How To Form Positive Habits & Break Old Negative Ones

Not every habit I attempt to form is successful, but occasionally it is. Here’s what I have discovered works in forming new habits.

Photo by Riccardo Fissore on Unsplash

Not every habit I attempt to form is successful, but occasionally it is. Here’s what I have discovered works in forming new habits.

Twenty years ago or more, I was a smoker. A full packet of cigarettes per day was not unusual, and at the weekends when I was out on the town, it could have been two packs.

Like most teenage kids back in the late 80s, I took up the habit to be cool. Now in my early 20’s, it wasn’t cool any more — it was just a dirty habit that I needed to kick. I wanted to quit, but it was difficult and wanting just wasn’t enough.

I had tried and failed many times to give up the smokes, and although I’d last a few weeks, I would always find my way back to them.

When I think of it, taking up the habit in the first place was also difficult. Any smoker will tell you it’s brutal at first. And so it was for me, but I wanted so much to be what smoking represented that I was prepared to put in the work. I had an anchor.

But this time with the motivation for quitting, I had an anchor again. I started dating my now wife, and I cared what she thought. At first, my smoking wasn’t a problem for her, but then gradually it did and she began to wear me down.

At age 24, ten years after taking up the habit, I wanted to quit for good. It was difficult, and I had a few temporary lapses early on, but I managed to get back on the horse and eventually break the habit.

Learning How Habits Work

Giving up cigarettes gave me the confidence that I can do pretty much anything to which I put my mind. Although in doing so, I’ve discovered that conditions and environment matter.

I went from being a single man, drinking and smoking and doing what I wanted, to sharing my days with someone else. My environment changed and changing my behaviour became easier.

Similarly, I noticed when I’m at home, I drink a lot of coffee, but when I am on holiday, I don’t drink nearly as much. When I’m back at home, I pick up the habit again. That tells me my habits are hooked into my surroundings.

So these days if I want to modify something in my behaviour, I’ll change something related to it in my environment.

Say for example I want to lose a few pounds, I’ll try to convince Joanne to join me. That way we can change our food buying habits and take temptation out of the way.

“The daily drill and the years of discipline end by fashioning a man completely over again, as to most of the possibilities of his conduct” — William James

The Importance of Consciously Forming Creative Habits

Forming positive daily rituals and habits aid creativity too. The creation of art and writing becomes faster and sharper, less conscious and more automatic the more we take ourselves into conducive conditions and practice.

Now, you could say that the gods have graced certain creatively people and us mere mortals could never reach that level no matter how long we practised.

You could say that people like Neil Young with 41 studio albums throughout his career are one in a million. And maybe that’s true, but my guess is that Neil Young worked his craft night and day for years before he found commercial fame. Besides, a lot of those 41 albums are crap.

I reckon that creativity shows up when we do.

I would suggest that creatively prolific people have developed habits of thought and action that are conducive to great work. Consistency is what they practice until whatever they do does itself.

That doesn’t mean every piece of work we create must, or will be exceptional — it won’t. Instead, it means that we should care enough to do the work for its own sake and create so much work that we can’t be ignored.

We’ll create a lot of crap, for sure, but the set point level of the work will creep higher and higher as we progress and then amongst all that work will be some gems.

So to me, developing positive daily habits is vital to creativity.

Every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort — William James

William James’ 3 Maxims For The Formation Of New Habits And The Removal of Old

William James was an American physician, philosopher and psychologist often referred to as the father of American psychology. He was responsible for publishing many influential works during his lifetime. James died of a heart attack at his home in New Hampshire in 1910, and Habit, which was a compilation of multiple essays, was published posthumously.

William James was quite forward-thinking in his work. In his writings, he repeatedly refers to the “plastic” nature of the brain and organic material. One hundred years or so later, and we see this term Plasticity used frequently in biopsychology and neuroscience to explain the adaptability of the human organism to change.

In Habit, James refers to paths traversed by nerve-current, and how, as that nerve-current repeatedly passes over the same path, that the path is strengthened. Whatever obstructions there might have been initially, they are slowly swept out of the way until it becomes natural.

James says of habit and the structure of the nervous system;

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalise our acquisitions and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible as many useful actions as we can.

Today the psychology of habit is a little more sophisticated and perhaps even over-complicated. However, the basic premise is the same; to form a habit, we must perform that behaviour over and over until it becomes automatic.

Although many articles will attribute these maxims directly to William James, the author affords credit the first two maxims to professor Alexander Bain, a revolutionary figure in British psychology.

James’ Maxim #1

“The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know.”

Here, James is speaking of the importance of the environment in the successful cultivation of new habits, and the removal of unwanted habits. Carefully and persistently, we must put ourselves in circumstances that encourage success. Go out of your way to avoid places and people that don’t help you get where you want to go.

How To Apply The Principle;

  • Are you trying to lose weight? Remove all foodstuff from your home that doesn’t support your goal and fill it with food that does.

  • Want to be a successful writer? Write every day and immerse yourself in the work of people you admire.

  • Are you trying to give up cigarettes? Stay away from the pub and take up a new activity where people who smoke don’t hang out.

James’ Maxim #2

“Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right.”

Here, James is speaking of falling off the wagon. If you are a few days into the practice of the new habit and you miss a day then as he suggests, you lose all your gains.

Keep continuity in your action, and even if you do fall off the wagon, get back on again as quickly as possible. I will argue against James here, in that any previous work is not entirely lost. There will always be something valuable gained.

How To Apply The Principle;

  • Start a 30-day habit formation sheet (like this one) and tick off your habit-forming tasks every day. If you miss a day, do two rounds the following day or if that’s not possible, start again.

screenshot of a spreadsheet I use for 30-day habit formation

I created this 30-day WOD sheet for my kids, and I offered them a prize if they completed the first 30 days. They didn’t miss a day. You can copy this sheet and edit it for your own use.

I created this 30-day WOD sheet for my kids, and I offered them a prize if they completed the first 30 days. They didn’t miss a day. You can copy this sheet and edit it for your own use.

James’ Maxim #3

“Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting, you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves, and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.”

James is talking about feedback from practised behaviour. As we practice a new habit, that practice becomes part of what is known as a feedback loop; a basic tenet of operant conditioning, made famous by behaviourist psychologist B.F. Skinner.

The feedback loop takes advantage of the sense of accomplishment and pride we feel when we carry out tasks in the direction of a goal. The more we do it, the more likely we are to continue once positive feedback is experienced.

Even though the thoughts of going for that run or getting up early to write before work are killing you, if you do it, you’ll feel accomplished.

The Starting Point For Good Creative Habits

The first thing that we need to do before attempting to establish any new habit is to define for ourselves what success is.

There is no universal definition of success, so take the time to contemplate what lights your fire. Remember though, that the significant achievement you hold in your mind is less important than your attendance to your daily work.

As William James said;

Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may faithfully leave the final result to itself.

Head goals can invariably lead us astray, as they have with me in the past. So focusing on what is meaningful and heartfelt to you is paramount.

Decide what do you want.

If you want to be a writer, commit to writing every day. If that’s a problem in your current home environment, find a location like the local library or college where you can write in relative peace.

The change in environment will in itself provide a new canvas where you can establish the habit that helps you progress towards what you want.

By doing so, you may also see bad habits you’ve picked up in your current environment fall away.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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