It is interesting to look at the notion of a habit, since, we all have programmed into us the notion that establishing good habits will lead to health, wealth and success. But this goal tends to obscure the nature of the beast. It obscures the fact that a habit is an addiction by another name.
Humans are addictive by nature. That’s part of being us, how we operate. We do something, we like it or we get some pay off, so we do it again, and again and again. And each time takes less effort because that is the way the brain works- by rationalising the amount of neural activity to achieve any given result.
But only if you are feeding the addiction. Addictions wax and wane unless you trap and trammel them into becoming default settings. Habits, being addictions by another name, wax and wane too- until you create enough 'furniture' (ie. stuff that supports the habit, makes its feeding automatic) that it becomes a default setting.
The problem I have with the word habit is that it means both things: the behavior that is repeated and the default setting. They are not the same. Once you have 'furnished' a would-be habit or addiction it becomes a default setting.
Some drugs tempt us back again and again. I still feel ‘at risk’ if I’m sitting in a cosy bar after a good meal and someone lights up a nice cigar. The ‘at risk’ neon flashes in my head and I relax and eat a cashew nut instead. I have strong associative ideas about how good smoking used to make me feel. I have also supplemented this with strong ideas about how bad it made me feel too. So this addiction, which has no physical component (having not smoked for four years) still engages at the psychological level. The IDEA of a pleasure is enough to kick start it again. But the change is: I have ‘eliminated the furniture’.
'Eliminating the Furniture' is how you stop an addiction from becoming a default setting.
Default settings are what we do because we appear to have NO OTHER CHOICE. If you live in an apartment where everyone smokes, where there is nothing in the kitchen except coffee and cigarettes, then chances are your breakfast will be coffee and a cigarette.
You live in a house where everyone gets up at 6am, where they are fun people to be with, where there is stuff to do you enjoy- then probably you’ll get ‘addicted’ to getting up early.
When people fail to establish good habits they usually leave in all the old furniture of their previous bad habit. It takes a monumental effort to battle a default setting with just good intentions.
Instead you have to eliminate the furniture and install new furniture that will establish your new default setting.
Take writing. It’s not much fun, especially book writing where it’s day after day with not much feedback. You addict yourself by doing it as much as possible but still you can falter. And when I hear about the furniture people leave in their way I am not surprised: writing at home, at no set hour, with the computer open for would-be skypers and the family making demands for help with DIY and homework.
Get rid of that bad old furniture!
Victor Hugo instructed his servant to refuse to hand over his clothes until he had written his 2000 words for the day. No words, no going outside to play. Eliminate all the obstacles in your way. You get up for coffee- OK get a flask and put it on your desk. You don’t have a place to write- OK find a quiet coffee shop and write there for two or three hours a day after work- that’s what I had to do when I shared a two room apartment with three other guys when I lived in Japan. Eliminate the furniture.
It was discovered in the early 1990s that the level of pure heroin in street drugs in the UK was less than that needed to become physically addicted. But there were plenty of addicts- because they had created a default setting where using the drug, buying it, stealing stuff to pay for it, living with other drug users in cheap accommodation all fitted together to create a default setting. To cure them you didn’t even need to do cold turkey- all that was required was to eliminate the furniture.
In order to achieve success at whatever you want to do you’ll need some good habits. But I think it’s better to think of them as good addictions that you have set up to become default settings.
So how do you create an addiction and then turn it into a default setting?
I use the term addiction here because it encompasses the idea of FEEDING. Habits we think of as static. But they are not. A habit is either growing stronger or weakening. When I was studying Arabic my teacher sensed I was getting ‘into it’ (ie. achieving payback for my efforts) and piled on more and more work. He knew that the more you feed an addiction the more it will grow.
But you need pay back. You need a sense of satisfaction, progress, achievement. So in order to feed the addiction of writing you need to copy down religiously the number of words you write per day, print off your pages, riffle though them and watch them growing- these are the ways you feed the addiction.
If a habit, or addiction, isn’t growing, it’s dying. Nothing is static in this world. As Bob Dylan so rightly said, “You’re either busy being born or busy dying.”
So, too, with that most human of conditions the habit or addiction. So feed it!
Let’s say you need to exercise to get fit. And lets say you hate the idea of exercise, the boredom of it and you aren’t competitive. Well, are you vain? Harness your vanity by checking out body builders- young and old- and measuring your gains against them. Adding vanity may just be enough to keep that addiction fed. Find the exercises you really get a buzz from and avoid those that ‘feel wrong’. Once you are fully addicted you’ll be able to switch to any exercise and take it in your stride. Exercise while doing something else- like watching the news or a movie. In other words- put in the furniture to create a default setting.
A default setting is where you have automatised the feeding of the addiction. You are set.
If you can keep something up for three weeks you can stick at it for life- as long as you automatise the process of feeding the addiction.
First eliminate the furniture of old, bad, unwanted addictions. If you need to get up early eliminate the old furniture of having nothing to look forward to. Get in good breakfast materials, think up some invigorating idea the night before ‘to get you out of bed’, have your clothes right next to the bed.
Eliminating old furniture means setting aside time and space for the new addiction. Again, on the getting up early model- don’t nap or go to bed late- that’s just leaving in the bad furniture. Get an alarm clock and leave it across the room- not where it can be switched off easily. Get a light switch that comes on with a timer. If you can’t resist the smell of coffee get a coffee maker on a timer too.
Now find some food for the new addiction, the right kind of food- and don’t rush in until you have found it. If the object of getting up early was to increase productivity- create physical evidence of that: fill in a wallchart or table showing how much you have done each day. I have a table on the back of my door with the wordcount I have written that day noted on it. Give yourself payback.
Give yourself an open channel- nothing that will interfere like a holiday or a trip- at least for the first month.
A habit is not something only successful people have. It’s something very unsuccessful people have too, only they have the wrong ones. It’s an addiction. You can addict yourself to anything. Get started!
The ability to create good addictions is the starting point. You’ll know what addictions you need by looking at other people who have succeeded at what you want to do. Copy them. But, to be going on with, here are seven addictions (which they have turned into default settings usually, ie. made automatic) that I have observed in highly successful people:
1.Addicted to being energetic and optimistic.
2.Addicted to hard, focused work; feeling the pain but doing it and enjoying it.
3.Addicted to doing the big stuff not the little stuff.
4.Addicted to a high degree of self-belief and not giving up.
5.Addicted to being organised.
6.Addicted to people-connecting.
7.Addicted to a non-paranoid view of the world.