habit formation, part ii: applying habit building in your own life
In a previous piece in the Pursuit, I talked about building habits and how the process works. While theoretically that’s helpful, applying to this to real life will be even more helpful.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re busy all morning – caught up with work, meetings, and so on and struggle with the mid-afternoon slump like so many. You often work through lunch, spends the next couple hours on conference calls or in meetings, then 3 PM hits and you completely tank. Your energy. Your mood. And it’s often taken out on everyone or anything in “the way.”
Let’s play this out using the cue, craving, response, and reward to apply this to the everyday situation.
It might start with a bad emotion - that you aren’t exactly happy with how your Rhone Commuter Pants fit after a little COVID 19 poundage weight gain. This is the cue which may have been the impetus to seek out a trainer or make some changes with your eating.
That cue then leads to a craving, which in this case is the internal desire to change because you simply want to feel better.
The desire to change in this case would make a conscious effort as a response. But then the challenge here is with what you desire – “I want my Commuter Pants to fit better” which is outcome-driven. Unfortunately, the outcome of pants fitting better in the moment is detached from the immediate choice of the behavior. For example, meeting friends (again) on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night for happy hour isn’t connected to the outcome of reaching a specific bodyweight 6 months down the road.
With the ultimate reward being the pants being more comfortable, staying encouraged along the way could be a challenge. If instead the discussion is around those small, daily wins – staying aware of those daily choices will go a long way. How can you reward yourself with working out, better for you foods or swapping out food choices as process outcomes instead of setting her eyes on the final outcome goal. It’s the power of those tiny habits and wins that will truly propel to long term success.
The Power of Tiny Habits
Many times when clients come to us for help, they are looking to achieve a goal “I want to be stronger.” “I want to be a better athlete.” “I want to be leaner.” They come in focused on the outcome they want to attain. Again, this goes back to the discussion around an outcome goal but doesn’t necessarily consider the necessary steps to achieve that long term win.
The other piece of knowing your desires to become and what responses you’d want to choose, is that you can move in the smallest direction. When we choose tiny habits that move toward who we want to become while still staying in alignment with our current self-image, we’re much more likely to stick with the change because it doesn’t feel so drastic. For example, switching from fast food to grilled chicken and broccoli may not be possible for someone who identifies as a veggie hater or a fried chicken fanatic. Someone who dislikes exercise may not be onboard with a program that requires them to do 5 workouts a week. But maybe they can agree to swap the normal stir fry base of rice with stir fried veggies and aim for just a couple body weight workouts a week or even micro workouts, meaning a few smaller movement breaks throughout the day, as a start. This is what I call the minimum effective dose. Small changes don’t trigger discomfort, fear, or other feelings of “I can’t do this” and therefore lead to greater adherence and success.
But that all comes back to how habits are formed. Remember from Part 1, cue, craving, response and reward. When you frame discussions around these it can help us achieve what we want to achieve which ultimately helps in building long term success.
Using the Habit Loop to Create New, Positive Habits
Let’s apply this and walk through the habit loop with an example to see how we can make it more likely someone will choose this behavior and repeat it until it’s habitual.
Let's now apply this to a nutrition behavior, as it’s often helpful to walk through different scenarios to better apply this to your own situation. How about attempting to drink more water, for example. You’ve heard it’s good. But simply wanting to drink more water isn’t too effective on its own, so a strategy like what I’ll describe may help.
Using the framework discussed around building habits, let’s see how we can shape this. Of course, there are lots of times of day you can drink more water. But since it would be easiest to spread out intake throughout the day, one cue you could try here would be to have a glass of water immediately after waking up. So when I wake up, then I drink a glass of water. Yes, it can be that simple. The craving then can be the feeling of drinking a glass of water before anything else. That feeling of wetting your mouth first thing in the morning. Or the feeling of how that feels in your body when you first drink it. The response then is deciding how much to drink. If the goal is drinking half your body weight in ounces each day, for example, well then starting with an 8 oz glass might be sufficient. Finally the reward might be as simple as checking off on the calendar, nutrition log or tracker. So these can be pretty simple. It depends what you would benefit from – sometimes having an accountability partner to make this work can help too, so you hold each other accountable or make it a challenge.
While this may seem rather straightforward, when stacked together with other positive habits, you can see how “magic” can start to happen. What if you stack together that simple habit of drinking 8 oz of water each morning with a 5 or 10 minute morning walk. When you get back from the walk, then enjoy a piece of fruit and you’re your AM supplements. Next thing you know, more and more positive habits are in place and take permanent residence leading to desired outcomes. Now keep in mind, all those habits wouldn’t take place or shouldn’t be suggested overnight; the beauty of tiny habits is that they happen over time and get stacked on top of each other once previous behaviors have been established.
As we know, though, is that it’s not just about building positive habit on top of positive habit. We also have to consider breaking (or replacing) old habits just the same.
Using the Habit Loop to Break Old Habits
We make 1000’s of decisions day in and day out. And for most people who are making the same type of decisions in the same type of environment, these decisions are ultimately being handled from our fast brain. They’re automatic, based on years of learned patterns and may ultimately conflict with our goals. So what do we do if we have habits that we believe are problematic that ultimately have a negative impact and are keeping us, or our clients, stuck?
Let’s take a look at how we can use the four elements of the habit loop to unlearn a negative habit. Beginning with the cue, in an ideal environment you’d just remove it. But cues are complex - and include time of day, people, mood, environment and other behaviors. You can’t always eliminate them, but you may be able to avoid them or alter them so they are within your control. Say for example you notice that you always overeat in the evening and one of the reasons you overeat is because when you gets home from work, you eats a snack while making dinner or playing with the kids. If the cue is when I get home then I grab a snack from the fridge, you may choose to come in through a different door to the house so you don’t land in the kitchen. Or you could decide to head to the bedroom and change clothes instead while he thinks about what he wants to make for dinner.
Applying this to Your Own Routine
How can you work through this in your own routine? What would you like to start doing? What would you like to stop doing? And how can you start to pair different positive behaviors to stack them on one another to ultimately create what you want.
Here’s one way I recently did this.
A group of 3 friends and I challenged each other to do yoga 9 sessions last month. It was the honor system and we each ponied up $100. If you didn’t do it, you’re $100 went into a pool that got divided among those who did accomplish it. We shared pictures of us doing the workout to further solidify that we were doing it, even though as good friends, none of us would have BS’d the others just to say we did. You know what, that is now a regular habit for me as I noticed just with those 9 workouts, I felt better, my hips weren’t as tight and some usual aches and pains from my normal daily lifting regimen had disappeared.
Without naming what we were doing, here’s how it plays out with building a positive habit using the habit loop:
The positive habit = yoga
The cue = regularly sharing pictures and seeing others
The craving = don’t want to lose face with your friends (and keeping your money)
The response = 9 days of yoga
The reward = making money and feeling better
And, it was all made better, or easier, with a little accountability. And that is how you can use a simple little challenge to make this “system” work for you.
To read more health and nutrition advice from Chris, follow him on Instagram: @mohrresults