This article first appeared on Happify
So much of our lives are lived on autopilot. We eat, sleep, go to work, attend to house chores, try to fit in some fun or self-care, or simply wind down in front of the television. Then we begin the same process all over again the very next day.
Sure, there are moments when we consciously pay attention to what we’re doing. But paying attention expends mental energy and is tiring for the brain. Sooner or later, we revert back to what comes habitually to us—because habits don’t require any mental exertion at all.
However, many of our habits don’t serve us very well. Most of them were set in place a long time ago, in response to what we were facing, or simply as a result of the brain’s tendency to go for what feels easy or enjoyable in the moment. A bag of chips on the couch is easier than half an hour at the gym. Triple-layer chocolate cake is more enjoyable than carrot sticks. Both of those luxuries are great treats once in a while. But as habits, they don’t serve us well.
If we want to take greater charge of our lives, we need to reverse-engineer our habits. Instead of letting the unconscious decide our future, we need to reflect on what we want, then consciously create powerful habits that lead to this desired future. Since this process does take mental energy initially, here are 5 research-backed hacks you can use to make your brain work for you—rather than opting for the easy way out.
Take Changes One at a Time
When we set out to bring positive change into our lives, we often try to change everything at once. This is fine if you’re changing your wardrobe or furniture, but habit change requires willpower. And we know from Roy Baumeister’s research that willpower is a depleting resource. Pick the habit that’s causing you the most misery, or the one that’s the greatest obstacle to your growth. Or, if you’re a first-timer in building habits, choose one that you’re ready to change—but just one. You’re not trying to prove yourself to anyone. Then move on to the next hack.
Consistency Is Key
Now that you know the habit you’ll be working on, promise yourself that you’ll be consistent with the change. Dr. Christine Carter, an author and sociologist who has researched habits in depth, says that you may want to have a BTN (Best to Nothing) for your habit. A BTN is a mini version of the habit that you’ll still engage in even if circumstances beyond your control prevent you from doing the full thing. For example, if your habit is a 30-minute workout every day before work, and a last-minute early-morning meeting has been called, you still need to do your BTN—in this case, maybe it’s 50 jumping jacks, or running up and down the stairs a few times—so your brain still knows that exercise happens before work. Think of habits like creating footprints on dewy grass. The more consistently you walk in the same footsteps, the more visible they’ll become.
Cues and Rewards
Now to the habit! Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, has found that habit formation follows 3 key steps. First there’s the cue that reminds you of the habit. Then there’s the positive habit that typically replaces a negative one. And finally, there’s the reward that signals to your brain that it was an enjoyable process and that you’d want to do it again. Here’s an example: If you want to build a habit of flossing before bedtime, place your floss beside your toothpaste (cue), then floss after brushing (habit), and finally, rinse with your favorite minty-fresh mouthwash (reward). Skip any of these steps, and your habit formation is a long and painful ride!
Make It Difficult
Now that you’re immersed in your new habit, use your environment to your advantage. Changing a habit is difficult for the simple reason that it happens outside of conscious awareness. You can make the process easier for yourself by making it difficult to engage in a bad habit you’re trying to let go of. So if you’re trying to stop eating unhealthy snacks, don’t stock your fridge with chocolate cake or your pantry with bags of chips; that way, they won’t tempt you at 10 p.m. Better still, leave baby carrots and hummus dip in your fridge so that the next time you unconsciously reach for an unhealthy bite to eat, you have snack that makes you feel good instead of guilty afterward.
Whypower vs. Willpower
Despite all the hacks above, there may be days when you really are drained and have no energy to work on your new habit. Perhaps you had a nasty day at work, Perhaps your kids have been arguing more than usual, Perhaps you’ve been running around doing a hundred things and simply want to slump down and not have to think about a thing. No reason to lose heart! You can tap into a higher source of energy that bypasses willpower—your whypower. Unlike willpower, whypower connects you to the bigger reason you want to change your habit. For example, the difference it’ll make to those you care about, or the benefits it’ll have on others or perhaps the world in some way.
Remember, you will engage in habits regardless. So why not engage in positive ones that help you pursue a well-lived life? These habits will free up your mental energy to be present with the people around you and the things that matter to you.