How to automate your best decisions

Hi there! 

Since I’ve restructured my priorities, such as sending this newsletter twice a month instead of weekly, I was able to make more time for two things: reading and physical exercise. Both are keystone habits whose positive effect was blatantly obvious from day one. 

A keystone habit has such a powerful impact that it starts a chain reaction that spreads throughout our entire lives. As a result, they help us acquire and develop more good habits that significantly improve our health, productivity, and even mindset. 

One of the most interesting things about habits and decisions is something I recently learned.

When you first try to build or modify a habit, it takes a lot of willpower. For example, eating healthy involves choosing veggies and fruit repeatedly over fast food and sugary treats. That’s why, in the beginning, the process can be quite tiring.

But as we repeat this process, our brain is rewired (thanks to neuroplasticity!) and the new habit becomes our reality. Turning habits into automatic responses means you’ll use less energy to do things like running, eating healthy, or sleeping 8h/night and have more brainpower to dedicate to other things.

This is, perhaps, one of the interesting things I discovered in The Power of Habit, which I recently started reading.

“Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

"In fact, the brain starts working less and less," says Duhigg. "The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else."

That's why it's easy — while driving or parallel parking, let's say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you're having.”

NPR - Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them

Cristina recommended Charles Duhigg’s book a while ago but only now did I pick it from the stack of unread books I keep adding to. However, the timing is perfect given I’m trying to diversify the activities that give me a sense of reward to avoid overworking on a regular basis.

Neuroscience explains why defaulting to work is such a difficult pattern for me to break.

“Well, habits are a big deal not only in our lives, because about 40% to 45% of what we do every day sort of feels like a decision, but it’s actually habit.

HBR - Habits: Why We Do What We Do

This is important because it makes us aware that automatic behaviors dictate half of our lives for the better or worse. When we make the distinction between habits and decisions, we realize that we have the power to change them to shape a more fulfilling, richer existence.

I, for one, find this immensely motivating!

But why can’t I keep a new healthy habit?

I’m glad you asked because this is a pretty demoralizing experience that I’ve gone through more than once.  While I can’t provide the rich context the book gives, I can speak about my own experience in light of what I learned from it.

In 2017, I worked with Carmen on food coaching for 2 months. I picked up a ton of great knowledge and really committed to changing my nutrition to be healthier. With Carmen’s guidance and support, I lost about 10kg between February 2017 and September 2017. I got into the best shape I’d been in since I got a lower back hernia, a few years ago. 

However, in 2018, when I changed jobs, I poured all my willpower into adjusting to the new role and performing well at work. All my energy, focus, and a lot of emotional labour went into it. As a result, my old eating habits came back, which led me to start gaining weight again. 

It wasn’t until I read this in The Power of Habit that I understood why I kept reverting to my old m.o.:

We can’t erase (bad) habits but we can change them. 

Because I’m more aware of my old pattern and I’ve learned how to get the same reward with a healthier routine, it’s easier for me to:

  • Plan my meals
  • Shop more consciously
  • Give into temptation less often
  • and basically override my old routines (such as using food as a reward for intense work) with new, healthier habits (e.g. drawing happiness from a feeling of lightness in the body and from the clarity of mind).

To do this, a deeper change had to happen for me to stop falling off the wagon: I had to realize the deep and widespread impact that my old habit had on my life and how it connected to other unhealthy habits (watching too much TV, overworking, not sleeping enough, etc.). 

It’s different for everyone, but I found a few things that may work for you too when trying to build or change a habit: 

  • I get motivated by results - a change in state of mind, in energy levels throughout the day (which I measure with Welltory), in the ability to focus
  • I follow through better with support - running with my partner and a group, getting advice from experienced runner friends, celebrating each accomplishment 
  • I internalize the process better when I talk or write about it - I try to get my friends to try it once, I log my mood, energy levels, and check in with my body daily (thanks to Carmen, my friend and brilliant food coach). 

After reading this newsletter, I would love if you did one thing: make a list of 3 habits you may not be aware of and think about how they impact your life (how much time and energy they take, what type of reward you get from them, what triggers you to do them). 

For example, you can try applying this to watching Netflix or using Instagram or WhatsApp. 

See if that changes your view on how you can shape your habits to achieve more of what you want. 

“Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand how a habit operates – once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward – you gain power over it.”

How Habits Work - From the appendix to The Power of Habit


Happy Sunday, 

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