Your habits run almost everything that you do, and they can make your break you.
Although you have free will, you run all new information through an internal database of previous experience. This type of thinking happens in an automated manner. You don’t even know that this is happening.
Even though you feel like you’re constantly making decisions, almost half of what you do every day is a habit. Many of these are so entrenched in who you are that you don’t realize that you can make a different choice. When your habits become entangled with your subconscious, they can run your life.
Can Changing Your Habits Change the World?
You might want to set up good personal habits to improve your life. Perhaps you want to be healthier or more productive. The things that you do every day can certainly help you find fulfillment and meaning. Developing beneficial habits isn’t selfish; your personal routine can influence others in a major way.
Habits can exist on an individual level. They can also expand into an entire household, organization or society.
If you live with roommates, a partner or children, take a moment to reflect on a day in your life. If you typically wake up at 6 a.m., your kids are probably early risers too. Do you leave your laundry in baskets instead of folding it and putting it away? Your partner has likely adopted this habit.
Now, look at the business environment in which you work. Do certain habits trickle down from the top? Your management team might require you to perform certain activities every day. These can be as simple as clocking in or as complex as providing team feedback before you clock out. The level of structure and organization that exist within an organization are largely formed by habit.
Habits can also develop within society as a whole. One of the best illustrations of this is the impact of the social environment on people’s health. For example, in the U.S., millennials are more likely to want their next snack to be healthy and eat around the clock. If you move to a different country, you might pick up different eating habits based on cultural norms.
Should You Focus on Breaking Bad Habits or Establishing Good Ones?
We’ve all tried to break bad habits with varying levels of success. Some examples of breaking bad habits include:
- Quitting smoking
- Drinking less alcohol
- Stopping biting your nails
- Cutting back on junk food
- Trying not to stay up so late
- Watching less television
- Scrolling through social media less often
- Not spending money
We may recognize when we’re doing things that aren’t particularly good for us, but it’s hard to stop doing something that has become part of our daily routine. When we focus on breaking bad habits, we can also feel deprived.
Think about what happens when you try to stop eating junk food. You might do well for a few days, but you eventually get an enormous craving and give in. That’s because you’re approaching it from a lack mentality.
The Science Behind Habits
According to Leon Ho, the founder and CEO of Lifehack, the more you try to fight a certain habit, the more it stays with you. To understand this, it helps to familiarize yourself with the science behind why we develop habits in the first place.
When you do something that feels good, whether it’s good or bad for you, your brain releases feel-good chemicals. This can happen when you exercise, have sex, go shopping, drink alcohol or eat fatty foods. The reward network in your brain encourages you to seek out behaviors that lead to the release of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters.
Bad habits feel good. And if your brain’s reward centers are stimulated every time you eat a chocolate chip cookie, it’s going to be hard for you to convince yourself to stop eating them.
Instead of focusing on breaking bad habits, it can benefit you to concentrate on adopting new ones. Replacing negative behaviors with positive ones is a great way to build a solid foundation that will keep you healthy and rewarded. You just have to make sure that your good habits also make you feel good.
One way to ensure that you get a rewarding hit when you perform a behavior that’s good for you is to focus on your appreciation. For example, you might want to start exercising. Sitting on the couch eating potato chips doesn’t feel good. But it’s become a habit because it’s comfortable, and eating salty snacks sets off the reward circuit in your brain.
So does exercising. But because working out isn’t your norm, it can feel uncomfortable to pull out your workout clothes, strap on your running shoes and go for a job. So even though you get the rewards in the form of mood-enhancing chemicals circulating through your body, your positive response is counteracted by the discomfort that the new habit elicits.
If you want to adopt a regular exercise habit, you need to pay attention to the rewarding feelings that you get every time you run. You can do this in a number of ways, including:
- Writing down why you’re grateful for the ability to exercise after you complete it
- Noting the positive effects of your workout
- Bringing your awareness to the easy parts of your workout instead of the challenges
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
In many ways, breaking bad habits involves getting out of your comfort zone. That’s because most bad habits are soothing in some way.
You bite your nails when you’re feeling stressed. You eat comfort food when you want to relax. You smoke when you’re anxious. All of these feelings are indicative of discomfort.
When you’re feeling uncomfortable, you take on the bad habit to make yourself feel better. Even if it’s not a healthy habit, it makes you feel better.
We often get stuck in a cycle of harmful behavior when we judge ourselves for our bad habits. Let’s say you take a smoke break when you’re stressed at work. If you tell yourself how bad smoking is as you’re puffing on your cigarette, you’re introducing more discomfort into your system. Your body knows how to handle that type of discomfort—by keeping up your bad habit.
Therefore, to break a bad habit, you need to get comfortable with discomfort. You need to recognize the habit as a coping mechanism.
You can start by being compassionate with yourself. Don’t berate yourself for your bad habits. Accept them as ways that you’ve attempted to make yourself feel better. If you don’t judge yourself for the negative things that you do, you’re less likely to continue the harmful habits.
You can also practice getting uncomfortable in safe, productive ways so that the good habits that you’re trying to take on stick. Even if a certain behavior is good for you, it can still feel uncomfortable.
Chopping up veggies when you’re used to reaching into the pantry for a sugary treat can actually stir up some discomfort. What are you used to doing when you’re feeling that level of unease? You’re grabbing a snack that’s bad for your health. That’s why it can be so hard to adopt good habits.
But if you practice getting uncomfortable, you may be better able to keep up your positive behaviors. Some ways to get more comfortable with discomfort include:
- Trying new things often
- Going slowly and doing a bit at a time
- Do a little more every time
- Notice the emotions that are associated with the discomfort
- Allow yourself to feel and process the uncomfortable emotions
If you can master discomfort, adopting good habits can be especially easy. As you take on positive behaviors, you can leave behind the bad habits for good.
The Definitive List of Good Habits
Most successful people say that they make the most out of life because they maintain positive habits. Their positive behaviors are on autopilot, which means that they can build a solid, healthy foundation for their life and free up their brains to focus on creative thinking and reaching their goals.
If you want to make some positive changes in your life, consider taking on some of the routines suggested below to make a big impact. Some of these habits seem like common sense activities that everyone should do.
However, just like it’s simple to press snooze on your alarm even though you know you’ll be late for work, it’s easy to avoid doing what you know is good for you. You might just need to refresh your routine in order to adopt better habits. Hopefully, this list will provide you with some inspiration.
1. Smile More
When you’re not feeling good, smiling can feel like hard labor. You might even feel some irritability and aggression rise up if someone suggests that you turn your frown upside down.
However, the facial feedback hypothesis suggests that your facial expression can help regulate your mood. Scientists have explored this theory for hundreds of years.
Our bodies express emotions. In fact, some experts believe that emotions are simply the bodily reaction to our thoughts. Emotions and the way that they make us feel are largely controlled by neurotransmitters. Those chemicals affect us physically.
This helps to explain why we feel like we’ve been punched in the gut when we’re disappointed or our hearts beat faster when we’re nervous. It also explains why we smile when we’re feeling happy.
If positive feelings can make us smile, scientists believe that engaging the muscles that are necessary to produce a smile can instigate happy emotions. Research shows that if you don’t allow your face to express your emotions, you might not feel the emotions as strongly.
Therefore, smiling is a great habit to get into. Smiling may pull you out of a bad mood that could spiral into a chain of destructive behaviors. People who smile more tend to stay relaxed in the face of stress.
When you smile, you release feel-good neurotransmitters. Some studies even show that people who smile more have better relationships and make more money. You don’t even have to create an authentic smile to gain these benefits. Fake it until you make it.
2. Establish a Gratitude Practice
Lots of people are talking about gratitude these days. Is it just a woo-woo way to make the world a happier place?
Science shows that gratitude can improve your life in several ways. Showing appreciation for things in your life allows you to practice receiving, which may be the antidote to burnout.
In one study, researchers asked one group of people to record unpleasant experiences in a journal. The scientists asked another group to record the experiences that they appreciated. The individuals in the group that regularly expressed gratitude:
- Felt more in control of situations
- Were more likely to help others
- Were more enthusiastic
- Had better interpersonal relationships
- Were more optimistic
- Were more determined to achieve goals
- Had fewer physical problems
- Slept better
People who keep regular gratitude journals are also more likely to exercise, more alert and happier in general.
You don’t have to wait until the end of the day to practice gratitude. Focus on noticing what you’re grateful for throughout the day so that you keep your heart open and your vibration high.
3. Connect With Nature
Many people in our society are so reliant on technology and comfortable conveniences that they don’t get outdoors enough. People are losing their connection with nature. About 25 percent of American adults spend less than two hours outside every week.
But getting in touch with nature has many health benefits. Forest bathing, as the experience of being outdoors is sometimes called, can enhance your well-being by:
- Improving your immune system
- Reducing blood pressure
- Diminishing stress
- Improving mood
- Increasing concentration
- Facilitating recovery from illness or surgery
- Improving sleep
- Boosting energy levels
Some researchers are even studying whether exposure to forests can help people fight cancer.
Getting into the habit of spending time in nature can, therefore, improve your well-being in a variety of ways. Even when you feel too busy to take time off of work, a stroll around your office campus or a weekend camping can refresh you.
4. Make Time for Friends
Just like you can feel too busy to go outside, you can neglect your friendships when you’re getting overwhelmed by the obligations of your daily life. However, doing so can affect your physical and mental health.
Research shows that human connection is vital to your wellbeing. People who are socially isolated are more likely to die younger than those who have strong social bonds.
Friends help us grow. They support us as we get out of our comfort zones. They teach us how to be less judgmental and more forgiving. Friends can even teach us how to laugh in the face of adversity and manage stress better.
According to one study, spending time with positive people improves our outlook on life. If you want to improve your quality of life and achieve your full potential, you can’t do it alone. Surround yourself with people who can help you be your best self.
5. Breathe Properly
Before you keep reading, take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Go ahead and do it again.
Didn’t that feel good? Did it make you realize that you usually breathe shallowly?
The way that most people breathe can negatively affect their health. Without realizing it, your regular breathing patterns may be impairing your sleep, muscles, brain, digestion and nervous system.
Most of us weren’t taught how to breathe. If you only breathe into your chest, hold your breath or breathe too rapidly, you can experience an oxygen shortage. This can diminish your energy and stress out your body.
To breathe properly, you should:
- Breathe through your nose – Your nose is designed to filter the air better than your mouth. If breathing through your nose makes you feel like you’re not getting enough air, you probably need more practice. It should feel more comfortable when you do it consistently for a few days.
- Use your diaphragm – As your lungs fill up with air, they push your diaphragm down, which makes your belly rise. Up to 80 percent of your inhalation should be led by the diaphragm. When you do this consistently, you stimulate your lymphatic system, massage your internal organs and reduce pressure in your abdomen.
- Be quiet – Wheezing, coughing or audible inhalations and exhalations signal that something is wrong with your body. When you don’t create a rhythm with your breath, your body has to work harder. Practice relaxing and making less noise when you breathe. If you talk a lot, consider taking a break to focus on your breathing periodically.
When you begin focusing on your breathing, establishing an optimal pattern can feel like hard work. With practice, however, your technique will become more automatic.
You might want to set up some triggers to remind you to check your breathing. For example, you can bring awareness to your breathing:
- When your alarm goes off
- At stop lights
- When you turn on a light switch
- When you log into your social media accounts
- When you go to bed at night
6. Write Down Your Goals
If you lead a busy lifestyle, taking time to plan your day, week or year can feel like just another thing to do. However, many experts say that setting goals is the key to success.
Get into the habit of writing down your goals on a regular basis. You can do this in a way that works for you.
Many people recommend working backward when setting goals. The steps may involve:
- Envisioning where you want to be and what you want to be doing in five years
- Breaking that goal down into five smaller goals
- Looking at the tasks that could be accomplished this year
- Breaking those down into monthly goals
- Splitting up the monthly goals into weekly and daily action steps
If that feels daunting, try setting an intention when you wake up every day. A simple way to do this is to ask yourself, “How do I want to feel today?” Write down the answer. Perhaps you want to feel free, abundant, successful or happy.
Don’t worry about the action steps that you need to take to accomplish that feeling. Just keep the emotion in your mind throughout the day. As you get better at doing this, you can begin to expand your goal-setting capacity.
7. Declutter Your Space
Keeping your environment clear can benefit you on a number of levels. On an energetic level, you’re telling the universe that you have room to receive its many blessings.
Let’s use your wallet as an example. If it’s crammed full with rewards cards, old receipts, to-do lists, extra buttons and mints, you might not have room to fill it with cash. If you believe in the law of attraction, you might understand that you’re sending a signal to the universe to wait until you have more space to accept what it has to offer you.
On a physical level, clutter can detract from your clarity. If you cover your desk in piles of paper, you might not be able to focus on the project that’s due by the end of the week. If your bed is covered in laundry, you will have a hard time relaxing when it’s time to go to bed at night.
Clutter can block the flow of abundance. It can interfere with your ability to achieve the success that you’re after. If you want nicer clothes, for example, you should clear your closet of the mediocre outfits that you don’t want to wear anyway. In this way, you tell the universe that you’re ready for bigger, better things.
8. Change Your Negative Self-Talk
If you’re like most people, you talk to yourself all day long. You may not even realize that you’re doing this.
You might say things like:
- Why am I always late to work?
- Good things always happen to other people.
- I’m a terrible mother.
- I’m so disorganized.
- My life is so hard.
We internalize these messages and start to believe them. Even if you can logically understand that you’re lucky to live a relatively easy life, especially compared to many other people, you might go through life telling yourself that everything is always difficult for you. This can make you work harder than you have to and take things more personally than necessary.
Many experts tout the benefits of positive thinking. However, you need to become aware of your negative thinking patterns to change them into beneficial ones. Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you ignore the bad things that happen to you. It just helps you put things into perspective and find constructive ways of dealing with stress.
Changing your negative thought processes can:
- Increase your life span
- Decrease your risk of depression
- Reduce stress levels
- Improve resistance to cold viruses
- Boost your heart health
- Enhance your coping skills
9. Focus on Nourishing Yourself
Whether you’re trying to establish healthy eating habits or stop doing harmful activities, focus on what you can have instead of what you can’t. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t think about the chocolate cake that you can’t have.
Instead, concentrate on the wide variety of colorful foods that are available to you. Think about eating foods that are packed with nutrients. When you think in this way, you’ll be more likely to say no to the potato chips because they don’t contain any nutrients that are good for your health.
You can do this when it comes to breaking bad habits too. If you’re trying to quit smoking, focus on what you can do instead. You might treat yourself with a delicious beverage, take five minutes to lounge in the sun or call a good friend whenever you want a cigarette.
In other words, replace less nourishing activities with those that fill you up as much as possible. You may find that you start craving the rich experiences.
10. Move Your Body Every Day
We hesitate to tell you to exercise regularly. You’ve heard that advice before. In fact, you probably get plenty of pressure from your doctor and the media to improve your physical fitness.
When you choose to be sedentary instead of working out, guess what happens? You guessed it—you feel uncomfortable. Putting these demands on yourself can lead you to turn to habits that soothe you, which aren’t always good for your health, as we discussed above.
Instead of worrying about hitting the gym or fitting in a boot camp class, what if you just make an effort to move your body every day? This could mean that you dance to your favorite songs, hula hoop in the backyard or go for a stroll to enjoy the weather.
When you enjoy the experience, you’ll be more likely to keep it up. Without even trying, you’ll end up being the kind of person who exercises every day and loves it.