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Same dog, New Year, new tricks: Part 2.

Aristotle once said, 'We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.' And to become excellent, we need to make it a habit to perfect whatever we do. This reminds me of a joke where a musician was asked how to get to Carnegie Hall. His answer? Practice, practice, practice.

Great accomplishments are not a result of one cosmic event. It is a confluence of little choices we do everyday. You do not just become a great musician. You must practice, practice, practice until it is no longer practice but becomes a part of you. And in time, you will discover that you have achieved your goals all because you started choosing good habits to improve yourself.

Can you still remember your New Year's resolutions? Hopefully you have listed them down because I will share some tips and tricks to make your resolutions stick.

First and foremost, you need to identify what you want to change in yourself this year. Once you have identified them, ask yourself if you are doing it for others or if you are doing it for yourself. Chances are, if you are doing it for someone else, the moment that person is no longer in the picture, you will lose your resolve to cultivate that habit. Sure, you can recruit people to help you and cheer you on, but at the end of the day you will still have to live with yourself. And that is a pretty long time. So make sure you are doing it for yourself to make yourself happy and not for others. After all, your happiness matters more than their criticisms.

Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit and a renowned behavioral psychologist, says people are unsuccessful at forming new habit because they do not know how habits are formed and developed. In his book, he says habits develop from cues triggering a routine and reinforced by a reward. The cue-routine-reward is called the habit cycle, from which habits form.

Last week I cited the example of coffee in the afternoon and how it became a habit from being a trial cup to being the go-to wake-me-upper. The cue is feeling sleepy, the routine is getting a cup of coffee, and the reward is feeling invigorated. If you want to get rid of coffee in the afternoon, replace the routine with an alternative.

I suggest an apple not only because 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away' but also because research has shown that an apple has natural sugars (fructose) that the body slowly uses, thus keeping you awake longer. It has other side benefits from the phytonutrients, antioxidants and flavonoids that are known to improve health. Replace coffee with apple and you will gradually find yourself no longer hankering for coffee.

The important thing here is to understand what you do everyday and look for the triggers that make you do the things you do. Replace the routine with something better and healthier and you're on your way to building habits that will help you achieve your New Year's resolution to become the better you. Duhigg sums this up when he said, 'The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.' So start moving!

How long before it becomes a habit? The easy answer is however long it takes. But behavioral research has shown you need a minimum of 21 day to develop a habit. But for habits that are harder to break, it could take months to develop routines that replace them.

Which leads me to an important part in getting rid of bad habits -your willpower. Willpower is a curious thing. There are those who can get rid of a habit cold turkey. They seemingly have this super power to switch off their cravings and go on as if nothing had happened. For the rest of us ordinary folk, it takes weeks or even months to get off a bad habit. Luckily for us, there are scientific researches that help us understand how we can get rid of debilitating habits.

James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, says that in order to create new habits, you need to apply four things. Your new habit needs to be obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying if you are going to adopt good ones. Conversely, if you want to get rid of bad ones, you need to make it invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.

Let's take smoking when stressed, for example. A simplistic approach to applying these principles is to identify factors that push you to smoke and avoid them (obvious); find an alternative that is better, like talking to your friends or reading a good book (attractive); set realistic goals like lessening the number of sticks you smoke each day until it becomes zero (easy); then reward yourself every time you meet your target daily goals (satisfying). Of course, James Clear explains it more in detail in his book and if you are serious about developing good habits to replace bad ones, I strongly encourage you to get a copy of his book.

One tip that helped me develop good habits was to break down a seemingly insurmountable habit into bite-sized pieces. Last year one of my goals was to exercise regularly. The first week was hilarious because I wanted to do two hours of exercise five times that week. So guess what happened the next week? I did not go to the gym. It became so difficult for me that I simply gave up. After a few days, I reminded myself of my goals but with a realization that the only thing that will help me achieve them was if I do it gradually. And so I did just that. I went to the gym three times a week for an hour for the next months or so and after a year, I have made it a habit to go to the gym five times a week for 90 minutes. The first few months were a struggle but once I had made it easy for me to achieve realistic goals, I was able to add a few more each week until it already became a habit.

You can do it too. What are your goals this year? Find useful habits to overcome bad ones by breaking them down to realistic goals and add more as you achieve your goals. You might be the same dog but who says you can't be taught new tricks?
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Jan 16, 2019
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