“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real.” — Charles Duhigg
If you’re like me, every day you hit snooze, roll out of bed, brush our teeth, get dressed, and head for the train. Your morning routine is like clockwork, a series of events all in successive-step after another.
I bet you even stand in the same spot on the train platform every morning and sit in the same carriage — second from the front for me 😉 — when possible you may even attempt to sit in the same seat!
There’s no doubt that we’re creatures of habit. In fact, research shows that an average of 43% of our daily behaviors are habitual.
As such learning to manipulate habits and deliberately create good ones can be a particularly powerful tool.
Here are 5 proven ways to regain control of your habits and build new ones as backed by scientific research.
1. Start small
In BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits, he uses an example of trying to form a new habit that everyone knows well, flossing your teeth. Rather than starting this new habit by attempting to floss all your teeth at once, he suggests trying to just floss one tooth.
The trick here isn’t to jump right into flossing your entire mouth but rather to start small, like really small — one tooth small!
Start with flossing one and after a week move to flossing two, then three and so forth, before you know it you’ll be flossing your entire mouth without even thinking about it.
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow.” — James Clear
The power here is by starting small you make it super easy to begin with. You can then use that foundation to build the habit up over time — Rome wasn’t built in a day.
This is largely because when it comes to regulating our behaviors, there are really two mental systems at play. One which is where our habitual self exists, it’s mostly working behind the scenes in our subconscious without any conscious interaction and almost zero mental effort. The second is our more conscious self, which is largely where we think about willpower and making deliberate choices. However, unlike our subconscious system, this one comes at a cost. Depending on the task it can require an extremely large amount of mental effort and we only have a limited amount each day.
Consider driving a car, when you first started you had to concentrate intensely on what you were doing — how to manipulate the pedals, steer, watch traffic, remain between the lines — and if you had a manual car, worse! — it was stressful no doubt. I bet you struggled to have a conversation with the person in the passenger seat in those first few driving lessons.
Compare that to now, where you can easily fly down the highway with a burger in hand, music blaring and maintaining conversation with your partner — all whilst steering, changing gears, navigating traffic and remaining within the lines have all been off-loaded from the conscious system to the subconscious one, thus freeing up our mental capacity to eat, chat, etc.
As such, when starting a new habit we initially have to exert a large amount of willpower and mental effort to perform the new behavior — we’re not used to it, it requires deliberate choice.
This is one of the reasons why many new habits fail, we struggle to maintain the mental effort required to sustain the new behavior long enough for it to turn into a habit. But by breaking our new habit down into smaller habits we have a better chance of avoiding this and making our habits stick.
2. Remove Friction
Another way to hack building new habits is to lower the friction involved in doing the new behavior.
BJ Fogg’s behavior model, details that in order to start a new behavior (and ultimately a habit) there needs to be enough motivation in relation to the person’s ability to perform the new behavior — in other words, if something is very difficult to do, then one needs to have a higher level of motivation to do it, as opposed to something which is easy would require a lower level of motivation.
Making the new habit small also inadvertently makes it easier to do as we explored earlier, but there are other ways to make new habits easier — reducing the friction in performing the new behavior is another.
Consider the all too common habit of trying to get up early in the morning to exercise — first you need to resist hitting that all too inviting snooze button, then you likely need to find your gym clothes, after 5 minutes of going through your draws you remember they’re still sitting in the clean clothes basket. Next, you’ve got to get dressed and pack your gym bag, possibly refill that water bottle as well, before stumbling to the door and finally put your shoes on — this long routine is full of friction.
One trick I personally do is get everything ready for my workout the night before I head to bed. I lay my gym clothes and shoes out next to the bed, fill my water bottle and pack my bag. In fact, I’ve even taken it one step further before and slept in my gym clothes, meaning that all I had to do was literally get up and put shoes on in the morning! Although sleeping in your gym gear might be extreme, I never failed to make it to the gym when I did it.
If your goal is to lose weight, removing unhealthy snacks from the house and replacing them with healthier alternatives can be effective. If you want to study or finish writing a book, perhaps find a distraction-free environment like the library. If you want to get better sleep, perhaps ditch the TV in the bedroom. Even simply using cash rather than your credit card can introduce enough friction to make you spend less.
“Harnessing friction offers a whole new way to think about changing behavior. The promise is that, by altering contexts that create friction in our lives, we can learn to automatically repeat rewarding actions.” — Wendy Wood
3. Stack Your Habits
Forming new habits can be hard at the best of times, but another great habit-hack is to leverage existing habits — this is called habit stacking. The idea of habit stacking is to use an existing habit to become the trigger for the new habit that you’re trying to build.
A commonly used phrase to help frame habit stacking is “After I [blah], I will [blah]”. For example, “after I eat dinner I will clean the kitchen”.
Stacking habits is a great way to make building a new habit easier. It works by leveraging the power of existing habits to form new ones.
One of my colleagues shared that they had used this to form a new meditation habit a few months after their son was born. They used putting their son to nap during the day as the existing habit to stack meditation on top of — after I put my son to sleep I will meditate for 15 minutes.
Since the habit of putting their son to sleep every day is consistent and likely to continue into the future, it made a perfect habit to stack upon. Putting their son to bed became the trigger and after a while meditating after putting the little one to sleep became second nature.
4. Change Your Environment
Wendy Wood in her book Good Habits, Bad Habits, described our current environment as often hostile when it comes to attempting to build new habits. What Wendy is referring to is how much our environment acts as triggers for our current habits and how it can often be working against us when it comes to forming new habits.
Consider walking into your apartment after a long day at work, the familiar look lets your mind know that your home and immediately you start to navigate your apartment layout to make your way to the lounge room. Upon entering, you sight your flatscreen TV, this triggers the habit of taking a seat, relaxing and turning the TV on. The relaxing reward after a long day of work is reinforcing. You soon realize that you’ve chewed through 4 episodes of the latest Netflix binge and only once it prompts you to keep watching do you realize its past dinner time.
This is not an unusual daily routine, nor does it seem hostile in any way. But if your new year's resolution this year was to hit the gym after work, then your apartment is now hostile towards your attempts to go to the gym — you arrive home, sit down on the couch and suddenly find yourself lacking the motivation to get back up. Soon Netflix is luring you in and before you know it you’ve hit the 4 episodes prompt to keep watching and it dawns on you that you were meant to hit the gym — too late now…
“It is easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues.” — James Clear
Changing our environment can be a particularly useful tool when trying to build a new habit. Not only to help remove any old triggers which may be pulling you in the wrong direction but it also provides a clean canvas for building new ones — if you wish to lose weight, then perhaps finding a new grocery store to shop at will remove any old cues of purchasing unhealthy options — or in the earlier example, perhaps bring your gym gear to work and exercise before going home.
5. Reward Yourself
Crucial to building any new habit is the final component — reward. This is a fundamental component of habit-forming.
Our basal ganglia, which is the part of our brain associated with habitual learning, recognizes rewarded behaviors and overtime it reinforces the neural pathway to form a habit.
Rewards must immediately follow the new behavior in order to reinforce the habit. Any delay and our minds will struggle to associate the reward with the behavior.
“The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.” — James Clear
Another consideration is the type of reward. Of course, it needs to be something we like and enjoy but what’s been widely researched to be more effective are variable rewards.
Adding variability introduces unpredictability, which as counter-intuitive as it may sound, variable rewards will produce higher releases of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) than an equivalent but predictable reward would. This makes variable rewards much more favorable when it comes to habit-forming and no wonder why it’s been so widely adopted in the gambling and gaming industries.
Ever considered why our phones are so addictive? One of the reasons are because they are inherently variable and uncertain. Consider the notifications you receive, they’re unpredictable — who they’re from varies, what time you receive them, what they’re for — all are variable.
However, variability is easier said than done when it comes to personal habits but with a little forethought and prep, there are ways you can gamify it. Things like rolling a dice to decide what reward you will get, or flipping a coin, even using a pre-created deck of “reward cards” are great ways to gamify your own rewards.
But don’t worry if it’s too hard to add variability into your reward system, relying on a normal but stable reward is still effective — the most important thing to remember, whether its a variable reward or not, is that any kind of reward must be received immediately following the behavior.
“Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.” — Charles Duhigg
Forming new habits is hard, if they weren’t more than a mere 8% of us would achieve our New Years Resolutions and more would likely eat healthily, exercise, spend more time with family and not looking at our phones 80 times a day.
But through a better understanding of how habits work, you can hack your new habits and increase your chances of success when it comes to making a change in your life.