Habits: How To Achieve Incredible Things

Why Habits Are Awesome

Has a single thought ever changed your life radically?

It happens to me all of the time.

All of the time.

… and I’m just talking about small changes, but what I’m discovering more and more is that small changes count.

Before I go on (well, before you read on), this is a re-posting of something I wrote a few years back on the fascinating subject of Habits. It’s actually one of a few posts I wrote on the subject, this one (which I hope you will continue to read) and the following posts about how we form habits (and how to change them):

How to Learn Anything
How to Learn Anything II

I’m not just going to regurgitate old stuff but wanted to write something about habits today and when I read back through this to see what I’d already written on the subject, it said pretty much what I wanted to say.

(So though I don’t want to change the wording of the article, I have to admit that ‘recently’ below is actually 5 years ago… )

Still all very relevant though as far as a discussion around habits goes…

Back to the original article…

Recently, beliefs, habits, small changes and thoughts have all been connecting together as concepts and making me realize some interesting stuff in terms of how much power we really have to change things in quite radical ways and just how to get started doing that.

It’s easier than you might think and a lot of it begins with understanding how we operate as human beings and how to tweak ourselves to get the most out of ourselves and out of life.

That small change could be as simple as a single thought. In the shower or as you’re driving along in your car, that single thought could change your life forever. If you listen to it.

Small changes really count more than you probably realize and I’m going to give you a brief example here before I go on to talk (write) a little more about habits, but you can also read more about the power of small changes here: The Power of Small Changes.

Som here is an example from my past of a thought that became a life changing decision (for my father) and then I’ll go on to tell you some of the thoughts that I’ve been having lately that are having an impact on me (by leading to small changes which may then lead to greater things).


An example of such a simple change is that when I was growing up my father was a smoker. We all hated it and used to start coughing and rolling around on the floor whenever he lit up to try to make him stop. We tried all kinds of things to make him stop smoking, from ripping up the cigarettes, to the coughing fits, lengthy talks about it, begging, pleading, threatening – you name it. Even when his friends had serious illnesses caused by their smoking my father still didn’t stop.

Then one day he decided he would give up.

He had tried many times before with or without our tricks and persuasion.

But one day he decided – and then he just gave up.

The small thing that changed everything is that he, my father, really decided that he wanted to give up smoking and so he did.

And he succeeded because he really committed to it.

That small difference, that thought, the fact that he himself decided to stop, changed things forever.


I listen to my thoughts.

In fact, though I like to make the most of every minute, which often means doing lots of stuff, because I’m also enjoying life so much at the moment, I’m finding that making time to just be alone with my thoughts is important too. So that stuff has to include things like going for walks in the forest, walking the dog, taking a long relaxing bath or doing some mindless, therapeutic relaxing task.

Lately, as I’ve been writing about habits and experimenting quite a lot, I’ve been thinking about habits quite a lot too.

I like listening to my thoughts, it’s better than TV.

In fact, if given the choice between watching TV (particularly given the quality of the average program these days) and going out for a nice long walk with the dog, I’d usually prefer the latter.

And I know for a fact that my dog feels the same way.

Peanuts (aka Bad Habit: Comfort Eating)

One thought that occurred to me recently is about eating peanuts.

I guess the same thing could apply for any ‘snack’ you like – popcorn, crisps, chocolate…

I was driving along in the car on my way back from the DIY store – I’d just bought some materials to build my daughter a surprise bedroom (I came back from France earlier than the rest of the family saying I needed to work on the website but in actual fact for the last 4 days I have been building a ‘surprise’ bedroom for my daughter so she doesn’t have to share with her brother anymore) – anyways, because I hadn’t eaten all day I bought a large bag of salted peanuts at the petrol station and ate those with a bottle of sparkling water.

The first mouthful was delicious. I was a little hungry so these satisfied my hunger and hit the spot in terms of taste too (I like peanuts plus on my heavily modified version of the slow-carb diet, I’m ‘allowed’ to eat them).

Before long though I found that I was eating them relatively absent-mindedly and it occurred to me to challenge why I was still eating them.

I was definitely no longer hungry.

The taste of the peanuts was still nice, but not as nice as the first few mouthfuls.

I was just eating them out of habit. There was a definite, automatic routine to my peanut eating:

Cue: My mouth is empty or getting empty of peanuts
Routine: Grab a few more peanuts and put them in my mouth
Reward: Taste & texture of peanuts. Satisfies craving for more peanuts.

The reward was to satisfy my hunger when I first bought the peanuts, but it had become a semi-automatic behaviour just repeatedly popping the peanuts in my mouth one after another.

So I stopped eating the peanuts – well, a few more just to make sure, then I stopped.

I wonder how many people put on unnecessary weight with this kind of eating.

You’re no longer really enjoying the food, you just keep on eating it because it’s there, because you like the texture or feeling, because you’re following the routine. Is this what they call comfort eating?

Does this ever happen to you?

I didn’t like the idea of eating so absent-mindedly. I want to try to remember to eat consciously and enjoy every mouthful.

The Guy With The Glazed Look

In the same car journey, something else caught my attention at the side of the road.

It was a guy with a particular glazed look doing some work on the pavement. He was doing something with the drainage system and had one of those really long stop-cock keys.

He was taking an attachment from the end of the device but what struck me is the glazed look he had.

It was obviously a job that he had done hundreds or maybe thousands of times before.

He was doing it absent-mindedly just like the way I’d just been eating peanuts.

I could tell from the glazed look he had, his mind could have been anywhere else at all, he was exercising the routine of a well-practiced habit.

He no longer consciously had to think about what he was doing – that work was automatic for him.

Do you know the look I mean?

This is the particular look a lot of people have when they are following an automatic routine and perhaps thinking of something else at the same time (i.e. because the routine is automatic, the conscious mind is free to wander anywhere it likes).

This reminded me just how powerful habits can be.

This job could be dangerous to some people but not to this guy.

So I drove past him thinking these thoughts whilst exercising my own sub-conscious car-driving routine.

How Habits Can Make Dangerous Tasks Safe – The Electrician

So it occurred to me how powerful habits really are.

What an amazing ability we humans have.

Habits are awesome.

My thoughts wandered then to my electrician.

I recently renovated a house. It was great fun and I learned loads. I did most of the work myself including lots of the electrics – putting in new sockets, replacing sockets & light fittings… quite simple stuff.

When it came to putting in a new circuit for the electric oven, I thought I’d better enlist the services of a qualified electrician.

As I watched the electrician working and chatted to him about his work, it occurred to me then, and again now that this is completely routine for him. You see, when I do any kind of electrical work, I’m worried about the safety aspect, I’m very careful but I consciously check and re-check to make sure there are no accidents.

The electrician of course has all of these safety checks too – but they are completely automatic.

In his case, practice, habit and routine protect him from danger and allow him to do his job quicker and more efficiently.

Then it made me think – just how dangerous can you get?

Can habits make something that’s really really dangerous safe?

How Habits Can Make Dangerous Tasks Safe – Spiderman

Have you ever heard of the crazy French guy they call Spiderman?

He climbs the tallest buildings in the world free-style without a rope or harness.

Here he is:

How does he do this? And why?

Obviously he likes the adrenalin rush.

But this is something that most of us would consider suicidal.

Could you do that?

I’m sure that Alain Robert is not suicidal. For him this is safe. Believe it or not I think he considers this safe. As safe perhaps as crossing the road is for you and I. Even crossing the road can be dangerous, so we take precautions, we look both ways.

How many times have I crossed the road in my life? It’s a very big number. I know to listen for traffic, look both ways and look again, check the point where I’m crossing to – is there a pavement on the other side?

I haven’t climbed the worlds largest sky-scrapers thousands of times. I wouldn’t say that the various routines I would need for such a feat are quite automatic yet – but for Alain Robert they are.

– and that’s why he feels a lot safer than I would doing this.

So before we leave habits for a while, just think about how powerful habits can really be and what they can do for you.

I might re-visit this subject again later on, because, as you can probably tell, I find the subject more than fascinating, but there are lots of other things I want to write about too.

Follow-Up On The Give Up One Thing Challenge

In the last article, I challenged you to give up one thing.

For my own give up one thing challenge, I committed to give up having an average dental routine. You can read more details about why in the previous article if you like, but here is my update on how I’m doing:

Firstly I made sure I have everything I need to hand everywhere I am, so I have no excuses not to brush, floss, mouthwash and use the inter-dental brushes to give my teeth a really good clean.

The biggest change for me is the flossing. I’m not sure if it’s laziness or because I didn’t think I liked the feeling of flossing, but for whatever reason – I wasn’t doing it, even though I knew how important it is. Isabelle even wrote a great article specifically on flossing which you should read if you haven’t already (I know it’s not the most exciting and inspiring subject in the world, but it’s a good article, I promise, and this stuff is worth knowing).

For a while I used those tiny inter-dental brushes because I preferred the convenience to flossing, but before long I got out of that habit too (well, not exactly a habit, I tried a few times and not in any regular way).

Anyways, with my new-found commitment, an understanding of habits and a determination to make this into a good one, I’ve been brushing, mouth-washing, using inter-dental sticks, and flossing every day, without fail, morning and night for 1 week.

I’m starting to feel like if I did less, then it’s no good. I’m starting to get an obsessive feeling about it. It’s not automatic yet, but hopefully after 30 days or so, it will be and that obsession will be well and truly established.

Established enough that my dental hygiene will be the best it possibly can be for the rest of my life.

That’s what I’m aiming for anyway,

More to the point, I’d like it to be the best it possibly can be without me having to think about it too much, if at all.

Then I’ll move on to something else.

So tell me, how are you doing with your habit or with the thing you wanted to give up?

We had some interesting examples in the comments of the last article, so I really want to hear your updates – how are you doing?


Habits: How To Achieve Incredible Things — 7 Comments

  1. Hi Alan,

    Very good topic. Habits can be our best friends as well as our worst enemy, so it’ really up to us to make sure that our habits are for our own good, and supporting the type of results that we are looking for.

  2. Listening to my thoughts 😉

    I do that. Well, mine is more of a discussion – I discuss and argue with myself, as if I am arguing with a round panel of people who have opposing view points.

    As with automatic habits, agree on that 😉 Sometimes, it’s for good, sometimes it is dangerous (now, that’s all subjective. Like you mentioned, Alian isn’t worried when he is climbing. Yes, he is doing for the adrenaline rush, but over time that wears off too. Because, it takes a lot more to bring that “adrenaline rush” just like over time, it takes more coffee to keep us awake).

    We can also apply this same principle in a different manner, how things we do many times can end up to be boring because there isn’t any change. The best example is food. We lose the taste for a food if we eat it very often 😀

    As with giving up a habit, I have been doing well with losing weight (I think I have been eating more for lunch, but I have also been exercising more than often – especially, more walking).

  3. Single thoughts are what lead to great changes – the challenge is to make them stick. :).

    My dad used to be a smoker too. Then one day he dropped it cold turkey. It’s amazing what you can do once you decide – REALLY decide – you’re going to do it.

  4. Oooh I like this one… Give something up. I have been wrestling with time. I need more time so I evaluated where I spend most of my time and I spend a good 2 hours a day dedicated to cooking activities including preparing food, cooking it and grocery shopping.

    I was talking with my husband yesterday and I said that I was now no longer going to cook 7 days a week. I’m only cooking 5 days a week. I remember how much free time i had when i went on my 30 day water fast and I wanted to have more time so I thought i’ll just not cook on those days. This is goign to be extremely hard because i love to cook. Love having dinner parties, friends over and trying new recipes.
    Rather than just say willy nilly I wont’ cook two days a week i have designated 2 particular days of the week as NO COOK DAYS FOR MOM. This means i will have an extra 4 hours per week or more to work on other projects that i keep putting off.
    I can’t wait..
    Does that count as giving up something??

    • Absolutely it counts!

      The invitation was deliberately generic.

      Your comment also ties in quite nicely with something I have been thinking about today and will probably write an article on – along the lines of getting more time. The thing is that we are all ‘paid’ the same amount of time (I think I’ve said that before in one of my articles here somewhere or perhaps it was in a comment somewhere else), and obviously we all use it differently. What occurred to me today was how people ‘structure’ their days in terms of time and it leads to a lot of time being wasted.

      Anyways, I hope it goes well for you getting your four hours a week back. Let me know how it goes…

  5. I love that example you gave of eating peanuts without even thinking about it. Recently I had that experience. I decided to eat go off my healthy eating for one night and had pizza. After awhile I didn’t realize if I was eating because I was hungry or if I was just “zoned out”. If you think eating peanuts without thinking about it, pizza would be worse.

    It reminded me of why I don’t eat bad foods too often. You can just lose track of everything and overeat. And you’re overeating with bad foods to begin with. It’s like a double dose of badness.

    By the way, I don’t think I could do what that French guy does. That’s insane. Interesting though that he’s named Spiderman, I didn’t realize he had a name.

  6. Alan,

    I just read and joined your challenge to give something up so let me get back to you on that one. 🙂

    As for bad habits. You mention the peanuts. I LOVE chocolate ice cream. Almost to the point I will make myself sick eating it. I love the texture and taste in my mouth. And the refreshing feeling. I just love it. I will get a quart and eat it all up and then I am sick right after until the next morning. Yet a few weeks will go by and I will do it again! I can’t believe myself. If I would just talk a serving I bet I would satisfy my urge to eat it. But I rarely do.

    I have to tell ya. When you break and conquer bad habits, don’t you just feel so good? It is almost like an adrenalin rush for me. I don’t have a lot of experience with giving stuff up so I never knew how good it could feel. But lately I gave up some pretty bad stuff and I feel like I am FREE! My mind is more clear and my health is great! It is like my mind has more control now so it sends good mood hormones to my body. That sounded funny. LOL.

    Have a great weekend.


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