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The Secret of Habits:

How to Turn a Beneficial Biohack into a Habit

by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

This article is adapted from 16 Super Biohacks for Longevity: Shortcuts to a Healthier, Happier, Longer Life.

“The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible,” says James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits. Clear suggests four laws of change: 1) make it obvious, 2) make it attractive, 3) make it easy, and 4) make it satisfying. These are all excellent recommendations. Most of us decide to change our habits by making a list of firm resolutions, which we forget about in a month or even a week. According to Ayurveda, one of the world’s most ancient and powerful traditions of health, it is important to keep the habit as simple as possible for your mind and body by making only one small change at a time. This is exactly what James Clear suggests: “An atomic habit is a little habit that is part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”

Many other habit change experts such as B. J. Fogg, who wrote Tiny Habits, agree with starting a habit change process by putting your attention on one simple, doable habit. The habit you pick should be, as Clear points out, obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. The idea is to start small and build over time. Before you know it, you will have reshaped your life by changing your habits. Clear goes on to say, “Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.” This is very interesting concept, which suggests that habits are far more important than we originally thought.

Ayurveda and Habit Change

In Ayurveda, a fundamental building block to ideal health is to create and follow a daily routine. Some of these habits, Ayurveda suggests, are the same for everyone, others are personalized for each mind/body nature. The three basic mind/body natures, as defined by Ayurveda, are called Vata (vah´tah), Pitta (pit´ah), and Kapha (kah´fah). To simplify, we will call them Energy states, which we will abbreviate to V Energy State, P Energy State, and K Energy State.

Individuals who have a V Energy State tend to be creative, curious, and enthusiastic. They are your sensitive, artistic friends. In business, they are capable of producing innovative and customer-oriented marketing campaigns. Individuals with a P Energy State are purposeful and dynamic achievers, and are often competitive athletic partners or adversaries. In business, they are frequently goal oriented leaders of teams and companies. People who have a K Energy State are often very stable, relaxed, and good-natured. These are the steady, grounded friends who help you through difficult times, and, in business, frequently hold the position of trustworthy administrators; they are good at increasing harmony and cooperation.

Current scientific articles demonstrate that the three Energy State natures (V,P, and K) , referred to as Prakriti (prah´kri-ty) in Ayurveda, are correlated with the expression of a specific set of genes, as well as by distinct physiological and biochemical measures. Ayurveda has been described as an early science of epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to the external modification of DNA—turning genes on and off—without changing the basic structure of the DNA. Research has shown that lifestyle changes in diet and digestion, stress management, and environmental factors, are all an integral part of Ayurveda, affecting gene expression mechanisms.

Each Energy State shows a different tendency toward learning a new habit.  The attention of a V Energy State person can be very precise but also tends to move quickly from one topic to another. V Energy State people are more sensitive than other types and may be overwhelmed by sensory information, even by too many choices. Actually pushing a V individual to learn a new habit can result in a strong reaction. And if this reaction becomes overly emotional and out of balance, it will be almost impossible for them to focus their attention on habit change until they are balanced and calm again.

How does the attention of a P Energy State person affect their learning a new habit? P people are primarily interested in solutions and often make excellent leaders. Time is very important to a P person and they thrive on a set timeline, especially when making changes. (We have already pointed out that adopting a new habit is relatively easy for P Energy State people.)

K Energy people often have a settled mind. But they can be extremely attached to routine. They like to think things through thoroughly and methodically before making decisions. They tend to resist change and will be better able to execute their Habit Plan when they have some support.

Super Habits

Super Habits are habits that help you to make other changes in your life. For example,  B.J. Fogg introduced what he calls the Maui Habit in his book Tiny Habits; he recommends that when you get up each day, the moment your feet first touch the ground, you say, “It’s going to be a great day.” It turns out that daily gratitude is a powerful Super Habit. One suggestion is that before you go to sleep every night, try writing down 3 or 4 things you are grateful for (it’s okay if you repeat the same things each night).

The Super Habit which we highly recommend is Transcendental Meditation. By now, most people are aware that meditation can counteract the negative effects of stress. More importantly, TM research shows that with better physical and mental health it is possible to eventually reach an optimal state of total brain functioning. There are several different types of meditation, and each emphasizes different results (See Article on Paths to Total Brain Development.)

The Empowerment Cycle

The Empowerment Cycle, as we have mentioned in one of our newsletters, helps you make positive change in your life. It begins by first being receptive, with a clear intention of what you want to do. Next comes inspiration and energy, which motivate and enable you to make the change. Finally comes environment, both of which means that you take steps to create the best space for you to adopt healthy new habits. All of these contribute to total gut/brain development. Each person is different, and habit change works best when it takes your own specific mental and physical nature into account.

Staying in Balance

Creating a daily routine with positive habits can give you improved mental and physical health so that you automatically do everything better in your life. One simple useful tool for habit change is habit stacking. This simply means that you add your new habit to an already existing one. For example, if you have an established a habit of taking walks twice a day and want to add the habit of drinking more water to your routine, it will easier if you add the habit of drinking a glass of water after each walk. The result of habit stacking is that you naturally create a more ideal daily routine.

Ayurveda’s focus is on prevention in four main areas of lifestyle: meditation, diet, exercise, and sleep. In our highly stressed world the practice of meditation has finally become acceptable. Most people also understand that there is a connection between the gut and the brain, and that adopting a healthy diet can improve mental and physical health. Studies on the benefits of exercise make it clear why this should be a normal part of daily routine. And at this point we know so much more about biorhythms and the necessity of a good night’s sleep.

Rewiring your brain requires energy and each different Energy State has a different style of sleep habit. The V Energy State takes longer to go to sleep and may require some special aids. The P Energy State sleep less than the other but fall asleep quickly and the K Energy State requires more sleep and extra time to get up in the morning. The level and type of exercise is also different for each Energy State. The V Energy State is more agile and can become tired more easily. The P Energy State is full of energy but can overdo it; the K Energy State person has great stamina and strength when they are not being coach potatoes.

There are, of course, other steps you can take to help your health, many of which can gradually be added as new habits to your daily routine.

Habit Map and Plan

How do you go about picking an easy habit? Start by writing a sentence about something you want to change in your life. Do you want to be more fit and exercise more? Do you want to become a writer or an artist? Do you want to lose weight? It’s okay to start with a big idea as long as you understand that what you are trying to do is to create a series of habits which will allow you to become your best possible self.

For example, you could have the intention, “I want to lose 15 pounds over the next three months.” Place this statement in the center of a piece of paper or your computer screen as the first step in creating your personal Habit Map. Around it, like spokes radiating from the hub of a wheel, list some action steps that you think will help accomplish your change. Maybe you want to exercise more, or eat less, maybe you want to experience in a quieter environment when you eat. Begin with whatever appeals to you most and seems the easiest for you to do. Once you pick one of the options then you can make a Plan. The plan is to adopt a simple habit over a specific time period; for example, “I am going to eat more slowly and put more attention on what and how I am eating food. I will help myself do this by lowering my fork between each bite of food. I will try this for a month and see how it affects my weight and how I feel.

According to James Clear there are four parts to any habit. There is a cue—which acts as a kind of trigger that lets you know it is time to start the habit. The cue in this case might be sitting down and taking your first bite. The next part is cravings—this is the motivation behind your trying to adopt this new habit. You may not crave eating slowly but you do crave some weight loss, and this is your motivation to accomplish this simple habit.

The next part is response, which, in this case is setting your fork down between bites. The response could also be how different you felt while eating. Instead of rushing through your meal without really savoring it, this new habit could allow you to both taste and appreciate your food more completely.

If your ultimate goal is to lose weight, make sure that you get on a scale periodically to see how you are doing. If your habit change plan is working and you can see improvements it will encourage you to keep doing this habit. In itself, this is a reward, but if you continue to lose weight for over a month or so, then reinforce it by treating you and your partner to a night out. If you don’t lose weight, then consider changing your Habit Plan.

Remember to make your environment more habit friendly by asking your partner to gently remind you to put your fork down between bites. It doesn’t have to be a scolding, just a kind nudge in the right direction. Did you put your full attention in trying to accomplish this habit? Maybe you got distracted because you had a guest over for dinner. That’s okay, but when you are alone or with your partner, see if can put your fork down between bites and notice if it helps make the meal more enjoyable.

Coaching

To help make a change in your habits we strongly recommend some form of coaching. Most people can’t afford a personal coach, so experiment with some self coaching. This doesn’t mean that you have to do it all by yourself, remember that you can get help from friend or partner.

Coaching helps you to set goals and also to be be accountable. Even meeting with a friend once a week and just talking about how you are doing will help.  Doing this with a group of friends is even better.  We also recommend that you keep a journal. If, for instance, you want to lose weight, definitely keep a record of the different foods you eat at each meal and how each affects you.

Celebrate

Remember, the reward part of habit change is important. So celebrate and reward yourself for every step of progress no matter how small. For bigger milestones, celebrate once a week, once a month, or once a year. The act of celebration helps to reinforce your new habit, and it will help give you more motivation and self-confidence.

Researchers at Harvard have examined what it is that motivates employees to produce the greatest creative output. It turns out that the old motivators of fear and pressure don’t work nearly as well as happiness and positive support. Improving one part of your life will inevitably lead to your adopting other positive habits. The goal is to create a system of self development that requires minimum effort and maximum reward. Small wins lead to big wins.

Selected References

  1. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear, Avery, 2018
  2. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019
  3. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, Random House, 2012
  4. The Rest And Repair Diet: Heal Your Gut, Improve Your Physical and Mental Health, and Lose Weight by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Samantha Wallace, Andrew Stenberg, MA, Jim Davis, DO, and Alexis Farley, Dharma Publications, 2019
  5. Total Brain Coaching: A Holistic System of Effective Habit Change For the Individual, Team, and Organization by Ted Wallace, MS, Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, and Samantha Wallace, Dharma Publications, 2020
  6. Self Empower: Using Self Coaching, Neuroadaptability, and Ayurveda by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Samantha Wallace, Ted Wallace, MS Dharma Publications, 2021