Much of our day revolves around habits, or behaviors that have become so automatic that we don’t even need to think about them. We just do them. Once we repeat a behavior a certain amount of times, it tends to become ingrained in our minds and associated with other behaviors that we take part in around the same time. For example, you may always turn on Spotify in the morning right before brushing your teeth, without even realizing or thinking about it.
The emotions we experience when we repeat a certain behavior also become ingrained and paired with that behavior. For example, you probably experience a feeling of comfort and joy when you go to Starbucks every morning for your cup of coffee.
Have you given any thought to how your current habits influence the health and fitness goals you want to accomplish in your life? They have a bigger impact than you might think.
I have previously written about systems, which are the processes we have in place for achieving certain goals. We all have systems in place which help us achieve our goals, whether we realize it or not, and habits which direct these systems.
I have also written about decisive moments and how they impact the options for behaviors that are available to us in the future. My focus for today’s post is to elaborate a bit by giving you a deeper framework to use for building better habits, and changing current bad habits into those which support the process you use to achieve your goals.
The framework I would like to introduce you to is based on the 4 Laws of Behavior Change, written about extensively by the author and speaker, James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits. I’ve referenced this book below so you can find it and read it for yourself. I can’t recommend it enough!
The 4 Laws of Behavior Change are strategies which you can use on a daily basis, and if you master them, they have the potential to truly change your life. Below, I give a brief overview of the laws and a few examples of how you can start implementing them today. The inverse laws will help you break your current unwanted habits.
1st Law: Make it Obvious
When you’re trying to create a new habit, you want to make your intention to do it so obvious that you know exactly what to do. A good place to start is to create an Implementation Intention. Write your new proposed habit out like this, “I will [behavior] at [time] in [location]. An example of this would be, “I will go for a short run at 6am tomorrow around my neighborhood”.
Inverse of 1st Law: Make it Invisible
When you’re trying to break a bad habit, this is a good place to start. If you make the current bad habit invisible, it’s really difficult for you to continue to do it. Here are a couple examples to give you a better idea of what I mean. If you’re having difficulty getting to bed on time because you watch TV in bed, move the TV into another room, that way you can’t see it when you get into bed. Or, if you constantly find yourself reaching for the ice cream, either don’t have it in the house or move it to the back of the freezer. You may forget it’s even there.
2nd Law: Make it Attractive
Make your new habit irresistible. Make it something you crave to have or do. For example, if you want to create a new habit for making healthier food options, try putting a new food ingredient that you love (and that has nutritional value) into your recipe. I’ve discovered that I absolutely love tomato sauce. It makes everything taste like pizza to me. So, I found a good brand of tomato sauce that uses real, nutritional ingredients, with no sugar added, and I put it on just about everything. It’s irresistible.
Inverse of 1st Law: Make it Unattractive
This one is difficult, but you can do it! It involves re-framing your mind about how you perceive your bad habits. For example, if you’re a smoker and you’re trying to quit, perhaps you have a mindset of “I want to quit, but having a cigarette makes me feel so relaxed and it’s a good stress reliever.” Try to re-frame that mindset by considering the unattractive qualities of that habit. For instance, “I think smoking is about relieving stress by calming my nerves, but smoking doesn’t relieve my nerves, it destroys them.” You can say the same about highly processed foods.
3rd Law: Make it Easy
This has been a game changer for me and I don’t even think about it anymore. This law is about setting yourself up for success by making your new habit easier for you to accomplish through a little bit of planning. For example, if you find yourself short on time in the morning and you get stressed out easily when you try to leave the house on time, set up your environment to help you out. Place your packed bags into your car to save you a few minutes of gathering them in the morning. Or prep your protein smoothie the night before and leave it towards the front of your fridge in plain sight.
Inverse of 3rd Law: Make it Hard
When you’re trying to break a bad habit, make it as difficult for you as possible. For example, if you’re out with friends at a restaurant and you tend to munch on your food after you’re full, you can ask for a to-go box right when the food comes out and place half of your food in it immediately. Or, if you don’t want to take leftovers home, eat until you’re satisfied, then move the plate to the edge of the table so it’s harder for you to get at and the server can get to it easily.
4th Law: Make it Satisfying
One of the best ways to create a good habit is to immediate reinforce that behavior after you do it. What this means is that you reward yourself for doing it. This creates a positive feedback loop in the brain and you start to associate a positive emotion with that behavior. For example, if you’re struggling to find the motivation to get to the gym after a tough day at work, tell yourself you’ll earn a nice relaxing epsom salt bath with a glass of wine when you get home, but only if you go to the gym. It’s a win-win!
Inverse of 4th Law: Make it Unsatisfying
If you’re trying to break a bad habit, this law can be a bit challenging, but it can also be a great deterrent from repeating an unwanted behavior. You want to make the consequences of your actions very easily visible to yourself and powerful enough to deter you from doing them. You can create a habit contract on paper and share it with your spouse or coach at the gym. The contract can explain what you’re trying to change or avoid and the consequences of not following through. For example, if you’re trying to come into the gym consistently three times per week for the next three months, you can share this information with your spouse or coach, create a written contract, and have both parties sign it. If you miss a day, you would have to buy your spouse something he/she wants, or treat your coach to lunch 🙂 I like that idea. Just a thought.
Finally, start slow and don’t try to fix everything at once. Choose a low-hanging fruit that is easy to implement or change and start there. Accumulate small victories every day and those will eventually lead to much bigger victories if you stick with it!
What’s the next good habit you will create, and what bad habits will you break to get yourself closer to your goals? Feel free to share in the comments below!
Clear, James. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Penguin Random House LLC.