Join us on Instagram every Tuesday throughout March as TV presenter, host of the ‘Only Human’ Podcast and talking therapist Jeff Brazier, and former Scottish International and Harlequins rugby player Tim Visser discuss a variety of issues in our new series #StrongMinds.

Each week, Jeff will be sharing his thoughts here to give further information and context to the topics discussed during the session.

Episode Four – Habits

Our experience of life can be summarised as the result of the actions we repeat most often. We probably don’t consider the importance of our habits, beyond the understanding that we have some good and some not so good and accept that is just ‘who we are’.

It’s funny though, I think it actually works the other way round. I see identity as being a fluid measure that can often change over time as our lifestyle and goals change. When becoming a parent or hitting 40, our perception of ‘self’ changes.

Put simply, whatever we repeat ends up being who we are. I love the idea of this, it means that we all have the ability to aspire to be whatever we like, with our habits being at the very core of these transitions.

Compound Habits are actions we repeat consistently over a long period, habits that do not bring about any obvious incremental changes in the moment or the short term, but at a point create the changes those habits are designed to produce. Think losing weight, you can check in the mirror every day but it’s not until you’re a month or two into those consistent behaviours that the benefits are glaringly obvious.

Here are some vital considerations around habits that will help us build a better life.

Getting started – Awareness

We should all do a habit audit – write a list of the good habits you are in and what they do for you. Then a list for the bad habits and what they achieve for you too. All habits are successful in their own right, they are designed to relieve something or create something, some we impose intentionally, others are automatic, hopefully you’ll find a few of these when you start to examine them.

When we identify what we’re doing we can encourage the good ones and add to them. Habit stacking is the clever process of adding a habit we want to introduce to something we already do.  In time the new behaviour will become intrinsically linked to the existing one making them feel like they belong together.

Identifying the rubbish ones is important too, we can reduce the likelihood of these unwanted habits by making them unattractive and difficult, but first we will gain from understanding what they achieve and questioning where they came from. Are your negative habits something you do because you learned this behaviour when you were going through something difficult? If that danger has passed, do you still need these actions?

Understanding Cues

Most of our existing habits persist because they are so easy to perform. As humans we love a shortcut and will often chose the path of less resistance. Cues are things that prompt a certain habitual response from us.

As humans we are wired to create a solution, so what follows is our response and the reward we get from it. If we remove all of the things that act as cues for our worst habits, we can reduce the need to solve that particular problem. We can also make bad habits unattractive by associating them with things you don’t like.

Installing habits is about making things obvious. I leave my book open at the page I’m on, on the chair that I sit on, so as soon as I come downstairs in the morning – I make it impossible to miss. I make habits attractive by adding little comforts like meditating with a warm blanket on my legs and a joss stick burning.

You can also make habits satisfying by keeping a habit streak and noting how many days in a row you have performed a certain task. I get a sense of achievement for knowing I’m doing what I said I was going to do. It sounds little but I also reward myself for doing nothing in those moments where I’m craving something. Being able to not give in is a real feat of strength and it deserves acknowledgement.

Installing & maintaining habits

Building habits is a more strategic game that we think. If something feels good and was easy to do then there’s a good chance we will be able to do it without thinking. Now there are a lot of things that are difficult that we want to repeat, so how do we bypass that voice in our head that tells us to not bother as soon as we start?

Take getting up at 5am as an example. It’s quite a big ask to sacrifice your sleep in that nice warm cosy bed. I failed to make this a lasting habit on many occasions until I learned that I had to have my training kit laid out on the floor, plug my phone on the opposite side of the room so I have to get to it before it wakes everyone up. Otherwise I would still be saying I want to be that person but I just can’t do it.

All I have done there is increased the chances by removing the usual blockers. I have made the prospect of waking up the house more of a problem than the actual task of getting up, and I have made the chances of going back to bed after silencing the alarm slimmer by making getting dressed really easy.

The most important rule for creating and keeping the habits you want is to make them as effortless as possible and remove the chances of procrastination by creating quick, simple actions that are obvious and easy.

What do habits represent?

Do you ever wonder why you are the way you are? How many times do we excuse a certain behaviour by just saying it’s a part of our character or personality? Yes, we will have copied our parents, and environment goes a long way to explain why we behave in a certain way, but habits go a lot further than we think towards creating the overall outcome that is us.

Our identity is shaped by our habits, the acts we repeat often. Most of us think we were born to be one version of ourselves, but our experiences and choices form the behaviours that create what you see when you look in the mirror today.

We have more power to change than we sometimes allow ourselves to recognise.

Reframing the task & lowering expectations

Sometimes we tell ourselves that we ‘should’ be able to do what you used to be able to do and that anything less than that is unacceptable or deemed a failure. It’s unrealistic to expect something of ourselves over and above what we are capable of today in this very moment.

The way to help habits get off the ground is to reduce the size of the ask to the smallest step forwards you can imagine. It will be easy to complete, you’ll know you can do more, and the door will be wide open to building on that the next day.

By removing the risk of failure and whatever emotional collateral comes with that for you, you know you can turn a one off into a sequence of repeated behaviours that eventually turn in to habits.

Key Drivers

When it comes to motivating yourself, have you ever thought about the link between your language and your behaviours? There’s usually a word in your vocabulary that you use when you really have run out of time and there is no other option than to do the thing you’ve been putting off.

Have a go at recognising which phrases you use to describe your intentions and if you are ‘trying’ to ‘see’ if you ‘might’ be able to do something a lot of the time. Be brave and commit with your words and you’ll be more likely to commit with your actions.

Add context

We’ve all said to a friend that we will go and do something without really planning in any great detail. These things usually tend not to happen as a result. It’s not that we didn’t intend to carry out our intentions, just that we didn’t increase the likelihood of it happening by adding context.

If you want to create a habit you can increase the chances of success by going beyond intent. Put it into your diary and add details like who you are going to do it with, and what time it’s going to happen.

All of a sudden, the ‘might’ turns into something very real. Also, giving something a time and a place in your day eliminates that internal dialogue we have around ‘shall or shan’t I?’. Its pre-determined, we don’t need to ask ourselves if we will or won’t in the moment because we already answered the question when we wrote it in the diary.

Goal-setting

Habits should be viewed purposefully as actions that will help us to be the person we want to be or achieve the ambition we have in mind. It’s really important we set goals for ourselves but equally that we understand that setting a course and having a direction doesn’t guarantee we’ll reach them. The steps we take towards those targets and how consistently we take them is the process that gets us to where we want to go.

Firstly, if we want to be a member of a certain habit club we need to apply the right label. Let’s take meditation for example. Someone who says they meditate is far less likely to sustain a lasting habit of practicing regularly than someone who refers to themselves as a ‘meditator’. When someone assumes a title as part of their identity, they are much more likely to behave like one of them.

With that new aspect of your identity you can forget your goal and concentrate fully on the daily process that will take you towards your target. The reason we don’t focus on our goal is because we are likely to ask ourselves over and over again ‘are we there yet?’ Like a kid in the back of a car and each time you realise you’re not it can demotivate to the point of giving up. Trust in the process and the habits that you perform daily and if you can be consistent you’ll hit your goals and go beyond them.

Accountability

If we want to make a habit more likely to continue we should make ourselves accountable to our intentions by bringing someone else into it. Pride is often enough to ensure we don’t miss. If we think we’ll embarrass ourselves or let someone else down by not completing the task, we will show up and that’s why finding a habit partner or group can help. When we are only accountable to ourselves the little voice is much louder!

I invite a friend to come and train in my garden. It is nice for a social but it also guarantees I will work a good 20% harder than I would if I was on my own. I have also made myself much more accountable by sharing my habits on social media. Now that I have announced to the world about my morning routine, there’s no way I’m going to let myself down by stopping.

You can read Part 1 of this series, Transitioning out of lockdown, here.

You can read Part 2 of this series, Self validation, here.

You can read Part 3 of this series, Managing grief, here.

You can read Part 4 of this series, Positivity, here.