Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Five steps to changing your habits: An insight into mental resilience

Sam Casadei, Cohort 2019

As humans, we have an instinct to crave safety, an evolved desire that if left untreated, can become a hindrance to development. We all want to be comfortable in what we do, and we prefer to be in familiar surroundings. But at what cost? Why is Mental Resilience Important?

“What would you dare to do today if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

This question was the topic of discussion used in a recent mental resilience seminar I attended, kindly hosted for SELA by Heather Wright from Advance Performance. The workshop emphasised the natural need for comfort. Suddenly when the fictitious barriers to your comfort zone are broken down, specific things you might want to do spring to mind. Something that you’ve always wanted to try, but never had the courage for fear or failure. I am sure you can think of a specific example as a response. Personally, one of the things that I would do without fear of rejection would be simply writing this blog post – putting myself in the public light. Maybe it would be attending a networking event, negotiating a contract, or even asking for help. All too often we turn down opportunities to develop, because it is out of our comfort zone. So, what can you do about it?

What exactly is mental resilience?

To me, this term has two meanings. The first being the ability to pick yourself back up again after a setback. And the other, being able to take control of habits, to help drive professional development and create new opportunities. These topics are deeply intertwined. If you are able to develop positive habits, this leads to more productive and healthy reactions, allowing you to be more resilient from a setback.

5 Step Process to Fixing Your Habits

  1. Identify your current habit and compare with your desired habit
  2. Experiment with rewards
  3. Investigate your cue
  4. Generate a plan
  5. Drill the Skill
The first important step is to analyse your current habits, to find areas where you would like to improve, and then imagine the revised scenario, so you can set yourself a goal. Like any problem, it is important to have a well-defined target.

It is also important to understand what the reward is for changing the habit – what will you gain from it? This is often easier for physical habits, such as having more energy. But even psychological habits can have a reward, like having a clearer head, and feeling more optimistic. For me, I like to have something attainable at the end of a large event, such as exams. It gives me something to focus on.

The 3 Tiers of Habit Creation

This cycle is a simplified schematic of the way that the brain responds through habits. Firstly, the process starts with a cue, that is something that instigates a response. This is followed by a ‘preferred’ response, which is based on the context of the cue, and the path of least resistance for the brain. This organ uses a large proportion of the body's energy and is inherently lazy, seeking to reuse previous responses to a cue, with the aim of reducing the required energy.

Finally there will be a reward for completing the tasks. This usually links back to a sense of comfort, for example the reward for clearing your inbox is the feeling of satisfaction, and comfort in knowing you haven’t missed anyone’s message.

Types of Cues

There are 5 main types of cues for a habit:
  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately Preceding Action
Note that some of these are physical, and some are psychological. The two states are intertwined, and thus we must understand how they interact with each other. Both location and time are physical properties, for example when you get home from a long day, throw your keys to one side, slide your shoes off and plop onto the sofa. You do not think about those stages, because they happen automatically.

Emotional state also has a large effect, with well-known habits, such as comfort eating being associated with it. If you have a habit you want to change, you must start by identifying the cue.

This is the crucial point of building mental resilience. Once you have identified the cue, the aim is to intercept our natural response, and either replace it with a better suited solution, or remove the response completely. This is when you can develop your plan, to change your existing habits, or create new ones.

What does this mean for me?

This blog gives an overview of the way that the brain makes habits, but the most important step is to action the advice. Think of one habit that you want to change, employ the 5-step method, and analyse the cues for your habit. Generate your unique plan to either change the cue, or to consciously adapt your routine, incentivised by the reward for changing it. I have begun to use this strategy in my personal, and professional life, and I am seeing a very rewarding difference.

I thought it would be better to give a specific example for this, and I feel as though this will resonate with some of you. Life at home leads to a change of routine for all, and for me this meant going up to my room at 10pm. I realised that I was wasting these last few hours of the day, either playing games, or watching movies online. Personally I am most productive in the evenings, and yet for some reason I was failing to use this time productively, and set about changing it.

I began implementing my 5 step process listed above. I had already identified the habit that I wanted to change, so I moved onto experimenting with my rewards. I knew that if I felt like I had achieved something, it would enable me to relax for the night, so this was reward enough for me. The cue was also obvious for my scenario, it was both time and location based, two factors that can’t be changed. It was then time to generate the plan. I knew that I had two hours to play with, so I set about deciding how I wanted to use my time. The time began with some light exercises and stretches. This was followed by clearing my email inbox, and being active on LinkedIn. I would then aim to update my schedule for the following day, with an accompanying to-do list. The evening was when finished off with a guided meditation video.

A simple plan in theory, but I had my doubts over how well I could stick to my plan. But then step 5 came into play. I knew that it takes time to build a habit, and that repetition was key, so I ensured that every night for a week, I followed this plan. It wasn’t easy, I wanted to slip back into my habits, especially after a long day. But I committed to the plan, and three weeks on, I don’t have to force the habit any longer, it is now part of my routine!

But what benefits did these changes have? I began to sleep better, with less on my mind, and a sense of accomplishment in the evening, and then I would wake up to a plan and task list. No longer do I waste time watching pointless videos until the early hours. I stick to my plan, and it works.

I am looking forward to applying the process to more areas of my life, and I hope that you will too.

I would love to hear your stories. What habits are you changing? What are your cues? What difference can you see? Tell us in the comments below.

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