“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” — Colin Powell
Habits. We all have them, right? Some good. Others are bad. And a few that are just downright ugly. But here’s the question. How do you build or break a habit fast? Well, before I reveal precisely how it’s done, it’s important to understand this. Your life right now is the product of your habits. Period.
Look, 95% of everything you think, say, or do is controlled by your habits. Yes. That much. I know, I know, it sounds like a lot. But think about it yourself. How often do you try to do something new and just end up right back doing the same things again?
We try something new, and while it’s fresh, it’s exciting. But as soon as that freshness wears off and routine sets in, we’re no longer excited about it. Then, we end up throwing in the proverbial towel and we’re right back where we started. It happens often, right?
That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. This happens by design. The human mind is designed to help us automate most tasks, making them habit-driven. This is rooted in human survival. Foraging for food or doing something else would still require you to be alert for dangers or predators.
We’re going back into our ancestry now. But the point is that the mind will automate anything done that’s repetitive. Sure, we no longer have to worry about a tiger chasing us down in the jungle, but that doesn’t change how the mind operates.
How Do Habits Work?
Habits are part of non-conscious behavior. For that reason, they can be frustrating. They reside in a part of our mind that we don’t have access to. That doesn’t mean we can’t build or break any habit we want. It just means that without self-awareness, we are just passengers in our own minds.
What most people don’t realize is that habits are created over time. Not overnight. So trying to break a habit cold turkey just doesn’t work. If you’ve been doing something for years, maybe even decades, how likely do you think you can quit at the drop of a hat?
Not very likely, right? Unless, of course, a doctor is telling you that you’re going to die or you have some other turn of events that suddenly wakes you up. It happens. I know. But it’s more often not the case. Since a habit takes 18 to 254 days to form, don’t expect to break or build one overnight.
Still, there are methods that actually work for doing this fast. Not in a day or two. But quickly. As long as you follow the strategy I’m about to show you, I can assure you that you’ll get results. If you try to take shortcuts, you’ll likely be right back where you started, but worse off.
You’ve experienced that before, right? You go out there and try to do something new, and in the beginning, it’s fun and exciting. But it never lasts very long. Whether it’s a diet o addiction or something else, quitting anything habitual is hard. Am I right?
Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together
The human brain is like a forest. There are 100 billion neurons cluttering the mass before learned behavior has developed. And in the beginning, there are no trails through that forest, between Point A and Point B. Meaning, when you first start out to do something, it’s foreign and unknown.
However, as we start doing something new, we fire neurons. The more times we do it, the more times. those neurons fire. As the neurons fire, they eventually wire together. Meaning, the behavior becomes automatic. Over time, those neurons wire more closely together.
Eventually, a neural pathway is created. It gets etched deeply in the brain and it becomes something of a default behavior. The longer it’s repeated, the deeper the pathway that’s etched. Think about it like a tractor driving along the same dirt path every day for years. The longer it drives that path, the deeper it’s etched.
Over time, the tractor might want to deviate from that path. But it can’t because the path is so deeply etched now. That’s why it’s so hard to break a habit. It’s because there are so many neurons wired together after years or decades of repetitive behavior.
Changing Your Approach
Since so much of what happens in the mind is non-conscious, you have to change your approach. The truth is that when you go cold turkey, it’s incredibly hard to build or break a habit. For example, when you try to lose weight, there’s a reason why most people end up heavier than when they started. It’s because of those neural pathways.
Think about it like the farm tractor. If the farm tractor tries a major deviation from the path, what happens? Well, if it tries to go off on a 45-degree angle, it faces lots of resistance. When it tries to do a 90-degree angle, there’s even more resistance.
So if you can’t change it like that, how do you change it? Well, imagine that same tractor going just 1 to 3 degrees off the beaten path. In that way, it’s still possible to move in the direction, right? The same thing applies to your habits. Change your approach, but do it slowly.
What do I mean? For example, let’s just say you’re a smoker and you smoke a pack of cigarettes per day. That’s 20 cigarettes, right? Well, what if you reduced it down to 18 per day. What would happen? Sure, the change is almost unnoticeable. But it is a change.
Do this for about a week, and your body and brain readjusts to the new normal. Then, the following week, reduce it down to 16 cigarettes per day. Then, 14 the next week, and so on. Or, if you want to take up early. Wake up 10 minutes earlier this week, then another 10 minutes the following week. And keep going.
The Micro-Changes Approach
This is called the micro-changes approach. And it’s the fastest way that I know to permanently build or break any habit. Note I said permanently. But the trick here is to stay consistent. If you deviate, it won’t work. For example, if you do your 18 cigarettes, then drop down to 16, then 14, that’s great.
However, if you have an off day and jump back up to 20 cigarettes that day, you’ll throw the whole thing off. The changes are very small because it’s super-hard to fail at doing this. This works for anything. Literally, any area of your life.
Let’s say you want to get into great shape. But you have always failed at working out. So this is what you do. Do one push-up per day for a week. Just one. Then, increase to 2 per day (or 3). And keep going. Or, walk around the block just once per day for a week. Then twice per day the following week. And so on.
The point here is that you’re firing and wiring neurons together. And over time, this builds a habit or breaks one. It’s not the number of times you do something. It’s how often you do it for. So when you increase the number (or decrease depending on building or breaking a habit), it sticks over time.
Real Discipline Takes Time
I know that we live in an instant on-demand society. We expect things to happen fast. Immediately, in most cases. So it’s not really our forte to spend time to achieve something. But real discipline takes time to build. And it’s discipline that’s required to permanently build or break any habit.
If you struggle with consistency, you will struggle with this method. But here’s the thing. It’s a goal that’s too small to fail at. That’s why it works for most people. In fact, I get so many messages about this one particular method that it’s astounding to me.
However, after years of trial and error, I know just how powerful this is. The truth is that it’s hard to override learned behavior. Those neural pathways are incredibly powerful. So you have to put in the work and put in the time.
Set clear goals so that you know what you want out of life. Then, work on building or breaking habits to support those goals. If you want to become a writer, start with writing 100 words per day. If you want to become an investor, start by investing $1 per day. Get the picture, right?
If you need more help, I invite you to take the free discipline quiz. Find out if you have what it takes to create the life of your dreams. This is perfect for people who are struggling right now. Remember, if you want things to change YOU have to change.