“It’s not that I’m so smart,” Einstein once said, “it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” The fortitude to stay the course, and to not be tempted to give up or give in, is the mark of an Olympic-level mentality.
It’s task tenacity. While some seem naturally gifted in this area, many of us prefer to take the daily shortcut even when we know that this is not the path to long-term success. Why do some continue to keep plugging away, no matter how difficult it becomes while others get discouraged and take detours? On a surface level, we attribute this to a lack of will power. But we now know that it goes beyond that, that a habit of giving up is mostly that—a habit which becomes hard-wired.
On a physical level, habits are the repeated patterns of behavior that form neural pathways; these are best understood as bundles of neurons (nerve cells) that form a highway which connects parts of the brain. Years of practicing a habit create the hard-wired neural pathways which neuroscientists tell us show up as an actual thickening of brain circuitry. This becomes the brain’s default mode, or as Shaquille O’Neil puts it, “You are what you repeatedly do.” This is why it is so hard to break the habit of taking the easy chair in life.
If you, or someone you know, is caught in this bad habit vortex, here are some tips to help you:
1. Visit your default future before it happens
This idea comes from the recently-released book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson et al. The book is based on research involving over 5,000 individuals dubbed as “Changers,” who once faced enormous personal challenges but were successful in breaking bad habits to achieve their goals. Our “default future” is the life we’ll experience if we continue to behave as we are. It’s taking a peek into our future to see what can develop from current behaviors. “An actual experience like this” the authors state, “can profoundly reshape your feelings about your choices when the pep talks…you’ve tried in the past have had no effect.” Give this a try. It has a sobering effect.
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2. Repeat new behaviors
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to continually reshape itself by restructuring the wiring according to experiences we have. A primer for understanding how this works is Daniel Goleman’s latest book The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. When we try to change a habit—for example, to control impulsiveness—we create new neural pathways, but they are fragile connections compared to the thick connectivity of old habits.
The only way to overcome this is through tenacious repetition. By persisting, the old habit becomes weaker—that is, the circuitry for it grows thinner and finally withers while the circuitry for the new habit becomes stronger. “That means the circuitry has become so connected and thick,” Goleman says, “that it is the brain’s new default option.”
How long does it take for this to happen? Forget the 21 days you were told. “It usually takes three to six months of using all naturally occurring practice opportunities before the new habit comes more naturally than the old.” Tenacity pays off.
3. Learn from others
Make it a habit to follow far-sighted individuals who send out missiles of inspiration in cyberspace on a regular basis. These are individuals such as Seth Godin or Tom Peters, to name a few. Watch, for example, Tom’s motivating video about persistence. Or read Seth’s latest blog on opportunity.
When you set out to change a habit, you are on a journey to change yourself. There are those in your entourage who are your cheerleaders who will support and facilitate the change, and there are those who will unwittingly create bumps on the road which will slow you down or even divert you from your course. You know who they are. Hang around the former and protect yourself from the latter.
5. Give “Rescue Time” a try
Technology is a part of the work we do—we cannot disconnect for long periods. Technology’s downside, however, is that it also turns us into technoholics if we cannot practice restraint. To increase your self-awareness of your technoholism, try a program called Rescue Time. It is a free, time-tracking tool that identifies the time you spend on all the websites, applications and programs. This means it tracks your habitual time wasters, and it enables you to set goals for improvement.
No matter how strong the links are in our chain of bad habits, they can be broken. Breaking them could mean the difference between winning and losing, between growing and shrinking. We all have that choice—the choice to drop the habits that don’t serve us well and practice those that will enrich our lives. As Thoreau put it, “We only hit what we aim at.”