Every day we make thousands of decisions, some small and seemingly insignificant, others large and more memorable. To save energy our brains have automized many of these decisions into routines. These shortcuts can be both extremely helpful and dangerous if you are not aware of the consequences.
In this article inspired by James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits” you will learn about the important role your habits play in your life, as well as steps you can follow to choose, set, and stick with routines.
Why control your routines?
Each action you take is weighted positively, negatively, or neutrally. Positive acts, like exercising and learning, help you develop as an individual. Negative acts, like smoking and unhealthy eating, deteriorate you.
Over time each subconscious routine takes us exponentially closer or farther away from our goals. These positive and negative habits do not just add up, they compound. By taking accountability and control of your habits you can actively control the direction that they lead you.
Here is a great analogy James Clear used to emphasize the effects of habits over time:
“Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York. If the pilot leaves from LAX and adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, DC instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at take-off. The nose of the airplane moved just a few feet, but when magnified across the US, you end up hundreds of miles apart. DC is about 225 miles from NYC. The nose of the airplane moved just 3.5 degrees or about 86 inches. A very small shift in direction can lead to a very meaningful change in destination.”
The differences between positive and negative habits may not be noticeable at first, but over time they become drastically obvious as shown below.
“You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than your current results.” – James Clear
6 steps to setting lasting habits.
Now that we have established how important it is to take accountability for our habits, here are 6 steps you can follow to set habits that last.
1. Identify a habit.
Choosing the right habit for your goals is extremely important. To identify a relevant habit, write down your long-term goals (be sure these are your true goals so you don’t end up working towards the wrong result). Next, identify daily practices that will help you to achieve them. A trick to help identify where to focus is to look at the daily practices of someone who has achieved your desired outcome. As entrepreneur Jim Rohn says, “Success leaves clues.”
Once you have identified the habit you would like to implement, be sure to make your routine extremely specific. Try to answer all the questions below:
What is it?
Where is it?
When is it?
How is it done?
Who are you doing it with?
2. Make it obvious.
There are 4 stages to any habit: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. Every lasting habit runs through these 4 stages every time it is performed. First the cue, this is the trigger that initiates your behaviour. Visual cues like reminders on sticky notes can be extremely effective. Another method is setting symbols of your habit in your environment, for instance placing your book on your pillow in the morning if you want to read more before bed. Cues must be obvious to be effective.
3. Make it attractive.
Every repeated habit evokes a craving. You can easily fool yourself into creating a craving by combining an undesirable task with a desirable outcome. For instance, if your desired habit is to read more, you could make yourself a hot chocolate to enjoy while you read. This works because your brain cannot distinguish where the pleasure comes from. It associates the reward from the hot chocolate with the act of reading. Another way to make your new habit attractive is to join a team or culture where doing the new behaviour is normal. You can use peer pressure to your advantage as most of us have a strong need to fit in and not disappoint each other.
4. Make it easy.
With your new habit, you are trying to evoke a new response to your selected cue. You should try to make your new actions as easy as possible. Preparation is the key to removing friction between you and your new habit. This could mean planning a cycle route, setting out gym clothes the night before, or preparing healthy snacks ahead of time. Planning makes it easier for you to achieve your new, more difficult, response.
5. Make it satisfying.
Try to make completing each daily task satisfying by rewarding yourself immediately afterwards. Finding ways to quantify and view your progress at each step of the way can also be extremely helpful. Apps that keep track of your habit streak can also be beneficial for seeing progress.
6. Identify With it.
True behaviour change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but you will only stick with it if it becomes part of your identity. If you want to create a long-term habit you will need to switch the way you perceive yourself.
Instead of thinking that you are trying to read more because you want to become smarter, think that you are reading more because you are smart, and that is what smart people do. This may seem daunting and difficult to do at first, but the more you repeat a habit, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that habit.
The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do,
and the most practical way to change what you do is to change who you are.
By following these 6 steps you will now be able to set in place effective, long-term habits and reap the compounded rewards that they produce.