By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
Everything you are at this very moment has a lot to do with the small choices that you have continually made over time. It’s not the individual decisions that make or break you, but the accumulation of action over time that shapes you into the person that you want to become. Having goals is inspiring, but inspiration comes and goes. You can’t just dream; you have to work to bring about change. The processes that you establish ultimately play a bigger role in deciding your final destination. When it comes to breaking bad habits and building good ones, there’s much more to it than just sticking to something for 21 days. I’m a huge fan of habit literature, so when author James Clear released his New York Times Bestseller Atomic Habits, I dove in headfirst. If you have struggled with transforming your habits in the past, the truth is you probably don’t have the best systems in place to create change that sticks. Ditch the confusion and crush your goals for the new year by following the four laws of habit change.
Many people blame their lack of adherence to a small reserve of willpower. It’s a limited resource for everybody. As the day goes on, your energy is depleted with each decision that you have to make. After a long day, it becomes harder and harder to say no to the pint of ice cream or the package of cookies. Instead of relying on your dwindling willpower, it’s much easier to focus on transforming your environment.
If you are looking to build a habit, the first law of habit change is to make it obvious. Looking to eat more fruit? Put some in a basket where they are readily available when you walk into your kitchen. Looking to eat more vegetables? Cut them up in advance and leave them in pre-packaged servings so that you can easily craft snacks or meals from them. If you are trying to create change, the first step is to make it easy for yourself.
On the flip side, if you are trying to break a habit, then you want to do the opposite. You want to make it invisible. If you are looking to eat less sugar, then put sweets like cookies in a place that is harder to reach or out of sight. Take it up a notch by not even having them in your home. This way, if you want them, you have to go on a mission to get them. More often than not, it won’t be worth the hassle.
The more enticing an action looks, the more likely you are to do it. Habits are composed of three basic pieces: a cue, an action, and a reward. Have you ever walked past a bakery and began to salivate before you even stepped inside? You probably even proceeded to walk inside after this and buy something, anticipating just how good it would taste. Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loops. We see cues (the bakery) and take action (buy a donut) to experience the rewards (the dopamine hit from the taste of a delicious treat). Once you realize this, it becomes easier to build good habits that stick.
One way you can build a new habit is by pairing it with something that you already enjoy. If you want to do more cardio and you love listening to podcasts, only listen to them when you are doing cardio. If you want to network more and connect with new people, make it a point to only go to a restaurant you love if you are networking.
If you want to break a bad habit, then you need to do the opposite and make it less attractive. By highlighting the benefits of avoiding a bad habit, you can make it less likely that you will repeat it.
The more frequently you perform a habit may be more important than how long you perform it for. Make it easy to do “right” and set up your environment to help you obtain more “wins” faster. By reducing potential roadblocks or limitations right off the bat, you set yourself up for a higher change to be successful. For example, if you want to get in more morning workouts, going to bed in your workout clothes or laying them out to avoid extra decision-making is a behavior that will set you up for success. Planning your meals out in advance and taking a day to meal prep makes it much more likely that you will eat healthier during a stressful workday. If you leave the decision until the day of, you are much more likely to blow off the change until the next day.
If you are looking to break a bad habit, you can do so by making it more difficult. You can’t drink the soda that you don’t have access to. Stock your fridge with healthier alternatives instead. You can’t surf the web and procrastinate when you have a block in place that doesn’t allow you access to the internet. Increase the friction to decrease the possibility of the action occurring.
The final law of building a good habit is to make it satisfying. As I touched on earlier, we are reward-driven when it comes to the actions that we take. The actions that are immediately rewarded are the ones that are repeated. Even if the feeling of success is minor, the odds of the action recurring in the future are improved. We love seeing progress, so one simple way to build a habit is to use a habit tracker. Every time you complete the desired action, mark an “x” on your calendar. You will be amazed at what you do to keep that streak alive. If you do miss a day, don’t let it become two days. Jump back on track as soon as possible!
If you are looking to break a habit, you need to make it unsatisfying. Give yourself a negative consequence for missing a day of your habit goal. Or get an accountability partner—elling your goal to someone you respect will instantly increase your chance of adherence because you don’t want to let them down. Healthy habits don’t have to be tricky to build if you set up a system with these four laws in place.