So you have a goal.
Maybe you want to:
These are all great end games, and The Upside has some great advice on what to aim for. But the goal is never the problem – it’s the road to get there that remains such a mystery.
In Western culture, we tend to encourage the ‘bootstrap’ method of achieving our goals, but it hasn’t done anyone any favors after January when new year’s resolutions start dropping like flies.
Though it may take a bit longer, creating a habit is a better way of achieving, and maintaining, your goals.
What is a habit?
Simply put, habits are brain shortcuts. They allow us to bypass the decision-making part of our brain and take action without weighing our options.
And this empowers us to take action more easily.
So, if you make a habit of snacking on healthy nuts, you don’t look around for snacks when you’re hungry. Instead, you bypass thoughts and options, like the candy bars in the office vending machine, and reach for those healthy nuts without even thinking about it.
Habits allow you to make better ‘decisions’ regardless of how you feel in the moment.
Habits help you avoid decision fatigue
Making conscious decisions all the time tires out our brains. And, when that brain is tired, unfortunately, we make worse decisions.
We make somewhere around 35,000 decisions on a daily basis – choices like, what you wear, what you eat, which groceries you’ll buy. It’s constant. Every decision you make slowly tires your brain, and the result is decision fatigue.
This mental exhaustion makes it more difficult to weigh consequences and options, leaving us to simplify our choices, accept the status quo, or take the most convenient way out.
When you gaze into a fridge full of food at the end of the day and think to yourself, ‘there’s nothing to eat’ you’re likely dealing with decision fatigue. And when, after closing the fridge, you grab a quick and easy candy bar, that’s decision fatigue sabotaging your commitment to eating healthier.
The power of habit
A single action, no matter how large, is minuscule when compared to even a year of your life.
For example, running a marathon burns about 2,500 calories in just a few hours. But, you’ll burn over 3000 calories in one month if you go for a daily, 20-minute walk. The power of habit lies in that multiplying effect of time.
Because habits continue into the future, you can accomplish those big changes in your life through manageable actions. Not only does it make your desired changes more achievable, but it also protects the accomplishment once you’ve attained your goal.
So while that one-time marathon ends, leaving you back on your couch where it all began, if you continue walking for 20 minutes every day for one year, it adds up to a whopping 36,000 calories – or about 14 marathons.
In short, that marathon is an accomplishment, but the daily-walk is a lifestyle.
Moving beyond the action
Typically, when we talk about forming new habits, we focus too much on the desired action.
If you want to exercise more, you purchase a gym membership, then promise yourself you’ll exercise. Then, each day you struggle to convince yourself that yes, you should exercise, and, yes, you should do it now – hoping that your noble struggle will eventually morph into a habit.
But, habits are more than just a desired action.
The recipe for building a habit
Just like dinner, habits have a recipe.
James Clear wrote the book on habits – literally. In his book Atomic Habits, he lays out his recipe in four ingredients:
- Cue – a signal, usually external, that prompts the beginning of the ‘habit loop’
- Craving – the feeling put in place by the cue that drives the habitual action
- Response – the action the habit is based on
- Reward – something positive, whether physical or mental, you get from undertaking the habit
An example of this would be:
- Cue: You get off work
- Craving: You want to burn off some energy
- Response: You hit the gym
- Reward: You feel healthier and happier as those endorphins buzz through your body
How to build healthy habits
Instead of looking at your desired habit as a conscious choice, intentionally set all four aspects of that habit framework, then let your unconscious mind take over.
In his book, James recommends making:
- The cue obvious
- The action attractive to increase the craving
- The response easy
- The reward satisfying
Let’s again look at the exercise example. Instead of just buying a membership to a gym and telling yourself to go there, build out the full habit framework.
For a cue, you could use an automated reminder on your phone, the chiming of a clock, or even quitting time.
The craving is harder to manufacture, but look for positives in the action you can bring to mind. For exercise, that can be the feeling of strength or the rush of endorphins.
The response is exercising.
For the reward, you can give yourself a healthy treat that will positively reinforce your habit.
As you can see, the desired action (exercising) is only one small part of the habit’s overall framework.
How long does it take to form a habit?
While it may be possible to set a habit in just a single month, it’s not the average. According to James Clear, building a new habit takes around 66 days.
The good news is, in that same study James cites in his blog, they found missing a day here or there did not affect the outcome (did someone say cheat days?).
So, if you want to create a new habit:
- Set all four aspects
- Settle in for the long haul
- Forgive yourself for any slip-ups
Once you learn to embrace habits, you’ll be able to guide ‘future you’ toward better decisions. And that’s a more empowered way to live.