Helpful habits – nothing changes if nothing changes
There can’t be many of us who haven’t struggled somewhere along the way to instil a new habit that we really want to make work for us? It is tough, but there is good news: it is not impossible. My social media feed is full of friends who have radically changed some of their previous lifestyle habits and are reaping the benefits of their dedication. It’s great to witness. How do we get ourselves some of that?
I recently committed to a few changes I wanted to make in life; predominantly health and fitness type things – you know the drill - and I joyfully shared the 'new' things I would be doing to ensure the 'new' me. All the unhelpful actions I’d put a stop to tripped off the tongue and off I went...smack bang into life! It clearly wasn’t going to be so simple. However, I’ve written some training recently about developing helpful habits and so turned to that for inspiration and I thought it might be helpful to introduce it to others. The first step was getting my head into a positive space to focus on the things I want to start doing (rather than the things I wanted to stop).
Some of the work from Charles Duhigg was great for recognising the process of building habits. He shares information on how a cue triggers us to do something, we then move into a routine behaviour following that cue and then we get the reward – or result (be it physical, cognitive or emotional). It is the reward that reinforces the habit. Duhigg says that the golden rule of habit change is that it is important to keep the cue and the reward the same, while inserting a new routine into the habit loop. e.g:
Cue: I’m hungry.
Reward: I’ve enjoyed my food and I’m happy and satisfied.
Routine (the flexible habit bit): ....well there's a whole range of options depending on which longer-term outcomes are desired.
Belief is at the core of modifying many habit loops and plays a critical role in habit change. Studies show that people must believe in their capacity to change and that things will get better to achieve more permanent habit change. Strategies to help with establishing the routine we’d like, include; developing our willpower through approaches such as anticipating the moments when we might be tempted to revert to unhelpful behaviour and planning ahead for it; using groups to help us as they can have a powerful effect on belief by providing shared experiences and opportunities to publicly commit to change; and addressing daily routines that could be changed to flex the habit. Take a look at his book 'The Power of Habit' for more information.
Addressing our systems
More recent work from James Clear builds further on this and suggests we need to focus on our systems not our goals if we want to make changes. He advocates that improving 1% every day is a helpful approach to getting the results we eventually want and that by focusing on the components that make up our actions and tweaking them appropriately we can begin to see the changes we’d like. He says “The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become”. We can then ask ourselves - "does this action help me towards becoming who I want to be?". Take a look at his book 'Atomic Habits' for further ideas and help with habit stacking, choosing the right environment, temptation bundling, finding your tribe, appointing an accountability partner and how to make habit change easy and attractive.
Making it happen
Finding the strategy that works best for you is key; how can you change your systems to establish helpful habits? Do you need a clear goal, group support, or linked behaviours so you swap something you want to do with something you need to do? Will planning ahead help - what are the rewards that will help? Whichever it is, pick the habit you want to grow. Set the commitment (to yourself or to others if more useful), address your current system and go for it. Take a look at Duhigg’s and Clear’s work for detailed help, and good luck. Wish me luck too (or maybe let’s wish each other the ability to stick to our strategies!).