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How To Build Positive Habits

by Jeff “The Mighty Jerd” Mueller on December 23, 2013

in How To

We are fast approaching that time of year when not only will visions of sugar plums dance in your heads, but so will New Year’s Resolutions.

So I wanted to take the last article of 2013 and get everyone prepped for 2014!

I’ve talked about how to not suck at New Year’s Resolution before, and one of the key elements to success that I pointed out was to approach them as habit changes.

What I didn’t do, was spend a lot of time talking about how to actually do that though. /facepalm

So I wanted to take this time to rectify that omission by giving you some tips on how to build positive habits for a heroic and happier life!

How to Build Positive Habits and Be Happy

The Power of Habit

If you’ve been reading The Jerd for any length of time you know what you’re supposed to do to get healthy (and you are also obviously super cool!) :

And yet, time and time again people still find themselves struggling to make changes that actually stick!

In time I have been running The Jerd, I can’t count the number of times I have heard this:

“I know what to do, I just can’t seem to do it.”

Even though it frustrates me to no end to hear this I get it, I really do…

Have you ever heard the phrase “creature of habit“?

It is a very apt description of the human species but while the description fits, these habits don’t mean that all your choices in life have to be a foregone conclusion.

Knowing what you are supposed to do is only a part of the battle we all face when trying to make changes, and build positive habits, in our lives.

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about our health and fitness, our academic or professional careers, our family life, or whatever! It’s how we implement that knowledge we have that either gets us to where we are trying to go or not, and most of the time it’s our ingrained habits that end up doing a lot of the steering for us.

While that might sound a little scary (especially if you already know you have some bad habits to conquer), I promise you this.

You are 100% in control of your decisions.

You just need to identify the habits you’re looking to form and then train yourself!

How to Build Positive Habits

Don’t look so dejected Luke, change is a good thing!

Not long ago I came across “The Power of Habit“, a spectacular book about habit change.

My main takeaway from the book is that we are made up of a collection of our habits. One rather shocking fact in particular blew my mind, that was the author’s assertion that “more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Wow!

  • Feel tired and rundown all the time?
  • Not happy with the fact you get winded climbing a flight of stairs?
  • Not happy with the way you look in the mirror?

Then you need to take a step back and examine the collection of habits that are contributing to these circumstances! Thousands of actions have drilled these behaviors into your body and mind over time. Each and every time you do something, it requires a little bit less willpower and brainpower to make the same decision.

Eventually, over time, these actions become purely automatic; like a robot or a computer running an automated script.

This is why so many people boredom eat or feel like they are addicted to food!

While there are definite chemical reactions that occur when you ingest sugar, there’s nothing actually hard-wired in our brains that makes us see a plate of cookies and automatically want to cram them into our face-holes. Once your brain figures out how tasty the cookie is though, that’s when the anticipation of the sugar high kicks in.

This is a learned response.

Despite how advanced we geeks and nerds like to think our brains are, that subconscious desire for sugary satisfaction (and the impending twinge of disappointment if we don’t embrace our inner Cookie Monster) is not something you can think your way out of easily. In fact your are more likely to use that brain power to rationalize to yourself why it’s okay to eat that bag or Oreos than you are to talk yourself out of the craving.

While at first glance that might seem a little depressing, remember that just as you have unconsciously trained your brain and body over time, you can also train it to do the exact opposite!

The Anatomy of a Habit

A habit is comprised of three parts:

  • A trigger
  • A routine
  • A reward

This is why you keep checking in on Facebook or Twitter, it’s the reason you watch the same movies or TV shows when you “turn your brain off“, it’s why you crave certain foods, it’s the reason you constantly check your phone when it vibrates in your pocket.

Over time you have unconsciously trained yourself that when you experience a trigger (notification pops up, you hit your couch after a long day, see your favorite junk food, phone vibrates) you perform a certain action and then you anticipate a reward (you feel up-to-date with your friends, bask in a sense of nostalgia, experience a sugar high, get the satisfaction of no unread messages).

Over time, as these things happen repeatedly, they become habits.

While the first step to fixing something is admitting you have a problem, the first step to changing your habits is to understand the hows and whys of them. Once you understand that trigger/routine/reward is how a habit is formed, you can start architecting new, positive habits to replace the old ones you don’t want in your life anymore.

Let’s take an all too common example; you want to stop drinking soda but you need the “energy boost” to make it through the day. Make this adjustment to how the scenario plays out and start building positive habits now:

  • Trigger – I’m have no energy.
  • Routine – Drink some water (or black coffee/green tea if you are struggling with caffeine addiction), get up out of your chair/away from your computer for 10 minutes and do some light activity (walk, stretch, do some pushups).
  • Reward – More energy without the detrimental health implications from guzzling Mountain Dew.

How about something a little more complex?

What if you want to eat healthier and are trying to break the habit of eating fast food for lunch everyday? First you might need to reverse engineer things a little and figure out why you are eating out of a bag every day; for a lot of people it is convenience. They don’t have the time every morning to pack a lunch as they rush out the door.

So how about this scenario instead:

  • Trigger – Getting ready for bed. Take 10 minutes and put together your healthy lunch before you start winding down for the night (even better yet, get in the habit of meal prepping for the whole week ahead of time).
  • Routine – Repeatedly make lunch in the evening and then eat it the next day for lunch.
  • Reward – More money in your pocket, having more energy, feeling better about yourself and a sense of satisfaction as the pounds start falling off.

Over time, putting your lunch together will just be something you do. An automatic part of your evening routine that requires no real thought or willpower.

Seek and Destroy

Once you have an understanding of what makes (and breaks) a habit you are going to have to do a little self-reflection to identify the ones that are causing trouble in your life and build positive habits in their place.

Like with everything we talk about here you are going to want to start small if you want to affect long-term, sustainable change. Just start with one habit that you aren’t happy with and then really take a look at it and all the facets that make it up:

  • Identify the trigger – Is boredom? Stress? Time of day? Hunger? Lack of energy?
  • Identify the reward – Satisfaction? Energy? A sense of accomplishment?
  • Identify a new routine you’d like to establish provides the same reward, but in a way that is healthier and more in line with how you want to live your life.

Just like everything else this is going to take some work! You are going to have to toss on your Sherlock Holmes cap and really sleuth things out, but once you figure the first few out it will get easier and easier to unlock the secrets of your remaining bad habits.

That doesn’t mean that the first solution you try is always going to work, because that is most certainly not the case, but that should be part of the fun!

Experiment on yourself a little, try and re-program the living computer that is your brain. Try out new and different things and write down your results. Do everything you can do to give yourself a chance at success with your new routines and remember that it’s going to take some time before a new habit becomes automatic.

You Can Do It

One of the biggest obstacles to getting in-shape is impatience.

If you’re struggling to lose weight or build muscle and you haven’t started seeing the results you want, remember you are suffering under the accumulated effects of years and years bad habits… but they can be reversed.

You aren’t a victim and the Norns are not spinning the threads of your fate at the foot of Yggdrasill. You are the hero, on your own epic journey, and you can forge your own destiny!

Just make sure you pick ONE habit at a time if you want to make it stick.

Just like when you are goal setting, we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew! If you try to change too much you are just setting yourself up for failure. This is going to take willpower, and that is a limited commodity.

Willpower is like the energy bar in a video game, you can only do so many special moves before you need to recharge!

Just realize that if you believe you can change, and if you turn that belief into a habit, then that change becomes real. It becomes something tangible.  If you take anything from today’s ramblings let it be this:

Habits are what you choose them to be.

Once you conquer one habit, move on to another and another until your new positive life choices snowball down the hill of inevitability! Once you get solid momentum going you will be amazed at how quickly you can build positive habits and things start changing for the better!

So taking all that into account, I would love to hear from you… what one habit are you going to change to make your life better? Let me know in the comments below!

Also check out our YouTube channel (if you want access to our Nerd-Core Fitness exercise videos), follow me on Twitter, and like us on Facebook and Google+ (there is content on both not available here on the site.)There are so many different ways for you to get your daily dose of Jerdly goodness so don’t miss out!

PS – One more time, here’s the – “The Power of Habit“. Don’t sleep on this if you struggle with habits you are struggling with!

P.P.S. - Make sure to get your free e-book, “The 7 Fitness Obstacles Newbies Face” by subscribing to our newsletter… no spam, I promise!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michelle December 23, 2013

Great post. Once I learned new habits around my eating and exercise routines, it made all of the difference in the world!

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2 TheJerd December 28, 2013

Life becomes so much easier when you are able to turn changes you want to make into habits! Any particular one that you found to be especially hard to turn into a routine?

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3 Anita Levesque December 23, 2013

Great article. Learning to deal with your habits the correct way will give some of them a challenge in their lifestyle. Thanks for sharing. Anita

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4 Coach Donna L. Ward December 23, 2013

Great post – I’ve had to make healthier eating habits, because of food sensitivities – but the exercising come and goes – you’ve inspired me! :)

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5 TheJerd December 28, 2013

If you have to pick one over the other, go for diet every time! Hopefully you can get regular exercise locked down in the near future. Let me know if I can help!

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6 Margaret Hofer February 6, 2014

Thank you for this great list of tips on how to be fit and to eat a proper food for a diet. Surely, I will need this to be a fit and to have a good eating habit. Keep it up.

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