We’ve all been there, it’s the start of a new year and we have great intentions for our future selves to be healthier and eat a better diet, get in shape, start running, join a gym, etc, but somehow somewhere along the way it all goes awry. Either it started off well with gusto and enthusiasm for a few good weeks before life got in the way and it fizzled out, or it was all too much hard work to begin with and you never even got it started. Sound familiar?
Why is it so hard to build healthy habits and keep them? And why is it so hard to break unhealthy habits for good?
Read on to find out how to create and sustain good healthy habits and break down bad ones.
Sometimes the problem can be that the new habits we are trying to create are too big and out of our reach, and at the same time bad habits are too easy and far more tempting than doing the right thing.
When it comes to goal setting we can often get caught in an ‘all or nothing’ mentality, ‘go big or go home’. We often feel that in order to make massive changes we have to put in huge amounts of effort. We put so much pressure on ourselves to make momentous changes, but when the pressure gets too much and the effort too great to sustain, set-backs occur and we give up on those goals.
But consider the idea that success can come in the form of lots of small wins that are consistent and accumulate over time. Each win a tiny step further along the path towards your goal. It is the difference between a complete novice trying to run 5k straight away vs running 1k every day. Running the 1k distance everyday isn’t the 5k goal, but it’s a bitesize manageable amount of work that performed consistently will help build your stamina for the full distance. Each run will feel like a success and motivates you to continue with your new fitness routine. Going straight for the 5k run would be very hard if you’ve never run before, and whether you succeed or fail in the first attempt, you are less likely to repeat a task if it’s too difficult and don’t enjoy the experience, thus ending your running regime before it really began.
In his book Atomic Habits - An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, author James Clear discusses the idea that “small improvements can accumulate to make remarkable results”, and that “success is the product of daily habits and not once in a lifetime transformations.”
Making tiny improvements may not seem particularly noticeable or make a difference on a day to day basis, but they are far more meaningful and have a greater impact over time. Going to the gym once won’t improve your strength and fitness overnight, but going consistently and regularly will in the weeks, months and years to come.
However, because we are impatient creatures and are hard wired for instant gratification, not seeing results immediately can demotivate us. Not seeing your weight changing after a week of dieting or exercising can lead to giving up too soon and falling back to old unhealthy habits. We don’t work well with delayed rewards. Yet funnily enough, when it comes to unhealthy habits, because we don’t see immediate consequences of our behaviours, we are more than happy to let things slide. Eating that extra piece of cake won’t affect the scales today, I won’t lose my fitness if I miss one workout. But if we continually repeat these poor decisions, we create a toxic effect that has major impact further down the line. Eating cake today won’t make much difference but eating cake everyday will.
So how can we learn to sustain the good habits when the rewards can be so delayed? And how can we break down those oh so tempting bad habits that stop us from becoming the healthy and fit people that we want to be?
UNDERSTANDING BEHAVIOUR CHANGE
In a previous blog post I wrote about making new year’s resolutions and talked about the theory of change where we cycle through stages of readiness before we can succeed in forming a new behaviour, experiencing no desire for change, having intention, preparing for, actioning, and so on. Click here to read that blog post.
In Atomic Habits, Clear discusses a different model of behaviour change that addresses change at a deeper level. It identifies 3 layers of intention where changes made in each layer are driven by different motivations resulting in different levels of outcomes.
When we make changes on the outer layer we are looking to change results. It is goal driven, results oriented, and outcomes based. It is WHAT YOU GET - “I want to lose weight”
Changes made in the deeper process based layer focuses on changing the systems and processes in which we operate, in other words the forming of new habits and behaviours. It is WHAT YOU DO to get what you want – “I diet and exercise (to lose weight)”
The deepest layer is identity based where we grow and change our perspective and beliefs system, changing our view of ourselves and of others. It is WHAT YOU BELIEVE – “I am a fit active person who eats healthily and exercises regularly”
When we simply try to change on an outcome based level we may not see results if we haven’t any proper systems in place to encourage that change. Trying to lose weight but not actually having a fitness routine or making appropriate changes to your diet will not get you those results.
We can move deeper into the layers and understand that we must create a process and form relevant habits to achieve those results. Cutting out junk food, eating a wholefood diet, going to the gym, or getting a personal trainer, are habits we can create to build a system to achieve the goal to lose weight.
However, we may still fail to keep to those habits because we focus only on the outcome or process and not on our identity and who we believe we are. We set goals and decide what we need to do to achieve them, but we don’t think about the underlying beliefs that drive our actions in the first place. If we never shift the way we look at ourselves, our old selves can get in the way of our new plans for change. If being physically active and conscious of your diet is so far from how you normally live your life (of say being inactive and eating mostly junk food), and you still cling onto that version of yourself, how likely are you to stick with the new healthy habits that you have built? When someone goes on a short-term diet or makes a short-term goal such as Dry January, without true intention of sustaining the habit for the long term, the change isn’t embodied, and your identity as someone who eats unhealthily or someone who drinks a lot of alcohol remains the same. And when our new behaviour doesn’t match with our old identity, it causes resistance and conflict making it impossible to maintain the new behaviour. You would be more successful by embracing the belief that
“I am a health-conscious person who eats a wholesome diet and doesn’t eat junk food”
“I normally eat quite unhealthily so I am cutting out junk food”
“I don’t drink alcohol”
I normally drink a lot but want to cut out alcohol for a month”
By holding onto the old identity and what you ‘normally do’ you inevitably sabotage your efforts. Our habits shape our identity and our identity shapes our habits. The more you behave in line with your new identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain it. And the more you repeat the habit the more you reinforce the identity associated with it. You will no longer be seeking to change your behaviour but will simply be acting like the type of person you already believe you are. The more you exercise the more you believe you are a fit & healthy person, the more you believe you are a fit and healthy person the more you will exercise.
As Clear put its “True behaviour change is identity change. We start habits because of motivation, but stick with them because it becomes part of identity. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. “
If we want to stick to our new healthy habits we should think of the process as making tiny changes towards becoming the type of person we want to be.
HOW HABITS ARE FORMED
In order to build better habits we must first understand how new behaviours are formed. The Habit Loop depicts the 4 stages to forming a habit.
Some examples might be:
James Clear develops on the Habit Loop assigning an action to each step. In order to create good habits, we must maximise the 4 LAWS OF BEHAVIOUR CHANGE:
1. MAKE IT OBVIOUS (Cue)
All habits are initiated by cues, something that prompts us to action be it a visual sign, a sound, an internal emotion, time or location etc. We want to make these unconscious triggers as conscious as possible, making them stand out so we cannot ignore them.
2. MAKE IT ATTRACTIVE (Craving)
Dopamine gets released whenever we experience pleasure but it also rises when pleasure is anticipated or predicted. It is this first spike in dopamine levels, when we anticipate a rewarding experience, that motivate us to take action as opposed to the reward itself. Make a new habit more attractive by maximising this excitement for the reward.
3. MAKE IT EASY (Response)
We are in essence lazy creatures and will always be drawn towards the least amount of effort for the greatest reward. If something is too hard to do, we are less likely to do it. The easier and more convenient it is, the more likely we are to do it. Make a new habit easy to do by reducing the amount of friction associated with the behaviour.
4. MAKE IT SATISFYING (Reward)
We are more likely to repeat a behaviour if it is enjoyable and satisfying, and less likely to repeat it if it is unenjoyable and dissatisfying. When a behaviour is repeated a new habit is formed, so tying a behaviour to a pleasurable reward will help to encourage repetition.
HOW TO BUILD HEALTHY HABITS
So now that we understand the principles, let’s use them to build habits that will help us to achieve our health and fitness goals. Here are some simple steps to build healthy habits using the 4 laws of behaviour change:
1. BE AWARE OF YOUR CURRENT HABITS AND SAY THEM OUT LOUD
Being fully conscious and mindful of your existing habits can help you to stick to them in the future. Much like repeating a mantra or positive affirmation, saying out loud what you’re thinking of doing and what the outcome would be increases the likelihood of you doing it.
2. MAKE SPECIFIC PLANS
Plan ahead of how you intend to implement the habit. By stating what you will do and when you will do it increases the likelihood of actioning it. Being specific to what you want and how to achieve it can also help stop you from being distracted or derailed.
You can use Clear’s IMPLEMENTATION INTENTION tool where you state the specifics of the what, when, and where of the new habit.
I will (behaviour) at (time) in (location)
I will do a weight training session at 6pm at the gym
I will eat some fresh fruit at 9am at my desk
I will practice meditation at 9pm in my bedroom
3. STACK YOUR HABITS
Pair an existing habit with the new habit you want to build. By tying the new habit to something you already do makes it really easy to start the new habit as one habit can act as a cue for another, especially if the 2 habits are of similar frequency and are convenient to perform together.
After (current habit) I will (new habit)
After I finish work I will go to the gym
After I drink my morning coffee I will eat some fresh fruit
After I have eaten dinner I will practice meditation
4. TIE SOMETHING YOU NEED TO DO WITH A SOMETHING YOU WANT TO DO
Similar to habit stacking and making cues obvious, by pairing a habit that you want to do with a habit you need to do, can help make that habit more attractive. Clear calls this TEMPTATION BUNDLING and combines it with his HABIT STACKING tool:
1. After (current habit) I will (habit I need)
2. After (habit I need) I will/can (habit I want)
1. After I finish work I will go to the gym
2. After I’ve been to the gym I can relax in the sauna
1. After I drink my morning coffee I will eat some fresh fruit
2. After I’ve eaten my fruit I can check my emails
1. After I have eaten dinner I will practice meditation
2. After I have meditated I can watch my favourite TV show
Eventually you will look forward to the habit you need to do as you get to do the habit that you want to do.
5. ENHANCE YOUR ENVIRONMENT TO MAKE CUES OBVIOUS AND THE HABIT EASY TO DO
Design your environment for success. Make the cues for your new habits more obvious and prime your environment so that it is harder to not do the good habit than to do it. Want to eat more fruit? Have a fruit bowl out on the dining table. Need to take regular supplements? Keep them out on the kitchen counter. Keep bottles of water on your desk and water fountains all around the office to remind you to hydrate. Pack your gym kit the night before work and leave it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to leave your home. Fill your fridge and cupboards with the ingredients to make to healthy meals. To build stable habits requires a stable environment and not one that conflicts. You can’t expect to eat a healthy diet when your fridge and cupboards are filled with unhealthy food.
6. CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
Learn to see the new habit as an opportunity for reward and growth as opposed to a burden or chore. By reframing in our mind and highlighting the benefits of the new habit, we can make it more attractive to us. We ‘Get to’ do it rather than ‘have to’. We can spin “I need to train” with “I get to build my strength and stamina”, or “I need to cut out junk food” with “I get to eat wholesome food that can enhance my health and help me lose weight”
7. REDUCE THE FRICTION AND AUTOMATE/STREAMLINE THE PROCESS
Take out steps that can slow down the actioning of the habit. Consider all the little actions associated with the habit and identify which can be automated or streamlined to make the process easier. If you want to eat healthier meals, that could involve cooking more at home and going to buy groceries etc. You could start with ordering groceries online to take out the journey to the supermarket, or go fully automated and subscribe to a health food delivery company that sends you all your meals. Join a gym that is on your route home from work rather than somewhere out of the way. Not sure what to do at the gym? Download an app that has hundreds of workouts already designed and ready for you to do, or hire a personal trainer.
8. USE THE 2 MINUTE RULE
Make it easy to start a new habit by making it small. Each habit can be broken down into small chunks so start by building a gateway habit that takes less than 2 minutes to do, that can lead on to the desired habit. If you want to get into the habit of running every morning you can start by simply putting on your trainers every morning. Want to practice mindfulness and meditation? Start by sitting for 2 minutes and focusing on your breathing. Have a goal to do 10 pushups every day? Start with 1. By making it easy to start a habit, the rest will follow.
9. BE AWARE OF THE DECISION RIPPLE EFFECT
The first decision we make affects all following decisions. The first choices and actions we take often restrict the paths that we can follow afterwards. Choosing to go to McDonalds for lunch restricts the number of options you have for a healthy meal. Not sure if you can make it to the gym tomorrow? By packing your gym kit anyway you will have the choice to train or not, but without bringing your kit you have taken the option away. Always consider the hierarchy of decisions where the small choices can impact the greater ones.
10. REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOUR
Often we don’t get to see results of good habits until much later on, so to satisfy our need for instant gratification give yourself an immediate reward when you complete the habit. Treat yourself to a massage after a hard training session, plan a nice breakfast after your morning run, watch your favourite TV show after you’ve meditated for 20mins. This ties in with temptation bundling mentioned earlier, pairing a new habit with something you already enjoy doing.
11. TRACK YOUR HABITS
Use a visual measurement to keep track of when you complete your habit. Using a habit tracker not only makes the habit obvious and reminds you to do it, but also makes it attractive and satisfying as you can see your progress and consistency. Keep a training diary, use apps such as Myfitnesspal to log your food, or a step count app or Fitbit to motivate you to be active every day. Seeing progress is a great form of motivation as well as the desire to not break the streak.
12. NEVER MISS TWICE
Habit streaks naturally come to an end as our lives inevitably get interrupted. When you forget to do a habit get back on track immediately. Missing the first time is a mistake, but missing twice is the start of a new habit. Eating 1 naughty treat is recoverable, eating 2 is the start of a binge. Skipping the gym because you finish work late can’t be avoided at times, but make sure you make up for the session later in the week, even if it means it’s a shorter workout. A little exercise is better than no exercise, as a bad workout won’t harm you, but no workout will. Just by showing up helps to reinforces your identity as a fit and active person. If you’re the type of person who likes to train 4 times a week, getting all those sessions in reinforces that belief and you are less inclined to skip training.
HOW TO BREAK UNHEALTHY HABITS
So now we know how to build good healthy habits, how do we break down those bad unhealthy ones? We simply inverse the principles:
1. BE AWARE OF YOUR BAD HABITS AND SAY THEM OUT LOUD
Saying out loud the consequences of the bad habit can make them seem more real. This can be sometimes be enough of a deterrent.
2. REMOVE CUES FROM YOUR ENVIRONMENT
It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it so reduce your exposure and the temptation for the bad habit. Out of sight out of mind. Clear your cupboards of junk food to avoid their temptation. Avoid staying up late watching TV by removing it from your bedroom. Take a different route to work to avoid the bakery and the lure of croissants!
3. CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
Highlight the consequences of the bad habit and the benefits of breaking it. “Eating junk food will make me feel like crap. Not eating junk food will make me feel closer to achieving my weight loss goal”. When we identify with the qualities of the type of person we want to become, conflicting behaviours become less attractive. “A healthy person doesn’t eat junk food so I don’t want to eat junk food”.
4. MAKE NOT DOING THE BAD HABIT ATTRACTIVE
Simply avoiding a bad habit may not be satisfying enough to stick to it. Give yourself an incentive or reward every time you avoid a bad habit. Of course, make sure the treat you give yourself is still in line with your health goals! Habit tracking works just as well with avoiding bad habits. Reward yourself when you’ve successfully avoided a bad habit after a certain number of times. If you get a take away meal too often, transfer the money you could have spent into your savings and what the money pile up. If you’ve reached a week of avoiding chocolate treat yourself to a massage.
5. INCREASE THE FRICTION AND EFFORT IT TAKES TO DO THE BAD HABIT
Just like enhancing your environment to make good habits easy you can make it so that bad habits are hard. If you have a craving for crisps but don’t have any in the house, the effort of going to the shops to buy some could be enough put you off. Perhaps you stay up late playing video games instead of going to bed. Keep the console in the cupboard making it more hassle to just plug in and play. If you spend too much time on social media or Candy Crush, restrict your usage by changing your password or uninstall the app and only reinstall it again on the weekend.
6. USE A COMMITMENT DEVICE TO BIND YOU TO YOUR GOOD HABITS AND RESTRICT THE BAD Booking a PT session is a great example of this as you are bound to your appointment or forfeit the fee. When eating out you can commit to only eating half of your giant steak by asking for a doggy bag before you’ve started your meal. Going out and don’t want to drink? Volunteer to be the designated driver.
7. MAKE YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE TO SOMEONE
By having an accountability partner you are more motivated to stick to your good habits and avoid the bad, to avoid disappointing others as well as yourself. Get a training buddy, hire a personal trainer, join a running group or an online support group.
Making a conscious decision to change is a great first step to building healthy habits, and by applying these simple principles; make it obvious, attractive, easy to do, and satisfying, we have a formula to successfully build and sustain our new healthy habits. The more we repeat them the more it becomes encoded into our identity, and the more likely we are to persist until it becomes effortless and automatic behaviour. Have you tried making resolutions this year that have yet to stick? Try applying these tips and take the right steps to becoming a healthier you.
Want to go a further step and apply this to other areas of your life? Get yourself a copy of Atomic Habits - An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear and change your life for good.