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The Power of Habits

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

How to create a discipline which doesn't depend on will power

Discipline is advised in all religions and every time we try to achieve a goal: passing an exam, winning the Olympic Games, living as a monk (of any religion) or following a diet. Every time we seem to try and tend towards an objective (health, wellbeing or attainting a goal) discipline appears to be the key.

I have struggled with the necessity of discipline for many decades being myself the rebel type... I tend to hate discipline and everything that I experience as "yet another constraint to impose on myself" as if life wasn't already demanding enough... Discipline is also imposed on athletes mainly through diet and lifestyle but also very much in Ayurveda and Yoga: meditation, oileation, tongue scrapping, mantra singing, pranayamas, oil pulling... you name it. It often feels impossible to implement those within the context of our busy urban lives. Frustratingly, it also feels like one should have to stop working to be able to free the few hours needed to take care of oneself properly on a daily basis. Discipline requires our will power, which fluctuates according to the life events we all face, and that is the problem: our will power is required for so many things in life, that often it has to pick its fight and prioritise, dropping these new resolutions we so wanted to implement to change our lives.

So how do I impose myself a discipline whitout the suffering? How do I bend the self-destructive tendencies which seem to be my default setting?And the answer is HABITS, or how to create good ones which I can implement effortlessly in order to create a routine which is no longer experienced as a constraint?

Here you'll find a bit of insight into how Habits get formed, how to creates good ones without feeling like you're subjecting yourself to torture every time you tell yourself "I have to..." or "I should...".


1)Habits require some sort of cue, or trigger to be activated.

2)They are formed when the behaviour triggered by the cue results in a consistent reward

3)They allow us to shift effortful decisions into automatic ones.

Let me give you an example: every time my friend feels bored, she lights a cigarette with the satisfaction of feeling relaxed coming from the nicotine. Every night as I put my daughter to bed, she'll grab her "spotty" stuffed dog and snuggle with it feeling soothed and comfy. Every time my friends' daughter has a minute of quiet and inactivity, she'll soothe herself by putting her thumb in her mouth and rolling the tip of her hair in her fingers (and she's 12). So habits can even be created out of "nothingness".

Try to think about the times you are waiting for the bus, train, queueing or waiting for your order at the restaurant: what do you do during that time of nothingness? Well, if you are like most of us, "nothing" now serves as the cue to pull out your phone.

A study from 2014 shows how people subjected to inactivity (being alone with oneself) for a time declared preferring being submitted to electric chocs instead... They would rather endure physical pain than staying idle and "alone with their thoughts". Says a lot about us...

STIMULUS- RESPONSE - REWARD re-inforced through repetition over time.

Habits are just that: shortcuts allowing the rational brain to delegate in order to avoid being overwhelmed with too many stimuli throughout the day. Havent you had the feeling, there were 2voices in your head: the one that says "stop drinking", the other saying "Oh come one, just one glass, I've deserved it"? Our rational brain is loaded with decisions to make all day long while our reptilian brain indulges into what we feel we need to overcome the situation. Once seems to indulge, the other to reprimand.

So the idea is to trick the reptilian brain into creating a cue which will be followed by a satisfaction.

For example: you've decided to go to the gym regularly. You've thrown yourself into it and aimed at attending a class 4 times a week. You stress yourself to be on time, rush out of work feeling your peers judge your early departure, you are tired during the class, come back in pain and wonder how you will keep up with that discipline on the long run. And that would be the mistake, because like a diet, you will rely on your will power to keep up with your ambitions. The pain and efforts are tangible, while the rewards remain elusive. Most people will give up simply because the pain outweighs the benefits.

Instead, decide to create a habit of going to your gym everyday irrespective of what you'll actually do there, you have to love your gym: use the Jacuzzi, make new friends, talk to a personal trainer, have a herbal tea, or train! Your experience of going to the gym will change into something positive and pleasant. Whatever you do there doesn't matter, just go there 4 times a week (if that was your objective) and stay for even only 10 minutes if that's all you have available and do what you feel like doing even if it's just being sociable, but go there. It will turn these nice and new experiences into a reward. The repetition over a long period of time will create a habit which will no longer feel like "discipline" and going to gym won't be dependent on your will power. Instead, just by going there, will come a time where you'll train more and more just because it's rewarding.


Once you've trained your reptilian brain into associating the stimulus to the reward, it will start thinking "oh, it's Monday, it's time to go to the gym". And in turn, the brain will start putting in place all the necessary routines needed for you to get to the gym easily. To get rid of a bad habit, or implement a new positive one, the same principle applies: identify the trigger and decide on the reward, then "force" your self to follow the trigger everyday, so that you get rewarded. Discipline, becomes routine, becomes habits, away from will power.

Happy habits!

PS: for more, I advise you watch the brilliant documentary series "The science of Human decision Making".


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