Most of what we do every day may feel like decision making, but at least half of our actions are habitual. Our habits develop from responding to cues that, over time, become routines. Which is why it’s so difficult to eliminate bad habits and to develop new good habits.
In this and two subsequent posts, I will cover three stages of good-habit development — Preparation, Activation, and Progress. Each stage will offer four good-habit-building steps.
This first stage involves knowing who you are and what you want to accomplish, selecting a habit to break and replace or a new habit to develop, selecting or creating an environment in which to practice the change, and promising yourself an enticing reward for achieving success.
Behavior scientists have long understood that in order to change the way a person behaves, they must first know the person. To change your behavior, then, you must understand yourself, what you really want out of life, and what has been successful for motivating you in the past.
Whoever you are, you can improve. But you have to believe that you can improve, which means adopting a growth mindset. In Set Your Mind on Success, I explain how a growth mindset tells you that no matter the level of your current abilities, you can and will improve if you try.
Evidence in the field of behavior science supports the idea that you are much more likely to get into a good habit if it syncs with your identity.
For example, loving your family is part of your identity. You are more likely, then, to get into the habit of having your auto mechanic check your tire treads regularly, if you convince yourself that good tires will protect you and your children. Or that worn tires present a real danger to them.
Too many attempts at good-habit development crash and burn because someone tries to change too much too fast. No surprise then that the general consensus among behavior-change researchers is that you should focus on changing a very small number of habits, preferably one, and one that you can easily master.
If you hope to develop a rigorous exercise program, start with an easy schedule of exercise and build it as you begin to feel the first small rewards and want to do more. Rather than setting your sights on running a marathon, get into the habit of a two-minute jog. As silly as it may sound, your first step may be as small as putting on your running shoes.
As you consider which small step to take first, ask yourself which behavior will open the gates to other good habits and make them easier to adopt. Will smoking cessation give you more time to interact with your friends at lunch rather than standing outside in the heat or cold with other smokers?
People who struggle with alcohol abuse avoid bars. How easy is that to understand? There’s no doubt that environments and the people in them trigger behavior. It’s a challenge to wander through a casino and not put at least one coin in a flashy slot machine.
What sort of surroundings will move you toward your desired good habit? Create it. Build it around your daily activities.
Avoid situations that discourage your desired behavior, make your surroundings encourage your goal. Remove the temptations — the weight-adding foods in your refrigerator, the ashtrays in your living room. What about the people who draw you out of the positive thinking you want to develop?
If you want to develop keener productivity, you may have to turn off your phone for particular periods of time. Or turn off the notifications that come from your social media and news service accounts.
Picture the rewards your new habit will bring and confirm your commitment to enjoying them.
When I stop biting my nails, I’ll treat myself to a manicure and show off my beautiful hands.
As soon as I lose ten pounds, I’m heading for the beach!
For each uninterrupted hour I clock this week, I’m treating myself to an hour at the spa.
Don’t let the secondary rewards of your effort pass you by. If you go out for a brisk, half-hour walk in the morning, pay attention to the sunrise, the birds chirping, the morning air, and greet other walkers. Soon you’ll want to walk longer, farther, and more briskly.
So much for the small rewards along the way. Take some time to paint the big picture. Imagine the great, long-term rewards of better health, new skills, higher status, and greater recognition you expect to achieve.
Add a poster, background screen, or other image of someone or someplace that epitomizes the rewards of your achievement. Then begin your Preparation today!
Next time: How to activate good-habit development
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