Perhaps the most important thing when hacking a habit is to have an exciting and viable new habit to put in its place.
People often lament their inability to quit smoking, eat better, learn faster, or any of hundreds of other habits they’d like to end. However, without something to replace the old pattern with it’s nearly impossible to get rid of the one you no longer want.
So the first step in updating a habit is to choose a new habit to put in its place.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Using our example from Part 1 of this series let’s consider you want to replace your habit of saying awful things to yourself when you look in the mirror. (Feel free to substitute any other habit that makes sense for your life.)
…all behaviors have or at some point had a positive intention or useful purpose.
Step 1: First of all you want to operate under the assumption that all behaviors have or at some point had a positive intention or useful purpose*. Find yours in the current context.
In the case of the mirror example let’s say that the positive reason for your negative self talk was to create the impetus to improve your appearance – a goal your teenage mind once thought absolutely critical to social success.
Step 2: Understanding the positive intention, you are now able to create a new outcome that fulfills the function of the old one – along with your updated desires. This kind of systemic thinking is called being ecological. In other words you’re making sure that a positive change in one place will not lead to a negative change elsewhere in your life. The process of ensuring a new habit fits within the overall scope of your life is called doing an Ecology Check.
In the case of the mirror, your negative self talk may be driving you to workout and eat well. This is a positive effect and assures a level of physical health and well-being that might end if you stopped the negative self talk without putting other supportive measures in place. An ecology check makes sure you avoid making a mistake of this kind.
Step 3: Knowing the positive intention of your nasty mirror talk, you can now decide what to do in its place to get your desired outcome, while still maintaining the benefits of the old habit.
The trick here is to come up with a new habit (or group of habits) that not only serves the old function, but is something you really want. If you don’t really want the new habit it’s almost impossible to install.
In general, your brain follows the path of least resistance. That means it does what’s most familiar. Since you want to disrupt the familiar and install something new in the sequence, you need to add energy into the system. Specifically, you have to add enough energy to overcome the current habit and redirect it to the new habit. This means that if the negative self talk has a powerful (or deeply familiar) charge, the new pattern has to have an even more powerful charge.
If you don’t really want the new habit it’s almost impossible to install.
This is almost always the issue people run into when they can’t stop smoking or eating or have trouble with any behavior they want to change. They simply don’t want anything enough to override the deep familiarity of their current habit. Without an adequately attractive new behavior to update to… they remain stuck in the unwanted but familiar.
So you need to come up with something absolutely compelling.
Step 4: Follow the signs to essence.
If you don’t like something in your life, e.g., the way you speak to yourself in the mirror, that signal that let’s you know you don’t like it is coming from a place deeper than the habit. It is arising due to the incongruity between your behaviors and something more essential than any behavior, which in self programming we refer to as your Essential Frequency. This incongruity creates a feeling of discord or dissonance in your body; Mother Nature’s cruel but undeniable way of alerting you to an issue that needs to be addressed.
By following that dissonance to its source and resolving the issue you will often naturally find both the updated behavior you seek and the release of the discomfort.
The most satisfying and rewarding new behaviors will be more congruent and therefore more powerful than the current behaviors. Because of this essential alignment the new behaviors have the feeling of being familiar even through they are still new.
The key here is that you need to put in whatever time or work it takes to come up with the new behavior that feels right if you really want it to work. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what that new behavior is so long as it fits within your overall life outcomes, doesn’t negatively impact any other aspect of your life, and gives you the feeling of resolution, relief, or accomplishment you are seeking.
With our mirror example, you could go all the way to the back to the place of internal safety and simplicity – before your teenage mind decided that you needed to look at certain way to feel okay. Tapped into that feeling, any new behavior that supports it will work perfectly.
It’s easiest to successfully install a habit in one specific and measurable context and then distribute it into other contexts.
In the case of quitting smoking the new behavior could be a deep breath; or laughter at the fact that you used to smoke and then the subsequent consideration of your new life in which you aren’t going to die a horrible death of lung cancer, and then the happiness you’ll feel sunbathing in Fiji with the money you’re saving by not buying cigarettes. What matters is that instead of smoking you do something else more aligned with your overall goals.
Step 5: Once you have the new routine in mind, implementation is the final frontier of habit installation. You need to decide where the best place to hack your current habit is – at the cue, the routine, or the reward.
The first tip is DO NOT try to hack a habit everywhere, all at once. Eating and smoking occur many times in many contexts. It’s easiest to successfully install a habit in one specific and measurable context and then distribute it into other contexts. Saying to yourself, “I’m going to quit smoking” without tying that idea to a specific, measurable context is usually a recipe for failure. Instead, consider one place where the habit occurs and hack it there. In the case of cigarette smoking, it could be to recognize that every time you wake up you automatically go for a cigarette. So waking up is the first cue that you want to tie to the new routine (mentioned above).
With the mirror example, it can be the first time you walk into the bathroom for the day before the cue fires up the routine. For instance, the new habit could be to relax all the muscles in your body – including the muscles you use to speak to yourself in your head right before you walk into the bathroom where the mirror is. This way you preempt the cue by accessing a deeper and more essential state in which the old cue can’t fire off effectively. Once completely relaxed, you walk in, tap into the sensual pleasure of an orgasm, give a deep internal “Mmmmmmm” and look at yourself head to toe. Now you get to feel good and decide what strong and excellent ways you will impact the world today.
The final step is to test your work.
Step 6: The final step is to test your work. Did you actually change your habit or are you still just wishing and hoping? Hacking habits is a measurable, testable action. If you run the new routine without thought a few times you’re good to go. If you’re having trouble and it’s still not installed – keep working. And if you fail and get frustrated – good! Use the energy of that frustration to drive your motivation to make it happen. The ability to install a new habit is the foundation of all self programming. Without it you have no recourse to chart the direction of your own life.
*Remember, Mother Nature is ruthless and uses pain as a primary method of training. Don’t get fooled into thinking that positive intentions have to be nice or feel good. The drive to safety is often the feeling of fear; the instinct to protect can manifest as aggression towards others.