You have a long list of things you know you should be doing regularly… But for some reason, you just don’t do them. What’s the deal?
The solution is building habits. Doing hard things isn’t hard if you’re on autopilot. But how do we make building habits simple and painless?
James Clear has a lot of very good, research-backed answers in his new bestseller Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.
James lays out four laws of behavior change that are so simple, even I can do them. (And that means you can, too.)
Alright, let’s break ’em down…
1) Make It Obvious
Vague is the enemy. “I want to exercise more” is usually another way of saying, “I want to continue disappointing myself.”
On the other hand, you could say: “Every morning at 7 a.m. I’m going to lift weights for an hour at the gym around the corner.”
If I said that, you’d be much more likely to believe I was going to follow through. And if you say it, studies show you’re more likely to actually do it.
It’s what researchers call an “implementation intention.” (People without a Ph.D. call it a “plan.”)
Hundreds of studies have shown that implementation intentions are effective for sticking to our goals, whether it’s writing down the exact time and date of when you will get a flu shot or recording the time of your colonoscopy appointment. They increase the odds that people will stick with habits like recycling, studying, going to sleep early, and stopping smoking…
The formula for creating an implementation intention is pretty simple:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
Another way to get the same effect is by using “habit stacking.” Tie the new habit to an old habit.
Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.
And the formula for habit stacking is pretty simple too:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
“After I wake up, I will do 20 push-ups.”
“After the crime, I will hide any evidence.”
Chain together enough new habits and you’ll be in great shape while spending far less time in prison.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So your new habit plan is clear. But how do you get yourself to want to do it?
2) Make It Attractive
Fun gets done. Of course, if most good habits were fun, you’d already be doing them. But there’s still a valuable lesson here: If we combine fun stuff with not-so-fun stuff, the latter is more likely to be completed.
So the answer is what researchers call “temptation bundling.”
Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” In other words, even if you don’t really want to process overdue work emails, you’ll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.
James tells the story of a clever engineer who loved Netflix and hated exercising. So he wrote a computer program that would only allow Netflix to play if his stationary bike was cycling above a certain speed. Smart.
Combine something you love with a habit you want to build and you’ll find yourself doing it a lot more often. If you love audiobooks but don’t like cleaning, you only get to listen to Harry Potter when you scrub the bathroom. If you’re naturally sadistic but don’t enjoy the gym, sign up for boxing classes so you can get your exercise while punching people.
Another way to make new habits more attractive is to leverage our natural sheep-like tendencies. The people around you influence you a lot more than you think. Spend more time with those who have the habits you want and you’re more likely to follow through. More afternoons with friends who read a lot, fewer evenings with heroin addicts.
When astronaut Mike Massimino was a graduate student at MIT, he took a small robotics class. Of the ten people in that class, four became astronauts. If your goal was to make it into space, then that room was about the best culture you could ask for. Similarly, one study found that the higher your best friend’s IQ at age eleven or twelve, the higher your IQ would be at age fifteen, even after controlling for natural levels of intelligence. We soak up the qualities and practices of those around us.
Peer pressure is a wonderful thing — if you’re deliberate about it.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, temptations successfully bundled. But new habits can still be intimidating. Don’t worry; there’s a fix for that problem…
3) Make It Easy
If you make it harder to engage in bad habits and easier to engage in good habits, your inherent laziness can guide you toward better behavior.
The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.
If you want to exercise on Sunday morning instead of playing Xbox all day, put your workout clothes next to the bed before you go to sleep and put the video game controllers in the closet. If you want to get healthier, put fruit on the kitchen countertop and put the snacks in a concrete bunker next to drums of nuclear waste.
Another way to make new habits easier is to start as small as humanly possible. Stanford researcher BJ Fogg calls this “minimum viable effort.”
Want to start flossing? Commit to flossing just one tooth. Yes, it’s ridiculous but it’s so ridiculously simple you have no excuse not to do it. You can increase the amount of teeth you floss over time. First just focus on being consistent.
The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away. And, as we have just discussed, this is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.
Nobody starts by smoking a pack a day. They start with one cigarette. But with time and effort you can go from merely smoking one to… Oops. Bad example. But you get the point.
(To learn the neuroscience secret to how to quit bad habits without willpower, click here.)
So it’s simple to start new habits when you start simple. But how do you make sure you keep doing them?
4) Make It Satisfying
James calls this “The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change.”
What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.
Reward yourself immediately after completing your new habit. “If the puppy does a trick, it gets a treat.” (Yes, you’re the puppy in this metaphor.)
In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background. What we’re really talking about here… is the ending of a behavior. The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than the other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying. The best approach is to use reinforcement, which refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase rate of behavior.
Give any chore a satisfying ending and you’re more likely to do it. “Do your homework and you can watch television.” Mom was on to something with that one.
(To learn the 4 rituals from neuroscience that will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, thanks to James we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out how to maintain rock solid good habits over the long haul…
This is how to easily build good habits:
- Make It Obvious: Set a specific time and place. Or tie the new habit to an old habit.
- Make It Attractive: Bundle fun stuff with new habits.
- Make It Easy: Start with flossing just one tooth.
- Make It Satisfying: Reward yourself after you finish.
So how do you maintain good habits? How do you become one of those people who sticks to their goals no matter what happens?
Make them part of your identity.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. If you’re proud of how your hair looks, you’ll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it… Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.
It’s no longer something you do, it’s who you are. Start enough good habits and you won’t just do better things… You’ll be a better person.
Originally published at www.bakadesuyo.com
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