How “Chains of Habit” Can Help You Live Your Worthy Values

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
~Aristotle

Once you’ve zeroed in on the things that mean the most to you and made a decision to put them first in your life, you need a plan. It’s been said that ideas are a dime a dozen and it’s true.  The only ideas that count are the ones we put into action. You’ve probably heard the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I Googled it recently. It was interesting to learn that it seems to have originated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, somewhere around the year 1150. That tells me humans have been grappling with this for an awfully long time!

The phrase is a stern reminder that we often have the intention to do good things but we fail to take action. This may be due to procrastination, laziness or some other character flaw, but whatever the reason, it’s meant to scold us and remind us that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through. Personally, I think it’s a bit harsh.

You know how it goes. We intend to eat healthier but we mindlessly put the same junk in our grocery cart, we intend to get up earlier so we can start our day less frazzled but we stay up too late again, fall into bed exhausted, hit snooze 5 or 6 times and find ourselves in the same old frenzy come morning.

It isn’t because we’re lazy sluggards.  It’s because we have acquired a habit. The Merriam- Webster dictionary includes this definition of the word habit, “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary .” The emphasis is mine because right there is the problem! We’re practically on auto-pilot. The famous financier, Warren Buffet recently quipped. “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”  What does he mean? We’re blissfully unaware of how strong our habits have become until we try to break the bad ones.

But wait- there’s a silver lining on this cloud folks! Good habits are equally strong once we have acquired them! It is surprisingly easy to establish good new habits by following a few basic guidelines.

  • Start Simple: Don’t try to change everything at once. Start with one or two things. For example, you know the health benefits of drinking more water so you decide to increase your intake. Instead of filling a gallon jug with water and trying to drink it all on the first day of your new plan, try taking two bottles of water to work and focus on drinking them both before quitting time. Try that for a few days and work up gradually until you have are drinking the recommended number of ounces for your body weight.
  • Start small: Let’s say you think you should run two miles, three times a week. Great goal, but if you aren’t currently running, an over-enthusiastic start could result in very sore muscles or aching knees. Try stretching then walking briskly or jogging lightly for 10-15 minutes at first. Gradually work up to longer distances and increased speed, concentrating on good form. There’s no better way to derail your plan than the pain from overdoing.
  • Commit to 30 days: Research shows it takes at least 30 days to create a solid habit. The first weeks are definitely the most challenging but with determination, anyone can create positive new habits.
  • Good habits create more good habits: In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg writes about “keystone habits” and how they create positive momentum because of the great feeling that comes from many small victories. Those habits have a way of spilling over into other areas of life because they build confidence, will power and an awareness of just how much is possible.
  • Build in some nudges: For example, placing fruit or ready-to-eat vegetables in a place where they’re easy to grab will make it simple to make a healthy choice for a snack. Try putting running shoes and socks by your bed so you jump right in them in the morning. Some swear by sleeping in their running clothes so rolling out of bed and hitting the trail becomes a no-brainer. In his excellent book Nudge, Richard Thaler offers lots of tips for making change far less stressful by what is called “choice architecture”, making positive choices easier without changing or forbidding other options.

It’s easier than you might think to make great progress toward truly living your worthy values when you start by making small changes in your behavior. Those changes are “easy to do and easy not to do”, but over time, huge improvements can be realized by intentional and consistent dedication to making good choices. What changes would bring you closer to the life you want?

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