According to legend, British occultist Aleister Crowley took an exceptionally harsh approach to self-discipline: To break the habit of using the word “I,” he supposedly slashed his own arm with a razor every time he uttered the forbidden syllable. (Don’t try this at home.)
That’s an extreme example of the self-punishment most people put themselves through when they’re trying to change their own behavior. It’s also a memorable illustration of what not to do in these kinds of situations. As it turns out, self-abuse and white-knuckle self-denial are not the most effective means of developing new habits. Science shows you’d be better off using repetition, positive reinforcement and external cues in fun and life-affirming ways.
Here are some pointers.
Use Stimulus Control
As explained in psychologist/habit formation expert Wendy Wood’s book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick, a habit begins when we start to associate a stimulus—that is, a signal (such as breakfast)—with a certain behavior (such as going for a jog). The more often you jog right after eating breakfast, the stronger that association becomes.
Stimulus control is the manipulation of those external cues to deliberately trigger certain behaviors. For instance, if Django Reinhardt inspires you to practice guitar, put up a picture of him where you’ll see it frequently. If the sight and smell of cigarettes makes you want to smoke, stay away from places where you’ll be exposed to those stimuli.
Crowley’s method was an example of stimulus control, but not of the most efficient use thereof … and certainly not of the most fun approach.
Simply put, friction reduction means setting up a path of least resistance between you and the habit you want to build. If your goal is to go to the gym regularly, choose a gym close to your house. If you want to start jogging in the morning, keep your jogging clothes by your bed and put them on when you wake up. Remove obstacles and make it as easy as possible to adopt the desired behavior.
Audit Your Own Behavior
To make habit-forming easier, keep a journal or log of your day-to-day activities. This will help you keep track of your progress, make you aware of your own patterns and help alert you to bad habits you might want to overcome. “It can also draw your attention to triggers to those bad habits, and it can give you insight into where the best place might be to insert a new habit,” asserts Dr. Benjamin Gardner, an internationally recognized expert on habitual behavior. “If you, for example, want to get on your Peloton once a day, say to yourself that you're going to do that as soon as you wake up. If, having observed your own behavior for a week, you realize that actually you're really tired in the morning, or you don't have much time, then you’re unlikely to follow through on that, so the best thing to do is to try and find the right opportunity to do it.”
Out with the Old, In with the New
The act of habit swapping—replacing an existing routine with a new one—is what MUD\WTR is all about: trading an old habit (drinking coffee) for a more benign one (drinking one of our :rise blends).
“Swapping is one reason that Americans’ decreased consumption of sugary sodas in recent years has aligned with increased consumption of bottled water,” Wendy Wood writes in Good Habits, Bad Habits. “Water is sold in individual-serving bottles in convenience and grocery stores—right alongside the soft drinks—making it easy to swap one for the other. Consumers can be healthy with their stop-by-the-convenience-store-and-purchase-a-drink habit.”
Before You Go
Here are a few final tips from Trends w/ Benefits’ mental health advisor, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Raghu Appasani:
- Visualize success.
- Be specific about your goals.
- Pause, reflect and reward yourself for small achievements along the way to reinforce.
Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work here.