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How Habits Happen: 7 Ways to Maintain New Behaviours

How To Form Positive Habits (and Make Them Stick) One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive…

How To Form Positive Habits

(and Make Them Stick)

One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive behaviours that would improve my day to day life if I actually stuck to them. These include meditation, exercise and – of course – practice. In spite of the time I spend making video lessons and blog posts telling others how to do things better, I’m terrible at taking my own advice and although I can do a very good impression of an effective human being, I freely admit to being frequently disorganised, lazy and ineffectual.

Here are 7 strategies that I’ve found to be effective in disrupting the patterns of a master procrastinator; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to lose weight, increase your creative output or improve your bass playing, these tricks should work for just about any positive habit that you’re looking to form:

1.The Power of Daily Rituals

My working life is often unpredictable, which has led me to pursue a self-imposed structure as a means of creating order from chaos and to prevent going completely insane from juggling numerous projects. If you’re a self-directed individual and don’t have anyone telling you what to do and when to do it, then it’s vital that you create your own routine.

I try to begin each day with a series of small steps that are designed to ensure that I make the most of every day and don’t fritter away precious time pursuing things that aren’t important.

My Morning Routine

  • The first thing is that I do my best to get up early, regardless of how much sleep I may or may not have had – I find that the morning is the best time for me to go through my various rituals without interruption from the outside world, and that my willpower and focus are strongest at the start of the day. I’ve also found that if I do the right things in the first hour of the day, then I’m more effective later on.
  • I begin with journalling, which helps to clarify both what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – I write down 3 long term goals, and three things that I’m going to do today to move myself closer to those goals. At the end of the day, I come back and note 3 positive things – no matter how small – that I did today and 1 area that I could do better on tomorrow. Again, if you’re the one who’s in charge of your time then it’s really important to feel that whatever you’re doing is the right thing.
  • After the journalling I do some sort of mobility work and/or exercise, which is designed to mitigate the damage that I’ve done from 18 years of playing and 30ish years of having bad posture.
  • I then meditate for 15 minutes.

These steps help to get me in the right frame of mind (and body) for whatever work I have to do, and I find that I’m much more productive on the days when I complete them compared to days when I rush out of the house without having completed any of them.

I also have a morning playlist of music that puts me in a positive frame of mind which I listen to if I have to travel anywhere – this acts as a universal ‘reset button’ and is useful in getting into a good emotional state at short notice (see ‘resources’ for more on this)

2. Script Everything in Advance (Don’t Leave It To Chance)

I find myself much more likely to carry out a task if I’ve told myself exactly how and when I’m going to do it. This requires some forward planning, but it’s well worth doing as it prevents excuses as to why I haven’t done things.

Ideally, I’ll sit down for 10-15 minutes on a Sunday and script as much of my week as possible in advance in iCal; where I’m going to be and what I’m going to do. At the very least, I’ll spend some time each evening working out what I’m doing the following day and prepping for it – this removes the mental burden and wasted time taken up by deciding what you’re going to do when you get in the practice room or the gym in the spur of the moment.

The key with this is to allow yourself a degree of flexibility – things always take more time than you think they will, and tasks can be rearranged and rescheduled. It might be that you only have 10 minutes to spend on something that you wanted to work on for half an hour, but 10 minutes are better than zero minutes.

3. Quantify your goals

This may sound too obvious, but you want your habit to be easily verifiable – ‘have I done X today?’. It should be something that’s easy to do and it should have a very ‘black or white’ outcome – either you’ve completed the task or you haven’t.

Goal setting can easily become vague, so it’s important to be as specific as possible when identifying habits and outcomes. A classic one is ‘I want to get fit’ or ‘I want to lose weight’; a better way to phrase these goals and track your progress towards them would be as follows:

  • I will lose 5kg of fat by a certain date

Or (even better)

  • I will work out 4 times per week
  • I will give up alcohol/bread/refined sugar for 30 days

If your progress towards a goal is easily measurable, then you’re more likely to stick to the new habit.

4. Start With 5 Minutes

Another obvious point, but if you really want something to become a habit, then you absolutely have to do it every single day – I’d say for at least a month. To that end, if you tell yourself that you’re suddenly going to start practising 8 hours a day or radically alter your diet overnight then you’re setting yourself up to fail, because those things require a massive change to your existing lifestyle; you don’t begin training for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on the first day.

It’s much better to start small and give yourself an easy win – as you strengthen whatever habit it is you’re trying to develop then your minimum time will naturally increase.

To phrase it in other ways: A diet that is 70% of the way to being perfect but has 100% compliance is way better than a diet that is 100% perfect but only a 50% adherence rate. Doing 5 minutes of sight reading every day is much more effective than trying to do an hour but only managing it on one day a week.

Whatever you’re trying to do, start with 5 minutes, but do it every day. Some days you’ll manage more, which is great, but stick to that minimum standard of 5 minutes.

5. Make Your New Habits Visible

Our natural tendency as human beings is to avoid hard work and gravitate towards lying on the sofa in front of Netflix while inhaling Doritos. We’re also really good at justifying to ourselves why we don’t have to do the work. The way around this is to hold yourself accountable for your new habits, even if it’s just to yourself. Make your new habits visible and track your progress. Here are some techniques:

The ‘Chain Method’ (aka the ‘Calendar Method’)

Jerry Seinfeld once told an aspiring comic that the way to be better than the competition is to have better jokes, and the way to have better jokes is to write material every day – he suggested putting an X on a calendar on every day that you write – pretty soon you have a chain going and build up momentum; that calendar serves as a powerful motivator to not break the chain.

Author Austin Kleon has a neat variation on this that can be found in the ‘Resources’ section.

The Habit Sheet

This week, I’ve been trialling a variation on this which I got from a friend of mine who is an NLP trainer – it’s called a ‘habit sheet’ and it works like this: you list the habits that you want to develop along with a box for every day of the week. Simple, but it works – I’ve kept this in my laptop case to make sure that it goes everywhere with me and it’s been surprisingly effective in making me get things done. Writing out the sheet rather than printing it off seems to have a more powerful effect – this is also true of the journalling – when I write things down they tend to have more of an effect than if I type them out on a computer.

6. Create A ‘Cadence of Accountability’

Having a blog, website or a Youtube channel is a great way to force yourself into doing things regularly – I try to get something new out at the end of every week, whether it’s a transcription, blog post or a video lesson – it doesn’t really matter what it is, the important thing is that I’m creating what author Cal Newport calls a ‘cadence of accountability’.

I do a similar thing with music – I get together once a week with like-minded musicians and absolutely butcher jazz standards. None of us grew up playing jazz and our main gigs are all mainstream pop stuff, but we’re holding each other accountable and if I haven’t learned the new tune for that week then I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting down 2 other musicians. It also makes me works on certain things more because I don’t want to totally embarrass myself when it comes to the bass solo.

7. Don’t Go It Alone

Related to accountability is making sure that someone else knows about the habit that you’re trying to form – they’ll act as your ‘sponsor’ and check in with you. Having to make excuses to someone else apart from yourself is much harder, so make your new habits as public as possible to increase the chance of making them stick.

 

Resources

These are books/websites that I’ve found useful in clarifying goals, changing behaviour and staying motivated:

Daily Rituals by Mason Curry – This book details the daily routines of numerous prolific artists, writers and composers and offers a fascinating insight into what makes great minds tick.

The Daily Stoic – This is also an essential part of my morning routine containing short pieces of wisdom on how to deal with daily life. If you are prone to complaining or falling into a negative mindset then this is a must.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – The chapter in thos book titled ‘Building Your Trigger’ was the inspiration for the morning playlist.

The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast – sure, he’s really quite annoying, but he does interview some extremely successful people and gets them to disclose their secrets to being effective; an absolute goldmine of information AND totally free.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – If you only read 1 book on this list, make it Deep Work; this is pretty much my Bible for getting things done and staying on track.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – Ever avoided doing something creative? This explains why and helps you to stop sabotaging your own progress

Getting Things Done by David Allen – A time management book for serious productivity nerds; whenever I use the methods in this book I definitely feel less overwhelmed by the things on my ever-expanding ‘to do’ list.

Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge – pdf version of the ‘calendar method’ explained above in point 5.

Habit Sheet – my friend JB is not only a great drummer, he’s also a certified NLP trainer who occasionly posts some very useful and insightful blogs. This is where I stole the ‘habit sheet’ idea from.

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Your Brain is Rotten

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it) January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally…

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it)

January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally sort everything out. For me, the main focus of my January life-purge is my practice routine – or, more accurately, the distinct lack thereof.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to really make the most of the time that I spend at the instrument; I had a lightbulb moment when listening to a podcast and the interviewee said something along these lines (I can’t find the episode in question to be able to provide a verbatim quote, but still…):

“Things like maths or foreign languages are like apps that we ‘install’ in order to increase our knowledge or improve our skill set in a given area. Most people spend all of their time and effort on installing or upgrading their apps instead of attending to their operating system, which is how they run their brains.”

Jackpot. How can I expect to get the greatest possible benefit from practising when my brain is perpetually distracted? Why have I been focusing on upgrading my mental ‘apps’ when my operating system is full of bugs?

If you also feel perpetually overwhelmed, or that your attention is fragmented, if you struggle to concentrate, or are always ‘busy’ but never seem to get anything done, then this is for you:

The Myth of Multitasking

We’ve been led to believe that the only way to cope with the relentless demands of modern life is to do lots of things at the same time, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has allowed us to be able to chip away at our never-ending to-do lists regardless of where we are or what the time is.

Over time, the ability to be permanently connected has gradually morphed into a necessity. Many of us have become habitualised to permanent digital stimulation to the point where one device is not enough; we browse multiple internet tabs while watching TV, we can’t make it through a film or a concert without checking our phone – the hyperconnected life has left us incapable of being alone with nothing but our own thoughts for company.

Here’s the inconvenient neurological truth: multitasking is bad for you. Whilst it provides the illusion that you’re being efficient and productive, the fact of the matter is that you’re actually just doing two (or more) things badly at the same time.

The crux of the problem is that the very region of our brain that we depend on to keep us on task is easily distracted by novelty; the prefrontal cortex is where all the action is – this part of the brain governs ‘higher order’ behaviours, including:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Impulse control
  • Long term planning and goal setting
  • Maintaining socially acceptable behaviour

The neurons in this part of the brain are sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward; when you’re about to complete a task your brain gives you a hit of dopamine which acts as a precursor to reaching your goal and is designed to keep you on track – a biochemical motivator, if you will. The problem is that the brain can’t distinguish between the relative sizes or values of the tasks that you might be performing, so every time you send or receive an email, text, tweet or other digital notification your ancient brain senses that you’ve achieved something significant and rewards you accordingly. This leads to what scientists term a dopamine feedback loop, in which we’re constantly trapped in the cycle of pursuing low-level tasks to feed our sense of productivity.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind offers a comprehensive insight into the numerous perils of multitasking and the damage it has on your brain’s capacity to focus. His view on multitasking can be summed up as follows:

“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system”

Attentional switching comes at a high neurological cost – constantly chopping and changing between tasks burns up oxygen and glucose, increases the production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and reinforces the dopamine addiction feedback loop in the prefrontal cortex.

Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford, had this to say on the matter:

“It turns out that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

By contrast, scientific research has shown that sticking to one thing at a time (‘uni-tasking’) has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s; older adults who participated in training sessions to develop their attentional control began to display brain patterns similar to those of younger adults after just 5 hours.

It’s not just the scientific community that are alerting us to the dangers of technology; some of the most vocal critics of the hyperconnected lifestyle are those who helped to create it. Recently, a couple of former Facebook employees have publicly spoken out on the deleterious effects of the social media platform:

ex-VP of ‘user growth’ at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya said that:

“The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem… this is a global problem.”

Sean Parker, ex-facebook president, said the thought process behind building the social media giant was:

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Parker also confirms that the site’s creators understood the impact that they would have on users’ psychology:

“…we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Add to this the news that two of Apple’s major investors are pressing the company to do something about smartphone addiction among young people and we’re starting to get an idea of the extent of the problem. But what can we do about it?

6 Ways to Fix Your Rotten Brain

1.Learn to Concentrate

The most effective method of rewiring your brain and improving your ability to concentrate is by developing a regular meditation practice. If you’re turned off by the religious or ‘new age’ connotations that tend to get lumped in with the typical depictions of meditation then fear not – apps like Headspace offer a totally secular route into improving your ability to focus. I’d also recommend Sam Harris’ excellent, no-nonsense book Waking Up, which focuses on how to cultivate secular spirituality. My own experience with meditation is that it offers a subtle, yet powerful technique for coping with everything that life throws my way. I stumbled into the practice of insight meditation (often referred to as ‘vipassana’ meditation a decade ago and have found it to have numerous benefits, including (but not limited to):

  • improved concentration
  • better sleep
  • increased recovery time after workouts
  • a more consistent emotional state
  • increased sensory awareness
  • effective management of symptoms of depression/anxiety

Numerous high-functioning individuals swear by a dailly meditation in some form or other – bestselling author, lifehacker and meta-learning guru Tim Ferriss has interviewed almost 300 top performers across a range of fields and estimates that around 80% engage in some sort of regular mindfulness practice – this includes distinctly non ‘floaty’ individuals like super-producer Rick Rubin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock has been meditating since the early 1970s (at the suggestion of bass great Buster Williams) and the late sax legend Michael Brecker was also a practitioner.

2.Reconfigure your devices to reduce distraction

The most obvious cure for being constantly interrupted by digital distractions is to delete the offending apps from your device; if this is unthinkable then there are still several steps that you can take to reduce the damaging effect they have on your productivity:

  • stop your email automatically checking itself every 5 minutes (more on inbox management later)
  • turn off notifications from social apps that alert you to every single like, comment or retweet
  • put email and social media apps on the 2nd or 3rd ‘page’ of your device and bury them in folders

A more comprehensive guide to optimising your phone by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris can be found here

3.Start and Finish the day away from screens

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? If the first thing that your eyes see is your newsfeed or your inbox, then you run the risk of burning through all of your attentional energy before the day has even started; your brain has a limited capacity for processing new information and maxing out your mental bandwidth first thing can lead to lack of focus and diminished impulse control. In short, starting your day with screen time can impair your ability to make decisions and sabotage your creative endeavours later in the day.

If you enforce a morning ‘buffer zone’ in which you don’t look at your phone for the first hour of the day, then you’re giving your brain the chance to wake up naturally, without the barrage of data offered by the internet. Doing the same thing with the last hour of your day prior to going to sleep allows you to wind down without the stimulation of technology, resulting in an improved ability to get to sleep.

One of the easy traps to fall into is checking email every few minutes – whenever you have to wait more than 5 seconds for anything, out comes the phone and habit pulls us straight into our inbox. One way around this is to allocate specific blocks of time for checking and responding to email (this can be applied to social apps as well). I find that I’m happiest and most productive when I check my email twice a day – at roughly midday and 4pm – when I stick to it, this policy results in precisely zero people getting upset because I haven’t attended to their email; if something is truly urgent, they will call me. I can get a few hours of quality work done in the morning before dealing with my inbox, then the second check allows me to process any responses that might have come in before the end of the working day.

4.Use Social Media as an Output

Most people use platforms like Facebook primarily as an information input – they scroll through the endless treadmill of other people’s status updates, processing huge mounts of data, most of it useless. But how about using social media solely as an output? If your business or creative endeavours demand that you have to interact using social media then there are steps that you can take to ensure that the technology is working for you and not the other way around:

  • use post scheduling software like Hootsuite or If This Then That to ‘batch’ updates for specific times; this allows you to get all of your daily/weekly/monthly updates done in one dedicated block of time, rather than multiple fragments of several minutes each. This prohibits the spontaneity that social media is predicated on, but it’s amazing how many users give followers the illusion of a ‘real time’ feed through carefully planned, well-timed updates.
  • Use browser plugins like Leechblock to limit the time that you can spend per day on social media and other websites.

If you want to really increase your productivity and improve your mental health, then it’s very easy to kill your news feed. This is what I see when I log into Facebook:

Kill facebook news feed

 

Isn’t that great? No hairloss ads, no people celebrating that they’ve gone to the gym today, no temptation to stalk people that I went to school with.

I can still keep track of notifications, manage this site’s page (you’ve already given the page a like, right?) and pretend to remember birthdays without getting sucked into the whirlpool of useless status updates. The real benefit – aside from not expending time and energy processing superfluous data – is the positive impact of not being perpetually bombarded by the artificial awesomeness of the lives of others; seeing the carefully edited highlights of those in your networks without having insight into their failures can create a distorted sense of reality in which everybody is doing better than you, which can fuel feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.

The obvious criticism of this approach is that it’s cynical, manipulative, insincere and means that you miss out on important events in your friends’ lives; my argument is that you still participate fully in the relationships that matter most to you by seeing your friends and family IN REAL LIFE. Rather than attempting to maintain superficial, surface-level interactions with 1000 people it might be more worthwhile expending the same cumulative amount of time and energy on cultivating deeper relationships with 50 or 100 people that you genuinely care about. Scientists have actually quantified the maximum number of social relationships that any one person can effectively maintain – it’s known as Dunbar’s number (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar) and is 150, surprisingly small in comparison to the number of ‘friends’ that many of us have on social platforms.

5.Screen Sabbaths/Digital Sabbaticals

The idea of a screen sabbath is to take one day a week on which you abstain from social media usage and email checking (you can still use your phone for texts, calls and modern-day necessities like Uber); the effect of this is that you gradually come to realise that the world doesn’t fall apart if you miss one day of your digital life, which can help to reduce time spent on devices during the other days of the week.

A ‘digital sabbatical’ is a longer timeframe, typically ranging from 3 days to one week, where you go totally ‘off grid’ and get away from all forms of technology – set up emergency contacts and an email autoresponder so you’re not paranoid that something is happening while you’re unplugged.

6.Use The Brain’s Dopamine Addiction To Your Advantage

We can actually harness the prefrontal cortex’s dopamine-seeking tendencies to our advantage and effectively play it at its own game – for the last 6 months, I’ve been using an app called Forest to keep me away from my phone and get more work done. The app rewards the user for spending a set amount of time away from their phone, and plants a tree as a reward for focused time – if you use your phone at all during the allotted time, then your tree dies:

forest productivity app

 

Now, this sounds ridiculously childish, but you can’t argue with biochemistry – I’ve found that planting a digital forest has been the single most effective trick in monitoring and increasing the amount of time I spend practising or doing other important things (like making content for this site). Because I’m slightly competitive, I find myself going to great lengths to try to beat my previous day’s score – playing a game doesn’t make it feel like work, and I get my digital dopamine fix from doing something useful.

These measures might seem extreme to some people, but to quote Mark Twain:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

So there we are – I’m still trying (and ofter failing) to confront my internet addiction and break away from screens, but I’m doing my best to make sure that 2018 is the year that I finally get of the hamster wheel and spend more hours in the real world doing things that matter to me. If you’re interested in reclaiming your brain, then I’ve found the following resources to be extremely valuable:

Book/Resource List

Deep Work by Cal Newport (the best productivity book I’ve ever read by a long way)
The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think Clifford Nass
How To Meditate by Sam Harris
Two guided meditations by Sam Harris
Mindfulness meditations by Tara Brach (a little more ‘out there’, but be patient…)
Forest App
Headspace App
Leechblock
Hootsuite
If This Then That
Kill Facebook News Feed Plugin for Firefox|for Chrome (If you’re still using Safari or Internet Explorer, then have a quiet word with yourself).

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