By Shane Trotter. Originally published on www.breakingmuscle.com
Whether you are an athlete seeking peak performance or an adult attempting to reconnect with the health of your youth, the mind matters. Michael Gervais, sports psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and many Olympians, explains that there are really only ways to train: your craft, physical development, and mental training. If you aren’t training the mind, you are missing a full third of your potential training benefit. The good news is that you already have the first essential ingredient of any successful person: the desire to improve yourself.
Many of you have probably tried, in vain, to white-knuckle certain changes that were sure to bring success. The problem is that willpower is a finite resource. As the famed Stanford marshmallow test showed, when willpower is taxed, people are more likely to listen to their emotions and opt for guilty pleasures or less productive options. Eventually, you’ll have a rough day at work, then it’s back to the bowl of Ben and Jerry’s you swore you’d only have on Sundays. For true change to take place we must understand habits and the methods by which we create lasting, positive change. Furthermore, you must be able to pinpoint what actions will give you the greatest leverage and make the most difference.
How a Habit is Formed
Most of life boils down to habits. Life events are cues, and how we respond to them, with thoughts and actions, are habits we condition. Charles Duhigg explains this “habit loop” of cue, routine, and reward in his book, The Power of Habit. The most obvious example is a text message:
- Cue: phone chimes
- Routine: check phone
- Reward: information
But habits aren’t always so benign. You may have trained your body to expect a double-mocha-extra-syrup-heavy-whip-latte every day on your way to work:
- Cue: drive to work
- Routine: buy sugary cup of death
- Reward: taste buds do their happy dance
It’s important to understand that we cannot get rid of bad habits; we can only replace them. Therefore, we must be very intentional about substituting new cues, routines, and rewards. For example, I love peanut butter sandwiches. They are the high-glycemic carbs I need after a workout to replenish glycogen. I work out every day, because otherwise I don’t get a peanut butter sandwich. Do you want to start making your bed every morning? Put one of the eighteen “throw pillows” (my wife is right; they really do a lot for the aesthetics of our house) by the bedroom door. When you wake and are forced to move the pillow before opening the door, you are cued to make the bed. The reward may be your satisfaction and wife’s gratitude, or you can strengthen the habit by rewarding yourself with that first cup of coffee. Within a few weeks, you’ve built a new habit.
The Elephant, It's Rider, and the Path
To improve our ability to create positive habits, its important to know and manipulate all relevant variables. Chip and Dan Heath highlight this process in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. They describe three variables in each decision: emotion, logic, and external circumstance. These variables are explained metaphorically as an elephant (your emotions), with a man riding it (logic), and the path they’re traveling (external world).
The rider may set an alarm to wake up at 5am and work out, but when the alarm rings, the rider cannot control that elephant. The alarm is cancelled and you go back to sleep. To get leverage on this decision, you must shape the path. At night while your rider is in charge, set two alarms at opposite ends of the room. By the time you’ve turned both off, the elephant will have quieted and your rider can take charge.
It’s not always the rider that needs empowerment. Sometimes we need the elephant’s passion and momentum. If I explain to you that soda is bad for you, you don’t care. However, if I bring in people who drank sodas everyday and have lost limbs to diabetes, or show before and after pictures of people who simply quit soda for six months, I will influence the elephant.
That feeling you get when you see Sarah McLachlan singing and sad puppies in the background? That’s your elephant telling you to donate.
Shape Your Path to Hack Your Habits
Life would be infinitely easier if our peers and culture reinforced strong habits. Fitting in 20 minutes of meditation would be easy if your workplace encouraged a daily mindfulness break. Eating healthy would be a breeze if the middle aisles of the grocery store disappeared and your friends stopped encouraging late-night Jack in the Box runs.
This brings us back to shaping the path. As they said in Switch, “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” Take pressure off the rider and elephant so neither gets as tired wrestling all day. You should painstakingly create a path that promotes your goals. If candy, chips, and soda are in the house, you’ll justify the indulgence repeatedly.
Surrounding yourself with positive peer pressure may be the most important step in creating a path. Dr. Wayne Andersen, cofounder and medical director of Take Shape for Life, claims that in “evaluating what creates long term health and fitness success, the single most important factor is having a support system.” Create goals with your spouse or friends and compete together. If this is a challenge, find a way to constantly expose yourself to positive inspiring information. Podcasts are a fantastic way to do this. On your morning commute or during lunch you can benefit from the top minds in your field or masters in the performance world. Let their stories be a form of positive peer pressure.
Path Development for Positive Cultural Change
For a civilization of great people, we need great societal habits. Nowhere is there more opportunity for path formation than in education. Take junk food out of the schools and kids can’t eat it all day. Install standing desks and they’ll be less sedentary.
We must intentionally train habits to deal with the effects of social media, and create a generation capable of using this technology for its benefit rather than one controlled by its charms. This starts with shaping the school path. Foster the understanding that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Eliminate social media from the classroom, but allow specified social media sprees every couple of hours.
There is a great need in education for intentional habit and mindset development. All of the math, science, and social studies courses may not be essential to everyone’s future, but understanding mind and body health and how to develop both are skills everyone needs. Taking charge of your own mental and physical health may be the most pertinent topic to life success schools could cover. We should deliberately create a mentally strong, well-balanced generation through instruction on mental health.
Mental training is made more necessary by the path currently presented to our nation. Sugar-based diets, sedentary lifestyles, and constant social media distraction have thrown the mind and body out of whack. Some researchers have even suggested there is such a thing as “Facebook depression,” created by too much time on social media and the augmented perception of other people’s lives viewed on their highlight reel profiles. We have created a perfect cocktail for a deeply imbalanced mentally distressed generation.
Integrating mindfulness practice into the classroom would help youth begin to understand how to handle distraction. It would allow them to shed any negative labels they’d given themselves and give them a background in exploring and taking ownership in their own mental development. Our culture lacks structured practice in emotional intelligence, and most people would benefit greatly from early exposure to mental training.
What Changes Should You Make
Now that we know how to change, we must address those changes that will have the greatest benefit to our physical and mental health. Jennifer Cohen has highlighted the habits highly successful people swear by. I’ve taken her list and given it my own twist:
- Get to bed early and get up at least an hour before your day begins. Set a sleep schedule and shoot for the eight hours of sleep you know you need.
- Get a morning workout. It can be just a 15-minute HIIT session or a full strength and conditioning program. Just get something in.
- Find time to sit in silence. Meditating after the workout seems a perfect time. You need this silent space. Creativity and happiness often follow. As, I’ve stated before, meditation may be the key to unlocking a performance state which allows you to thrive.
- Create a mantra. What moves you to awesomeness? Breathe and recite.
- Eat breakfast and pack healthy snacks. This eliminates future temptation.
- Do the hardest activity first each day. You will create awesome momentum.
- Eliminate life’s non-essentials. Remove the clutter and focus on what matters. Too often we waste time on a million tiny items with little payoff, rather than tackling the whale, which will make all future actions much easier.
- Practice daily gratitude. At the start of each day, recite one thing you are excited for; at the end of each day, recite one you are grateful for. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor explains how exercises like meditation and gratitude can re-program your brain for optimism and make you more creative and energized.
All these habits are not required for success. But I expect by adopting just a few, you will find production and self-satisfaction rise. Rather than be victims of our constantly changing world, let’s become active guides, shaping our path and creating a stronger generation with the ability to confidently guide their own lives.