4 Keys to Building Better Habits (Part 1)

So you didn’t take my advice and made a New Year’s resolution anyway

But you know what? That’s okay.

Because if you did in fact make a New Year’s resolution, something that will be useful in helping you keep that resolution are some good habits. Because remember: willpower may only help you get started – it’s a finite resource. Usually what we need is to design our environment, our life, in a way that we set ourselves up for success so we do not have to rely on willpower, self-discipline, or avoiding temptation because these tactics rarely work in the long-term.

One of the better books I read in 2020 was Atomic Habits by James Clear. The 4 Keys to Building Better Habits that I gleaned from that book are:

1.           Focus on long-term sustainability, not short-term gratification

2.           Focus on systems, processes, and environment, not outcomes or results

3.           Focus on who you want to become

4.           Focus on getting clear around your goals and just start!

This post will focus on #1 – Long-term sustainability, with 2, 3, and 4 coming soon. But before we dive in, let’s set a baseline for what habits are, how behavior plays into habit building, and the psychological cycle of habits.

So, what is a habit? A habit is a routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation.

How does behavior – defined here as: outcome over time – align with habits? Our habits make up our behaviors, that is to say our behaviors are the result of our habits. Our outcomes (our results) over time are the result of our routines, our practices, our automatic responses to situations.

What is the psychological cycle of a habit? According to Clear, there are 4 Laws/Rules of Behavior Change, which I like to think of as the steps in the psychological cycle of habits. They are:

1)           Make it obvious – these are the cues/prompts to an action (available/visible)

2)           Make it attractive – utilize minimal energy/resources to take the action

3)           Make it easy – the action should be convenient, with minimal friction

4)           Make it satisfying – the action should be rewarding, not neutral

If you’re interested in practical ways to incorporate these in your life with whatever habit you are looking to create – let’s talk!

For now, let’s dig into the first key to Building Better Habits:

Focus on Long-Term Sustainability, not short-term gratification

Why is it so hard to build a good habit? We’re talking about a positive habit, doing something, adding a behavior; not not doing something, not taking a behavior away.

The problem lies in the immediate outcome of adding a positive behavior/habit being unfavorable, but the long-term outcome being favorable. Take eating more vegetables for instance. If you plan to eat a vegetable at every meal or snack, the immediate benefit (other than vegetables are delicious!) is fairly unapparent, but the long-term benefit of better health (in many ways) is the true benefit.

1 way to implement a habit like this – let’s continue with eating more vegetables example – is to think of it as a 1% improvement adding up to huge gains. Eating more vegetables at every meal might not be sustainable but what about starting with eating vegetables in at least 1 snack per day? Then adding on from there? Over a year, you would be eating SO MANY vegetables! These small changes are much more sustainable than a complete overhaul of your diet (here, simply your way of eating, not a restrictive program) or your life.

Remember that massive success comes from taking massive action, but that massive action comes from taking consistent action over time, not a once in a lifetime transformation

All good things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision – like deciding to eat vegetables for your next snack (and then the next day, and so on). But as the decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. Often the thing that will make the best/biggest impact are the smallest things and we might not see that impact for a while. I know patience is hard for many of us (me included!) especially when we cannot immediately see the fruits of our actions. But…you have to be willing to play the long-game.

On the flip side, why is it so easy to build a bad habit? The answer lies in exactly what you might think – instant gratification. The immediate outcome of a bad habit is usually favorable, but remember that the long-term outcome is usually unfavorable. Many examples here – drinking alcohol, eating candy, smoking, watching TV instead of working out/working/reading/etc. And countless other examples…

But in the short-term in the here and now, what’s a simple way to start to build a good habit? The answer? Habit stacking.

Geometric shot of building in MSU campus.

Let’s take the eating more vegetables example again:

Say you pick up your phone at 10 am or 2pm on your morning/afternoon break from work. This is also the time you might want a snack. What if, when you pick up your phone you also eat vegetables. Phone = vegetables. (Now of course you have to back up to actually packing/prepping vegetables to eat in the first place – but again, a coach can help you identify/implement all these steps). Eventually you will get to a point where if you pick up your phone and are not eating vegetables you’ll wonder why 😉 (careful with this one as the reverse could take hold – we don’t want to be eating vegetables and think we always need to be on our phone…but that’s a discussion for a different day)

If you want help – and remember it’s okay, even great! to ask for help! – please reach out so we can work together to set up your systems/processes/environments to get you to be the person you want to be and achieve whatever hopes/dream/goals you have set for yourself!

Check out these other blog posts for thoughts on establishing new habits, living well and optimizing your life:

Want even more tips, tricks, and ideas for living well through nature, nourishment, movement and mindset? You know you do!

Sign up for the Live Well with Alison newsletter today!

5 thoughts on “4 Keys to Building Better Habits (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for this review, I also enjoyed Atomic Habits a lot! I have found that the ‘long-term sustainability’ aspect also applies to the type of change that you want to introduce. It needs to be something that can be sustained for life rather than something that might be too ambitious and cannot be kept up. I used this principle when building my weekly routine: https://businessrulesforlife.wordpress.com/2020/12/20/how-to-set-up-a-weekly-routine-that-you-can-actually-stick-to/

    Liked by 1 person

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