Turning Excellence into a Habit

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” – Will Durant, based on the teachings of Aristotle.

A poster with this quote hangs in my tack room, so it is something I see regularly when I get ready for the day, and while I take refuge between horses or coaching sessions. The quest for excellence is a defining characteristic of all sport, and in dressage it is even definitive.

The ultimate score of a 10 in dressage is by definition to be awarded for excellence. The question I pondered was, ‘how do we encourage and create those excellent habits, and what can we do about the ones that are less helpful?‘ When Centre10 set us the task of researching an area of interest as a component of the APEC Advanced program I have been studying, this seemed a natural place for me to investigate. I gave a presentation on my findings from a coaching perspective, but thought it may be helpful to summarise some of this information from more of a personal angle.

To start with, it is worth knowing what habits are. They are the brain’s way of reducing the cognitive effort (effort of the brain) required to complete tasks we do regularly. This allows us to undertake actions both simple and complicated automatically, leaving us able to think about other things (or nothing at all!) while eating, driving a car or hundreds of our daily activities, helpful or not. They are formed when the body finds what it considers a reliable solution to a problem, and once formed, they remain programmed in our brain for life, even if we are not currently acting on them.

The formation of habits can be imagined in a loop: Cue -> Craving (for established habits) -> Routine -> Reward. To visualise this loop, imagine walking down a street and catching the smell of fresh doughnuts (the cue.) This triggers memories of the delicious taste of doughnuts, and your mouth begins to water (the craving.) You find yourself walking towards the source of the smell, a bakery, and buying a doughnut – or several – before you even know what you are doing (the routine.) You bite in, and get a delicious sensation on your tongue and a hit of sugar (the reward.) Walk down that street several times, and you may find yourself heading to the bakery even without the smell, as your brain starts to make a program of heading to the bakery.

How then do we break a habit we don’t want? We want to interrupt the habit loop at any point in the cycle. You could try to make the cue inconspicuous/ unlikely for us to encounter. For the example above, take a different street, or smell a different strong fragrance before walking down the street. Alternatively, we can aim to make the craving unattractive, perhaps by thinking of images of the same doughnuts stuck to one’s thighs or filled with ketchup etc. We can make the routine more difficult, like ensuring we don’t have cash for the cash only bakery, so that we would need to find a cashpoint before buying the doughnut. Lastly, we can make the habit less rewarding, though you are on your own as to how to make the doughnut less rewarding!

To form a new habit, we want to harness the power of the loop by making the cue obvious, the craving attractive, the routine easy and the reward rewarding! We can therefore look at things we want to habitually do, and try and fit it in. For example, if you want to clean your tack after you ride, leave your sponge and leather balm somewhere you will see it (cue) before you put your tack away. You can also thinking of ways to reward yourself for doing something, such as I will have a cup of tea (or insert your own reward here) only after I clean my tack. We can also look to add a new habit to an existing habit routine. For a simple example, if you find yourself riding without gloves most of the time, but always wear your helmet, try keeping your gloves inside or with your helmet, so that you will have them as well when you put your helmet on.

When looking to change your habits, it is more likely to work if you tackle them one at a time, There is great power in finding a good keystone habit, which is when one new good habit leads to an avalanche of other positive changes. Research has shown that making an effort to improve in one area of your life, such as starting a monthly savings plan (possibly not a good example among us equestrians!) saw most participants improving their diet and starting to exercise more. Who knows where that new tack cleaning habit could lead you!

There a few other considerations to help make those new habit stick. The first is that we naturally take on a lot of habits from the people around us, especially those we are close to, also emulating what everyone else is doing, or what those we admire are doing. The company we keep matters, try to surround yourself with people that have the habit(s) you wish to emulate. You could also try having a buddy holding you accountable to help keep you on track. Secondly, research shows that planning when you are going to do something in detail, especially when and how you are going to do it and writing it down, significantly increases the chance of that action being performed. Lastly, as all habits both good and bad remain with us forever, if you truly believe you are the person who does your good habit, you will be much less likely to revert to your previous pattern.

Amongst many others, I have started a new habit of asking myself if the things I do help, or do not help, me to be who I want to be. Definitely still a work in progress!

Has this summary on habits been helpful to you? Do you have any stories about habits you would like to share? I would love to hear from you!

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