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How to easily build good habits: 4 secrets from research

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How to easily build good habits: 4 secrets from research

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It’s no longer something you do, it’s who you are. Start enough good habits and you won’t just do better things … You’ll be a better person.

You have a long list of things you know you should be doing regularly… But for some reason, you just don’t do them. What’s the deal?

The solution is building habits. Doing hard things isn’t hard if you’re on autopilot. But how do we make building habits simple and painless?

James Clear has a lot of very good, research-backed answers in his new bestseller Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

James lays out 4 laws of behavior change that are so simple, even I can do them. (And that means you can, too.)

Alright, let’s break’em down …

1) Make it obvious

Vague is the enemy. “I want to exercise more” is usually another way of saying, “I want to continue disappointing myself.”

On the other hand, you could say: “Every morning at 7 AM I’m going to lift weights for an hour at the gym around the corner.”

If I said that, you’d be much more likely to believe I was going to follow through. And if you say it, studies show you’re more likely to actually do it.

It’s what researchers call an “implementation intention.” (People without a PhD call it a “plan.”)

From Atomic Habits:

Hundreds of studies have shown that implementation intentions are effective for sticking to our goals, whether it’s writing down the exact time and date of when you will get a flu shot or recording the time of your colonoscopy appointment. They increase the odds that people will stick with habits like recycling, studying, going to sleep early, and stopping smoking…

The formula for creating an implementation intention is pretty simple:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

Another way to get the same effect is by using “habit stacking.” Tie the new habit to an old habit.

From Atomic Habits:

Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.

And the formula for habit stacking is pretty simple too:

After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

“After I wake up, I will do 20 push-ups.”

“After the crime, I will hide any evidence.”

Chain together enough new habits and you’ll be in great shape while spending far less time in prison.

2) Make it attractive

Fun gets done. Of course, if most good habits were fun, you’d already be doing them. But there’s still a valuable lesson here: if we combine fun stuff with not-so-fun stuff, the latter is more likely to be completed.

So the answer is what researchers call “temptation bundling.”

From Atomic Habits:

Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” In other words, even if you don’t really want to process overdue work emails, you’ll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.

James tells the story of a clever engineer who loved Netflix and hated exercising. So he wrote a computer program that would only allow Netflix to play if his stationary bike was cycling above a certain speed. Smart.

Combine something you love with a habit you want to build and you’ll find yourself doing it a lot more often. If you love audiobooks but don’t like cleaning, you only get to listen to Harry Potter when you scrub the bathroom. If you’re naturally sadistic but don’t enjoy the gym, sign up for boxing classes so you can get your exercise while punching people.

Another way to make new habits more attractive is to leverage our natural sheep-like tendencies. The people around you influence you a lot more than you think. Spend more time with those who have the habits you want and you’re more likely to follow through. More afternoons with friends who read a lot, fewer evenings with heroin addicts.

3) Make it easy

If you make it harder to engage in bad habits and easier to engage in good habits, your inherent laziness can guide you toward better behavior.

From Atomic Habits:

The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.

If you want to exercise on Sunday morning instead of playing Xbox all day, put your workout clothes next to the bed before you go to sleep and put the video game controllers in the closet. If you want to get healthier, put fruit on the kitchen countertop and put the snacks in a concrete bunker next to drums of nuclear waste.

Another way to make new habits easier is to start as small as humanly possible. Stanford researcher BJ Fogg calls this “minimum viable effort.”

4) Make it satisfying

James calls this “The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change.”

From Atomic Habits:

What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.

Reward yourself immediately after completing your new habit. “If the puppy does a trick, it gets a treat.” (Yes, you’re the puppy in this metaphor.)

From Atomic Habits:

In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background. What we’re really talking about here… is the ending of a behavior. The ending of any experience is vital because we tend to remember it more than the other phases. You want the ending of your habit to be satisfying. The best approach is to use reinforcement, which refers to the process of using an immediate reward to increase rate of behavior.

Give any chore a satisfying ending and you’re more likely to do it. “Do your homework and you can watch television.” Mom was on to something with that one.