With a new decade upon us, now is the time of year that many of us are looking to our goals. Creating goals and figuring out what we want. And many of us dive in right away, guns ablazing, ready to kick those goals’ ass. And then…well, we sort of let that fire die and before we know it we are back to our old ways. Why is this? How can we truly create lasting change? The secret lies in establishing new habits. Easier said that done right? True, this does take a fair amount of work – but anything important or life-changing does. And if you’re not willing to put in the work, I guess you don’t really want it so bad. So, what is the key to actually creating and implementing new habits?
First, let’s talk about what a habit is. It pretty much boils down to a regular tendency or practice you perform, without much, if any, conscious thought. It’s something you do/think/say every day; every week – it’s just part of your routine.
Your everyday life is made up of 1000s of habits that you routinely go through without noticing. Hence, as author and behavior expert James Clear states, “your life is essentially the sum of your habits… your habits form the person you are, the things you believe, the personality you portray.”
So it follows that to improve your life, you need to develop new habits that will help you to live out those improvements. But how? There are many, many books out there on habit formation and the best ways to go about creating new habits. I’ve read many of them. I’ve experimented with many of them – and I’d encourage you to do the same as what works for me, may not work the best for you. However, today, I’m going to look at it from a scientific perspective & summarize the work of James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits: an Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones”. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it if you’re interested.
Clear states that the process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response and reward. Sounds familiar right – think Pavlov’s dogs – and you can use this framework to identify, change or create new habits. Let’s talk about what Clear calls the feedback loop – an endless cycle that runs every moment you are alive.
The Cue: a cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior; it’s a bit of information that predicts a reward (such as money, love, approval, praise, friendship, food, sex etc.). Because a cue is a first indicator of a reward it leads to a craving. For example, you had a long day at work (the cue) and your brain starts thinking about what kind of reward you can get to make you feel better.
Cravings are the motivational force behind every habit – without which, we’d have no reason to act. You don’t crave the habit itself, but the change in feeling it delivers. To continue our example – you’re stressed/tired/annoyed because of work and you seek out something to comfort yourself – like that lovely glass of wine. It’s not really the wine itself but the feeling of comfort or winding down that you want. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state, or the way you feel.
The craving then results in a response – the habit or action you perform. In our example, sometimes even the act of just pouring the glass of wine is comforting, or the sitting and relaxing with it. It’s the action you perform. Additionally, your response is dependent upon how motivated you are or how much work the action will take – if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it. If you don’t really care about the reward, you won’t put the effort in to take the action.
It is the responses that then deliver the reward – the end goal of every habit. In our example, the reward is the feeling of “ahhhhh”, I’m good now, the relaxation. The cue is about noticing the reward, the craving is about wanting the reward, the response is about obtaining the reward. And that reward then gets associated with the cue in your brain – and so begins the loop over and over – you have an automatic habit. Clear maintains that by the time we are adults we rarely notice the habits that run our lives. Flipping on light switches, changing into comfortable clothes after work, having a cup of coffee to wake up, etc.. All of these actions have been mentally programmed into our brains over a lifetime.
So now what? How can we use this knowledge to incorporate good habits and eliminate bad ones? Clear calls his framework – The four laws of behavior change – a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones. He says that you can think of each law as a lever that influences human behavior. When the levers are in the right positions, creating good habits is effortless. When they are in the wrong positions it is nearly impossible.
The following is Clear’s framework to create a good habit or to break a bad habit. To learn more please visit his site at jamesclear.com/habits
To create a good habit:
- The Cue: Make it Obvious
- The Craving: Make it Attractive
- The Response: Make it Easy
- The Reward: Make it Satisfying
Start small – pick a habit and make it easy enough that you can get it done without motivation, build from there. By building upon this habit in small ways, your willpower and motivation will increase, making it easier to maintain the habit. As you build up, break habits into chunks – keep it reasonable and easy to maintain as you go along. When you slip, get back on track quickly (plan for failure & think of ways ahead of time to get past these). Be patient and stick to a pace you can sustain.
Follow the 3 R’s of habit change: Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior), routine (the behavior itself; the action you take), and reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior).
Additional tips Clear provides:
Create identify based habits. “The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously). To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.” For example, don’t center you’re goals around outcomes like “I will workout 4 times a week” rather you’re goal is based around the new identity that “I am the type of person who enjoys working out and does so often”. Essentially you need to decide who you want to be and support that decision with evidence and prove it to yourself with small wins.
To break a bad habit:
- The Cue: Make it invisible
- The Craving: Make it unattractive
- The Response: Make it difficult
- The Reward: Make it unsatisfying
Many of our bad habits are a way of dealing with stress and boredom & their underlying deeper issues. Clear states that breaking bad habits requires a level of honesty with yourself – and I would agree. You will need to take a deeper look at the root causes of these habits so that you can deal with and address them in a more healthy way.
According to Clear, bad habits address certain needs in your life. Don’t eliminate the bad habit – replace it. Replace the bad habit with a new one that provides a similar benefit or meets a similar need. Choose a substitute habit and cut out as many triggers as you can (change your environment, change your outcome). Join forces with someone (power in numbers and accountability); Surround yourself with people who live the way you want to live (change your environment); Visualize yourself succeeding; Use the word “but” to overcome negative self-talk – “I am fat and eat too much sugar, BUT I am working on reducing my sugar consumption and I get better every day”; Plan for failure; BECOME AWARE – it’s a critical step. Ask yourself:
- When does your bad habit actually happen?
- How many times do you do it each day?
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- What triggers the behavior and causes it to start?
Building good habits and breaking bad ones is hard work. But any one of us can do it. We have the ability within to connect with our “Why” – with what we truly want, to look at ourselves honestly & see our triggers and become conscious of our current habits, and to work slowly and diligently towards better ones. Keep at it, don’t give up. Persistence and perserverance are your friends here. You can be a success story and when you look back in 6 months or a year you will be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Good luck! I hope this information helped. Don’t forget to check out Clear’s book and until we talk again – remember to always be who YOU are. Because you’re amazing.