March 26, 2018
You’ve already learned how your habits make up over 40% of your behaviours. Since you already have an existing set of habits - some good, some bad - this helps explain why changing habits is so difficult. You have to shift sometimes long established existing behaviours.
Habits and our identity
Our habits also provide evidence for who we are - our identity. The more we exhibit a particular behaviour or habit, the more evidence we have for a particular belief. As an example, suppose you have a regular habit of going shopping and spending all your spare cash on buying stuff (your habit).
The frustration you feel at constantly running out of money creates a dangerous feeling of helplessness and you begin to believe you are just rubbish with money (your identity).
With this (negative) sense of identity, you begin to feel powerless to muster much resistance. You continue the behaviour (more shopping). You gain more evidence for your belief ("I'm rubbish with money"). The identity grows stronger. And so the cycle goes on.
This is why every habit counts - even non-financial ones.
Building new positive habits to replace the existing bad ones helps you accumulate new evidence to reverse the unhelpful beliefs you have about your identity. You don’t have to be perfect – you just need to start with small steps.
Making habits stick with the 3-Stage Habit Framework
Of course, just saying you are going to do something new and better is all well and good, but making new habits stick is notoriously difficult to do.
Fortunately, there’s been a burst of scientific evidence in recent years to support the practice of habit formation.
Here’s the three-stage habit framework:
All habits need a trigger, the starter pistol for a behaviour. Many people think they need to get more motivated or find more willpower to change their habits. They wait to ‘feel’ motivated – and usually never do it! Actually, they just need a trigger.
Triggers are less about motivation and more about clarity. You can take the “will I/won’t I” decision-making out of forming habits by specifically stating where or when you will implement the habit. You intentionally ‘trigger’ the habit by giving it a space in your real world calendar.
Let’s use an example. Suppose you want to walk to work to save yourself the bus fare (and you get some exercise!). The trigger might be your alarm. You simply set it 15 minutes earlier to give yourself a little extra time to walk to work.
Or suppose you want to start taking your lunch in to work. To do this, you need to remember to make it the previous evening, since you won’t normally have time to make it in the morning. As a trigger, when you get home from work, wash your tupperware and leave it out in the kitchen. This acts as a reminder to prepare tomorrow’s meal.
This is the habit itself. One of the most overlooked drivers of your behaviour is your physical environment. Your environment influences your desires – you want things simply because they are an option.
Take for example, the design of your living room, and almost every one in the country. The sofa faces the TV, right?. Is it any wonder we watch so much TV!
Your behaviour can be changed simply by re-designing your physical environment to make good behaviours easier and bad behaviours harder.
People never stick to positive habits in a negative environment - a place where temptation is calling you. You can maybe overpower your desires once or twice through sheer willpower but if you are constantly fighting against those forces you will ultimately fail.
It’s a lot easier to stick to better habits in an environment where better options present themselves. Don’t rely on willpower and self-control alone.
Going back to our walking to work example, you will make it easier to follow through if, when you walk to work, you ensure your route does not take you past your normal bus stop. This way you avoid being tempted to get the bus because you are tired/ you are worried you will be late (insert excuse as appropriate!)
Or suppose you are trying to kick your expensive coffee shop habit, you’ll find it easier to resist the temptation if you modify your route into work to avoid walking past it.
Or suppose you wish to keep your bedroom tidy, if you remove the chair where you normally dump your clothes at the end of the day, you’ll be more likely to put your clothes away or in the washing basket.
The only reason we repeat behaviours is because we like them. To like them you need to feel a reward along the way.
However, this is where good habits have a problem. The ‘cost’ (time, energy, effort) is often immediate but the ‘reward’ (financial saving, loss of weight) is often delayed. Bad habits are often the reverse - immediate benefits and delayed costs. Agh!
The best way to change long-term behaviour is with short-term feedback. You need to think of a way that works for you to bring the rewards of your habit into the present. e.g. how much your daily saving, will mount up over a year and what you might do with that money.
One popular tactic for building reward is called ‘Don’t Break The Chain’. The idea is to string together a number of consecutive days performing the habit, be it 2,3,4 etc. This is a chain and your mission becomes ‘don’t break the chain’. You feel a reward every time you keep your chain going and you get invested in it - just like Streaks on Snapchat.
Another tactic for building reward is called ‘Never Miss Twice’. Often if you get a chain going and you fall off track, you feel bad about it. That’s natural. However, if you look at top performers, they make mistakes just like everybody else. But they get back on track more quickly. So, adhere to the ‘never miss twice’ rule. Even if you fell off track every single time you started – you’d still do it 50% of the time!
So, when it comes to making habits stick, don't leave it to chance. Use this scientifically proven habit framework.