“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” – Bruce Lee
After recently reading the book The Power of Habit, I got to thinking about how to apply the principles to my own life and our athlete’s lives. Most of us want to achieve certain things, whether that is a PR on a benchmark workout, strength movement, promotion at work, or to lose weight. Why is it that some people can turn their lives around while others seem to fall back into the same old routines that always seem to get them in trouble?
The answer is habits. Those who work to develop good habits seem to be more successful.
Creating habits has been researched for quite sometime and it turns out there is a three step loop:
First, there is a cue. A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
Then, there is the routine. This can be physical or mental or emotional.
Finally, there is a reward. Rewards help your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future
Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Once a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making – unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.
Therefore, success is programmed. There is no other option. This can be dangerous if bad habits get programmed – like deciding to have a sweet snack in the middle of a work day. One time may seem harmless, but if the cue (I deserve a break from work), routine (eating some candy), and reward (gratification of taking a mental break) are performed enough this will become a habit.
The best analogy for how a habit works is to picture a stream flowing down a mountain. The water hollows out a channel or stream which grows broader and deeper as the water flows harder (think as you do the habit more and more). When the water dries up, the channel remains. If the water flows again at a later time, the path left from before is retraced. The stronger the water flow and the more times the water flows through the channel, the more solidified the path becomes. Once established, it is very hard to naturally change the path. But, we can exert effort to dam the channel and create a new path for the stream to flow into. This is how we must view our habits. It takes serious effort to change a habit – which can be a good thing once you ingrain a positive habit.
I have often argued that those who are disciplined in any activity aren’t disciplined because they choose to be, but because they have forgotten there is any other option. They have developed such a strong routine that their brain doesn’t even get a chance to second guess their habit. A professional athlete would never even question whether he is going to practice on a given day – it’s a question of when he is training and what he is doing – never if. They think this way because training is a routine that is programmed into their brain.
The best way to achieve our goals is to set ourselves up for success, how we do that is through forming good habits and routines. Want to make your gym routine more consistent? Look at your habits and routines and ask some questions. When do you try to go to the gym? What is your cue for going? What is your reward?
“People who have successfully started new exercise routines show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose a specific cue, such as running as soon as they get home from work, and a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt-free television”
Focus on your habits. If you realize there is a habit that is harmful to your goals, start to experiment different routines and rewards for changing that habit. Take our example of eating sweets in the middle of the day at work. If you want to stop eating sweets at work, then you need to first identify the point when you find the urge to reach for that candy bar. You could start to experiment with recognizing when your cue comes about – is it a couple hours after your lunch break? Does it coincide with another activity? Once you know your cue, it’s time to change the routine. Once that cue hit, try a different activity, maybe go for a cup of coffee or tea. You could get up and go bother a co-worker for a few minutes. You may find that you didn’t actually want a candy bar, you just needed a mental break and by changing the routine, you still no longer crave sweets. You may have thought that the candy bar was the reward, but it wasn’t. In this case, the cue may have been “I’m mentall fried”. The routine was getting up, going to the break room and buying a candy bar then eating it. The reward was the 3 minute break in your work day.
When forming new habits and breaking old habits, it is important to think about ways to break your old routine. The big thing to remember is cue, routine, reward. In order to form a habit, be like water.