsible for habit formulation.
The brain has more layers. But for the current discussion, we will stick with the ones mentioned above.
When you process new information or laugh at a joke, it’s because of the prefrontal cortex. The temporal lobe helps in regulation of cognitive tasks like recalling and regulating emotions.
But the more your brain associates with a specific pattern, the more its activity decreases. The basal ganglia converts a sequence of actions into automatic routines. This is called ‘chunking’, and it’s how you form habits.
Scientists believe that the brain constantly looks to save effort. Habits allow the brain to ramp down often. This effort-saving makes the brain more efficient, which means it requires lesser room. That, in turn, makes a child’s head easier to come out of the mother’s womb.
An efficient brain also saves us the effort of constantly thinking about basic behavior like walking, choosing what to eat, and so on. Thus, we can devote mental energy to inventing guns, irrigation systems, and eventually, self driven cars, unmanned aircrafts, and video games.
We rely on dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks – or habits – every day. Some like brushing your teeth, crossing the road, and checking your smartphone, are simple. Others like getting dressed, making lunch, and working in the office, are more complex.
Habits are why Michael Phelps became a legendary swimming champion. Habits are why Jason Bourne was a badass spy despite amnesia. Habits are why I can ride my motorbike through traffic while talking to an incessantly chattery pillion without breaking into a sweat.
6 Steps to Form Better Habits
According to William James, if we want to lead a productive life, we must form the right habits and guard against disadvantageous ones as we would guard against a plague.
You know this. You have experienced how bad habits hurt you. And you want to change them. But one weak moment and you’re back to square one. This is because you try many things at once.
You see, habits are a result of simple, yet consistent, efforts in 6 key areas. The rest of this post highlights those areas, and elaborates on how you can leverage them. These actions will help you develop good habits and pursue long term success.
1. Work on a Keystone Habit
All good habits are important. But some are more important than others. They can transform your life by subconsciously triggering other good habits. This is the psychology behind habit formulation.
For instance, studies (including this one by Harvard Medical School) prove that people who exercise habitually also eat healthier. They procrastinate less, and reduce using their credit cards. They also witness unexpected, positive changes in their lives.
Here, exercising is a ‘keystone habit’. Such habits don’t have a direct cause-and-effect relationship. But they can spark chain reactions that help other good habits take hold, wrote Duhigg.
Keystone habits change how you see yourself. So, if a habit can make you see yourself in a different way, it’s essentially a keystone habit.
An example is journaling. In 2009, a group of researchers assembled sixteen hundred obese people and asked them to write down everything they ate at least one day a week.
Participants recorded their meals once a week. Then it became more often. Many participants began keeping daily food logs. Then, they noticed their eating patterns and made slight changes to include healthy food and plan future menus. After six months, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as the others.
Thus, food journaling – a keystone habit – created a structure for many other good habits to follow.
Look for a simple, singular habit that will make you look at yourself differently. Then stick to it. Focus on it every day. In the long run, you will witness amazing results.
2. Small Wins
Most people fail to build good habits because they try too much at once. Instead, do something small in the beginning, and stick to it for long.
Want to quit smoking? Don’t quit it all at once. Just smoke one less cigarette a day. Do this every day. It’s just like you learned in childhood: focus on baby steps.
Instead of ambition, aim for consistency. Smoke one less cigarette a day for a few weeks. Once you achieve consistency in it, reduce one more.
“Small wins are steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”
Small wins turn tiny advantages into patterns. These patterns convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
3. Develop Willpower
Willpower is the single most powerful keystone habit for individual success, studies show.
An experiment conducted on 164 eighth-graders by the University of Pennsylvania’s researchers showed that students with higher willpower were more likely to earn higher grades, show less absenteeism, watch less television, and do more homework.
Willpower can be learned, like we learn to look at both sides before crossing the road (if we do). But willpower is also a muscle, which gets fatigued the more it’s used, like a muscle after reps at the gym.
How should you develop willpower? Do the uncomfortable but necessary tasks first. If writing a long thoughtful memo is tougher than answering ten emails, do the former first. If saving money is tough for you, start with it right away. Develop will power, focus on small wins, and stick to the habit.
The more you use willpower to complete difficult tasks, the stronger it becomes. Then other good habits follow suit.
4. Find a Support Group
Willpower and keystone habits are relatively easy to follow when things sail smoothly. But when the odds are against us, most of us revert to our original bad habits. If we feel exhausted, we might even feel like we are kidding ourselves by trying to improve.
This is where a support group is useful. A support group is generally a group of people who want to help you improve. They have either experienced this change, or are trying to improve themselves just like you.
To change a habit, you must believe it is possible, Duhigg wrote. A support group is effective because it teaches individuals how to believe. We can see the belief in others’ eyes. In turn, it drives us to believe and stick to the habit when the chips are down.
5. Reward Yourself
My neighbor wants to increase his yoga practice. He is also fond of coffee. So he made a deal with himself. He drinks coffee only after he practices yoga for thirty minutes.
Tying a reward to what action you should take to improve, motivates you to stick to the right path.
If we can do the right thing most of the time, Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, we will do well for ourselves.
When Michael Phelps was a teenager, coach Bowman would tell him to ‘watch the videotape’ before he slept and when he woke up.
The videotape wasn’t real. It was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Phelps would visualize jumping off the block into the pool, his strokes, the pool’s walls, how it would feel to rip his swimming cap off at the end, and more. During practice, if Bowman wanted Phelps to swim at race speed, he would shout, “Put on the tape!” Phelps would push himself as hard as he could. He felt like he knew what he was doing, because he had seen it in his mind many times.
With time, he got faster and faster. Eventually, Bowman would simply whisper “Put on the tape.” And Phelps would crush the competition.
When you visualize the perfect experience repeatedly, it feels rote learned. This helps you develop the habit and get better results.
Learning public speaking? Visualize yourself speaking to an audience. Imagine the minutest detail – the stage, lighting, seating arrangement, mic, your posture, the audience’s eyes etc. Then do it again. And again, and again, till you know every detail by heart. Then, each time you practice, simply “put on the tape.” You will witness amazing improvement.
Want to lose weight? Visualize tomorrow’s diet and exercise plan. Visualize standing on the weighing scale and seeing your weight be what you want it to. Then as you go through your routine, “put on the tape.”
Science proves that mental imagery works. When you imagine yourself performing perfectly and doing exactly what you want, you physiologically create neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physically performed the action. The thought can stimulate the nervous system in the same way as the actual event does.
The above steps help you shape your environment and mindset to turn your desired habit into an everyday one. Put in effort to encourage the new way you want to follow. When you achieve that, long term success is inevitable.
Just follow the six points below to form good habits:
- Develop a keystone habit: Do something that makes you change the way you look at yourself. This cascades on other aspects of your life. Exercise. Save money. Or maintain a daily journal.
- Enjoy small wins: Keep practicing simple actions repeatedly till they become habits. Then upgrade by a tiny level.
- Develop willpower: Willpower, like good manners, can be learned. But it’s also expendable. Prioritize important but uncomfortable tasks.
- Find a support group: A group of people who have either experienced the change, or are working towards improvement, will motivate you to keep going.
- Reward yourself: Remunerate yourself with what you want after you do what you should.
- Visualize: Envision the perfect scenario in what you are trying to achieve over and over again, till it feels like rote.
Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things extraordinarily well. Good habits help you take control of your life. You get better at responding to circumstances, and improving them.
You will live this life only once. Make the most of it. Achieve what you want. And use good habits to get there.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.