4 war strategies to build better habits

Estimated reading time: 6 min.

“I will wake up at 6 a.m. exercise, eat breakfast, do X amount of work. Spend enough time with my family, read and go to sleep early.”

At one point or the other in life, all of us have made these affirmations. We get so tired of the haphazardness of our lives that we decide one day to become disciplined. The next day, we wake up on time, do some exercise, and stick to the ideal disciplined life. Most of the times we do this just for a day. Sometimes we manage to stick with it for a couple of days. Sometimes, a little more. But ultimately, we fall back.


It’s simple. Our brains resist change. They are designed to. To understand this, let me introduce you to our protector. The limbic system.

The limbic system is the part of our brain that controls emotions, memories and habits. It is partly responsible for our survival. It was the limbic system that helped the early man notice the difference in the noise of the birds around him and alerted him of the possible presence of a predator.

Unfortunately, the limbic system uses the same reason to resist change. To protect us from unfamiliar surroundings and actions. Wake up at 6 instead of the regular 8, and like an uncle or a grandpa, it raises its eyebrows (the reverse is also true. If you are used to waking up at 6 and then wake up at 8, it will still have problems). If with one small change, it raises an eyebrow, you can very well imagine what kind of havoc it wrecks when we plan a complete transformation.

The other side of the limbic system is the pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. It tell us that it is good to exercise, convinces us, but unfortunately can’t do much to make sure that we do it (That is the job of the limbic system). A major change is always a war between the limbic system, and the pre-frontal cortex, and most of the times, the limbic system wins.

So, does it mean that we cannot make or break habits? Of course not. We can break or make habits easily with a little guile.

Habit creation is essentially moving a set of actions from our pre-frontal cortex to the limbic system, and with a little help, a habit can sneak in to the limbic system without alarming it.

Like I said, the pre-frontal cortex is at war with the limbic system to infiltrate habits into it. So, we need a few war strategies to help it win. Imagine that the limbic system is a big fort, and that pre-frontal cortex (which is our side) is trying to infiltrate it. What are the strategies we can use?


  1. Send in one at a time:Remember that you are trying to infiltrate. Not wage a big war. Send in one habit at a time. This won’t set off the alarms. If you want to get up early, read at night, exercise, and all that, just focus on one. Once you successfully infiltrate one, it can help the others too. For example, if you start exercising regularly, it will be easier for you to fall asleep on time, and consequently get up early.
  2. Start with the easy ones: Do not send in the elephant first. Send in the foot soldier. It’s easier for him to sneak in, and it gives us a small win. A small win motivates the army (Physiologically, a small win makes dopamine flow into the pleasure centres of the brain, and this motivates you further), lifts its spirits, and motivates it for more infiltration. Start with a habit of reading ten pages a day, or doing 10 push ups when you wake up. These are easy, and will give you a sense of achievement.
  3. Camouflage: Like in any war, camouflaging is a very important tactic in beating the limbic system. Build your new habit on top of an existing one. Send in a soldier behind an elephant. They won’t notice. For eg: If you already have a habit of watching TV at night, read during the ad breaks. Then slowly as it gets accepted as a habit, replace more of TV with reading.
  4. Persist:I love battering rams. They are great at attacking forts. They keep attacking and persist at it. These rams have to continuously attack the fort to break it. If it pauses, or takes a break, the enemy would reinforce the walls. It’s the same with the limbic system. You need to keep going at it. If you want to build a lifelong habit of reading,Read every day for at least 30 days (Most researchers talk about 21 days to set a habit.  That’s actually the minimum. Some habits take longer).  Once you infiltrate it completely, the limbic system will protect the habit with all its might. It will remain there forever, unless you take the effort to break it once again.

So, do not wait now. Start the war. Use these strategies, and start the infiltration. Infiltrate till you have enough of your habit soldiers in the limbic fort, and you will keep winning.

Let me know about your infiltration. Let me know in the comments. I love reading about war.


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