Building Better Habits: How to Make Lasting Change

When going for runs, one of my favorite genres of music is when a band remakes a classic song with a more modern rock rhythm. (If you’re not sure what I mean, this and that are two of my current favorites.) Let’s try to do something similar by updating a classic tale of Greek Mythology with a bit of a modern twist.

Sam was trying to save some money and eat a bit healthier, so he decided to stop purchasing food out and cut caffeine from his diet. Sam had a plan, and for the first few weeks it was going great.

But then on his way to work one day, he heard the call of the siren. She beckoned to him to stop and stay awhile, but Sam was a man on a mission, so he drove by without stopping. Later that afternoon, he heard her call again with the promise of sweet satisfaction and a boost of energy and productivity. He saw some of his coworkers lured as well, and next thing you know Sam found himself sipping a Grande Mocha Chip Frappuccino from the Starbucks Siren at 2:30 p.m. Soon he had given back into his old ways and Starbucks was again part of his weekly routine.

While not lured to his death like the sailors from Greek Mythology often were, Sam did find that his efforts to kick his Starbucks habit had been shipwrecked. By taking a deeper look at two of the more famous sailors who survived the song of the sirens, we may find some inspiration to help us improve our own habits.

Resisting Like Odysseus

In Homer’s Odyssey, our hero Odysseus was warned that he’d have to sail past the sirens on his journey. To stop the sailors from being seduced by the sirens’ song, he had his men block their ears with wax so they wouldn’t be tempted. But the hero himself wanted to hear what the song sounded like, so he had his men tie him to the mast of the ship. He warned them that once he succumbed to the song, he would beg and plead with his men to let him go but that they could not under any conditions. As Odysseus sailed by, his men did not hear the song, and despite Odysseus’s pleas to let him go, were able to make safe passage.

Knowing that he would be tempted (and fail) when he heard the song, Odysseus had his men take away that choice for him by keeping him from giving in. This strategy is known as precommitment — taking away a future choice so that we can overcome the impulsivity that often occurs when we’re trying to either start or break a habit. The theory is that if we make it harder for ourselves to do the action — especially at moments when we’ll be at our weakest — we can make it easier to triumph by removing choice and building a better system.

While many people can find success with this strategy (especially over the short-term), one problem is that many of us are just too resourceful. Even well-designed systems can be gamed and overcome with the right combination of motivation and resourcefulness. For this strategy to be truly successful, it must be combined with a healthy dose of willpower, which will ebb and flow over time.

Rather than only relying on systems to restrict us, either forcing us to do something we don’t want to do (exercise, for example) or stopping something we do want to do even if we think we shouldn’t (like eating a late-night pint of Ben & Jerry’s), maybe the answer can be found when we also consider the direction we’re running.

Redirecting Like Jason

Another group of heroes who managed to survive the song of the sirens was Jason and the Argonauts. Much like Odysseus, Jason and his crew had to sail past the sirens on their quest for the Golden Fleece. But rather than trying to resist the song, they employed another strategy. Amongst the Argonauts was Orpheus, a legendary musician.

As the sirens began to sing their song to lure the men, Orpheus began playing a tune on his lyre that drowned out the voice of the sirens with a song even more beautiful. Rather than succumbing to their seductive sound, the men found themselves drawn to something they wanted even more and were able to sail safely by the island.

If we apply this to our efforts to change our behaviors or improve ourselves, there is a key lesson here for us. Instead of relying on systems or willpower alone, they found something worthy of running toward rather than away from. Rather than trying to deny themselves something completely, they replaced it.

What if we were able to do the same thing? One way might be for us to tap into the power of motivation and belief. If you’re looking to start a new habit, or kick a bad one, don’t go right to the actions and activities first. You’ll need to figure those out, but first spend some time thinking about why you want to change this behavior. Picture what will be different and why that’s important to you.

Don’t think about it in terms of what you’ll be giving up; reframe the discussion in your mind in terms of what you’ll be gaining and how that will benefit you and those around you. Then, when the siren sings the song of temptation to fall back into old routines (and eventually you’ll always hear that song), you can remind yourself why you are doing this and the better future you are working toward.

Finding Balance with Both

Too often we live in a world of tradeoffs — tradeoffs of this versus that and of right versus wrong. Finding long-term success with any behavior change is hard and can even feel impossible at times. So rather than choosing one or the other, perhaps we can find the answer by blending both examples above.

Create systems to help position you for success. Whether it’s taking away choices, creating powerful incentives or utilizing habit stacking, think through what processes you need to shift the odds in your favor.

But before you get started, make sure you have the right mindset. Be clear on why you want to make a change. Be sure the reason connects with both your heard and heart so that you can maintain your focus and motivation especially when things get tough. Focus on progress, not perfection, knowing that change is more like a journey than a destination.

One thing that unites both stories is the epic nature of the adventures. Both set out to accomplish something extraordinary, and their stories were told for centuries to come.

The habits you’re trying to build or break may not feel like legendary quests, but don’t underestimate the impact they can have on you, your life and the lives of those around you.

So as you head out, beware the call of the siren, build systems to support you, and more importantly, importantly never lose sight of why you are on the journey. That motivation and purpose can help propel you to success worthy of stories and songs.

Start Building Better Habits Today

If you’re looking to build better habits in your life or leadership, we’ve created a new resource to help you.

Whether you’re looking to form a new habit or kick a bad one, our Building Better Habits guide will help you check your readiness and make a plan to follow through.

Using the Building Better Habits guide, you’ll learn how to:

  • Create simple and specific plans to change your habits.
  • Evaluate your motivation and identify potential barriers to success.
  • Learn how to hack the “habit loop” and rewire your brain to leave bad habits behind.

Click here to get your Building Better Habits guide.



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