2 Things You Need to Master to Change a Habit

It’s simple. You complicate it

“Habits Maketh Man”

Yes, I know. The quote is wrong. It’s not habits, its manners.

But don’t you think habits are more important?

It’s not what you do once in a while that determines success, it’s what you do every day. And what you do every day comes from your habits.

We all have bad habits we want to quit and the good habits we want to build.

But I know you’re tired of changing habits. You’ve read a dozen blog posts about it. You’ve bought books, watched videos, and went through the whole cue-action-reward loop.

When you still fail after all these efforts, you dive into a long guilt-trip thinking you’re the problem. You think if only you had enough willpower, you could do it.

Dear reader, you’re wrong, and it’s great!

Because it’s not you, it’s everything else. You’ve been playing the game wrong.

Here are the two simplest things I’ve found that can skyrocket your habit-building success (or habit-breaking success).

1. The Interest You Have to Pay On Death

“Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

When I was in high school, I fell in love with GaryVee. I was consuming his vlogs for hours on end and was addicted to the “hustle” lifestyle.

The idea that you need to work till your eyes fall out and your fingers bleed. Anything less than that is not acceptable.

If I do that, I believed, I’ll have a great sense of achievement and satisfaction every night.

But it never happened.

As the mind is excellent at finding flaws, I always found that one moment where I could’ve worked more. The one moment where I wasted time talking to my mom or getting up for a glass of water I could’ve skipped.

I had the same attitude when it came to sleep. I saw sleep as many people often do — optional.

I spent hours researching how I can sleep less; how to hack my sleep and get more out of my day.

You can see where this is going. In pursuit of a sleep-less life, I didn’t have a life at all.

Bad habits started to pile up. Emotional eating, binge-watching, and skipping workouts. If all this wasn’t enough, the added guilt of wasting time and not hustling was crushing.

I realized I’d developed tons of bad habits that I’d like to change.

Again, I went to Google searching for ways to change my habits. But nothing worked.

I felt as if I never had enough willpower to resist eating that cookie or to switch off Netflix and go to work.

The culprit? Sleep.

Though it’s common sense that sleep harms your willpower, here’s what research says

Good sleep habits and effective self-control are important components of successful functioning. Unfortunately, chronic sleep loss and impaired self-control are common occurrences for many individuals which can lead to difficulty with daily self-control issues such as resisting impulses and maintaining attentive behavior. A sleep-deprived individual who has expended the necessary resources for self-control is at an increased risk for succumbing to impulsive desires, poor attentional capacity, and compromised decision making.

Willpower is limited. And sleep replenishes willpower like nothing else. You need the willpower to resist temptations every day.

Once you take your sleep seriously, here’s how you can improve it further.

Cut Caffeine 10 Hours Before Bed

The adenosine receptors in your brain are responsible for making you feel tired. Caffeine blocks these to give you the energy boost you’re looking for. But in reality, it’s not giving you an energy boost, rather hiding the fact that you’re tired.

Astrid Nehlig and Stephen Alexander, in their review article *“Interindividual Differences in Caffeine Metabolism and Factors Driving Caffeine Consumption”, *point out,

The plasma concentration of caffeine decreases more rapidly than that of paraxanthine, its main metabolite. The concentrations of paraxanthine become even higher than those of caffeine at about 8–10 hours after caffeine ingestion and this occurs in all species. This is critical given that paraxanthine is as potent as caffeine for the blockade of adenosine receptors.

The metabolite called paraxanthine may be the reason why people who consume coffee in the afternoon are not able to sleep well at night. Your body may flush out caffeine completely, but paraxanthine still keeps blocking the adenosine receptors.

That is also, in fact, a rarity. Caffeine half-life is around five hours. This means that the amount of caffeine in your body cuts down by 50% every five hours.

For a sound sleep, have your last cup of coffee at least ten hours before bedtime.

Oh yes, this includes other caffeine edibles like tea and dark chocolate.

I quit drinking coffee but I was still having a block of dark chocolate every evening, wondering why the trick isn’t working.

Don’t make the same mistake.

Ditch Your Alarm Clock

Your body knows better. Let it guide you.

Your body regulates sleep on the basis of your circadian rhythm which works according to light, not your watch. But most people aren’t aware of this natural cycle anymore.

They wake up to a cacophony of alarm sounds and then hope to catch up on sleep during the weekends or holidays.

It’s not a zero-sum game.

Even if you sleep longer on the weekends, you can still feel fatigued since you’re not in sync with your circadian rhythm.

To let your body get the sleep it needs, you need to ditch your alarm clock. If you’re worried about getting up late, go to bed earlier.

Now, I hear you saying “But I have work to do!”

To that, I’d say, “Get your priorities in order, dear reader!”

It’s high time that we give sleep the importance that it needs.

Remove Blue Light and Small Emissions

Blue light is great. It mimics the sun and gives you the energy to start the day. Everyone loves the sunlight coming through the window when they wake up — it’s the perfect waking-up shot.

But you don’t need the sun at night. You need to wind-down and the blue light emissions around you delay it.

While you may have reduced your screen time or have installed apps like f.lux to help out, there are still annoying lights coming out of appliances.

I’m talking about things like a small dot on your PC, your digital alarm clock, your air conditioner, mosquito repellant, etc.

For someone who likes sleeping in a pitch dark room, it’s a pain in the rear. I had to always turn the other side to avoid looking at those tiny red and green lights.

To avoid this, I took pieces of cardboard and stuck them over the lights.

2. How to Set Yourself for Success Without Thinking

No matter how much willpower you have, it won’t work.

Yes, having a good night’s sleep is great to improve your willpower, but you need something more than that.

Most of us choose the default or the easiest option with almost everything. If you see a cookie on the counter, you will eat it — not because you want it but because it’s easy.

No matter how much willpower you have, you’ll always do what’s easy.

The easy actions are always performed because you don’t have the time to think about them.

The bitter truth is that you don’t control your choices. Your environment does.

The sweet truth then is that you can change your environment to support your behavior.

Going to the gym is a problem for most people. To tackle this, you can leave your work clothes in your gym locker so there’s no option to skip it. If you’re working out at home, you can arrange your clothes and layout your yoga mat the night before.

If you’re trying to drink more water, keep a bottle next to you at all times. The bottle acts as a cue to hydrate.

If you want to stop watching the TV, unplug it, take the batteries out of the remote and put them in different places. You can also give the remote to your neighbors or friends.

I hope you see a pattern. The trick is to make bad temptations harder to act on and good habits easy to perform.

This frees you of the need for motivation. There are no excuses. Come up with ideas to implement this in your own life and see your new habits form effortlessly.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, the two simplest things you can do today to have a better chance at habit-change are:

  • Sleep better and more to replenish your willpower reserves, and

  • Design your environment to support your goals

Instead of running behind hundreds of complicated frameworks, why not keep things simple and experimental?

After all, this is how you’ll learn more and come out victorious on the other side.

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Written on August 26, 2020