Habits for lasting success

Menna H Ashour , Tuesday 31 Jan 2023

Menna H Ashour writes on the power of habit in our lives, why changing is challenging, and how to adjust habits to achieve success and well-being

changing habits
changing habits


Our habits reflect the people we are. They are what we do without thinking, from eating choices to thinking patterns to work routines and social lifestyles. They play an important role in our success or failure, health or sickness, misery or happiness, and peace or chaos. Basically, a habit is a form of automated behaviour learned from experience that could be a thought, a decision, an action, a routine, or a lifestyle.

“A habit is a repeated choice or action you make deliberately to reach a certain objective or achieve a goal that you want. The regular practice is what makes it unconscious,” Nouran Nazer, a life coach and founder of Maeisha Wellbeing, told Al-Ahram Weekly

Nazer, who has recently organised a workshop on the power of habit, thinks having habits is important as they enhance our performance by creating space in our minds for new things. However, this can apply to both good and bad choices, she said.

“You have to be aware of your habits because there are always consequences. When you look more deeply into your habits, the outcomes you face make more sense,” she added.

“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. The process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself,” says US author James Clear in his bestselling book Atomic Habits.

According to Clear, habits are a series of automatic solutions and mental shortcuts learnt from experience that help to solve the problems and stresses we face regularly. “Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to overall improvement,” he said.

Clear believes that a slight change in our daily habits can guide our lives to very different destinations. Making a choice that is better or worse may seem insignificant at the moment it is made, but over time and with repetition these choices determine the difference between who we are and who we could be. 

“Success is the product of daily habits, not a once-in-a-lifetime transformation,” he said.

He highlights that it does not matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now; what matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path towards success. Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits, he said. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits, your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits, your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits, and your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. 

You are what you repeat, he said.

CHANGING HABITS: So, why is it so easy to repeat bad habits and so hard to form good ones? 

How many times have you tried to lose weight, eat more healthily, or take more exercise? Do you find yourself starting big then fail to keep the momentum or slip back to where you started?

Clear thinks that changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: we try to change the wrong thing, and we try to change our habits in the wrong way.

To tackle the first mistake, he explains the three levels at which behaviour change can occur, which are like the layers of an onion. These layers are the outcome (what you get), the process (what you do), and the identity (what you believe). 

According to Clear, the outcome level is concerned with changing your results and goals, such as losing weight, publishing a book, or starting a company.

The process level is concerned with changing your habits and systems, such as implementing a new exercise routine, developing a meditation practice, or starting a healthy eating lifestyle. 

The deepest level is the identity level, which is concerned with changing your beliefs, such as your worldview, your self-image, and your judgements about yourself and others. 

Clear thinks that one problem is that many people do not even consider identity change when they set out to improve themselves. They just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome), and if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).”

They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they do not realise that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change, as just like behind every system of actions there is a system of beliefs, there is also an identity behind habits.

“You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are,” he said.

The solution, he suggests, is to start with your identity and beliefs and then focus on who you want to become, not what you want to achieve.

According to Clear, behaviour that is incongruent with yourself will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is that of someone who consumes rather than creates, then you will continue to be pulled towards spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritise comfort over accomplishment, you will be drawn to relaxing rather than training. 

It is hard to change habits if you do not change the underlying beliefs that have led to past behaviour. 

“True behaviour change is identity change,” he said. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you will stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

Anyone can convince themselves to visit the gym or eat healthily once or twice, but if you do not shift the belief behind the behaviour, then it is hard to stick with long-term changes as improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.

“The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument; the goal is to become a musician,” Clear said.

Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. Moreover, your behaviours are usually a reflection of your identity and the type of person you believe yourself to be.

Clear thinks that another reason why it is so hard to build habits that last is that we make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and then decide to stop. You think, “I’ve been running every day for a month, so why can’t I see any change?” 

Once this kind of thinking takes over, it is easy to let good habits fall by the wayside. But in order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break a certain threshold.

BUILDING NEW HABITS: Now that you know how changing your habits is key to transforming any facet of your life from work to mental health to family, how can you create lasting change?

According to Nazer, the first step is to understand that any habit we have goes through a cycle called the habit loop, a cue that triggers you to perform a specific behaviour or action (routine) that gives you a reward.

If you have a habit of drinking coffee first thing in the morning, waking up is the cue that triggers you to crave coffee, the action of making the coffee is the routine, and being alert is the reward you get, she explains. 

She suggests that if you want to change a habit, you should look at the action that you perform and ask yourself what could be an alternative that would give you the same reward. If you want to change your behaviour, you need to start with awareness. Where is it not going well and why? What are the possible options that it would be better to shift to?  

“We tend to focus on building new habits that support our goals and forget about our present ones that are weighting us down,” she said. 

According to Nazer, such unhealthy habits could be what are actually limiting you, so you need to identify them first and declutter before you overload yourself with new or better ones. “For me, failure is not to miss the goal, but to stop trying,” she added.

Clear believes that any habit can be broken down into a four-step feedback loop: the cues that trigger a craving, motivate a response, provide a reward, and satisfy the craving. 

You smell a doughnut shop as you walk down the street near your office (cue), you begin to crave a doughnut (craving), so you buy a doughnut and eat it (response), and you satisfy your craving to eat a doughnut (reward). As a result, buying a doughnut becomes associated with walking down the street near your office.

So, if you want to create a good habit, make the cues as obvious as possible, make the habit rewarding and attractive (create craving), make it as easy as possible to adopt (response), and make it satisfying (reward). Inversely, to break a bad habit, make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.

Clear thinks that if you want lasting success, you should forget about setting goals and focus on your system instead. “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress,” he said.

Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you do not want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems,” he explained.

Now that you are aware of the power of habits in enhancing your life and performance, the core reasons why we may fail to sustain our desired change, and how to permanently break the pattern of your limiting habits and build new empowering ones, take a moment and reflect on your own life. 

What did you do first when you woke up today? Did you make coffee? Check your phone? Say a prayer? Rushed to work? Or made your bed? 

Start with identifying and reviewing your present habits. Are they helping you to live the life you want to lead or are they limiting you? Are they supporting the person you want to be, or are they holding you back? Do you want to develop a workout routine, quit smoking, or achieve financial freedom? Maybe you would like to spend more time with family and friends? 

Decide what needs to be altered and define the new habits you need to build to achieve your own system of continuous progress, success, and well-being.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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