Welcome back to our series on habits based on James Clear’s bestselling book ‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones’. Habits are the building blocks of our lives and have the power to determine whether we struggle or succeed.
Have you ever been so excited to start something new and really convinced that this is it – this is the new you and you won’t look back? And it works – for a while. You show up and kill it…. then life happens.
Habits can be hard to sustain. After the initial peak of motivation wears off, we start to plateau and when that alarm begins to sound its shrill tones at 5am, we switch it back to snooze.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
‘The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity. Neuroscientists call this long-term potentiation, which refers to the strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain based on recent patterns of activity.’
In plain English, this means that if you repeat a habit enough, it will become part of you, so that you don’t really have to weigh up whether you are going to do it anymore, you just will.
So how long does this process take?
Clear says that this is the wrong question. ‘What people really should be asking is, “How many does it take to form a new habit?” That is, how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic?’
Prime Your Environment
The easier something is to do, the more likely we will do it. If our running shoes are next to our bed in the morning, it feels like less effort to tug them on than to go and rummage through a darkened closet.
It’s like trying to force water through a bent hose. Focus on how you can make things easier, rather than trying harder to succeed.
Conversely, if you want to make a bad habit disappear, make it really difficult. Lock away the wine bottles, get someone to change your social media passwords, don’t keep chocolate or high-sugar snacks in the cupboard.
The Two Minute Rule
Say you want to read more, but the thought of getting through all those pages in that book is just a bit too overwhelming. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ you think. But then tomorrow never comes.
Try the two minute rule. Whenever you want to start a new habit, it should take no more than two minutes. Set a timer and read for two minutes, then do it again the next day. Then, once you have the ritual down, increase the time. ‘The secret is to always stay below the point where it feels like work.’
Perhaps it might feel silly to only practice the piano for two minutes, but the secret of why this works is that by cementing this activity into your daily rhythms, you are also casting a vote for the type of person that you are. ‘I am the type of person who shows up every day’. ‘I am the type of person who practices the piano.’ Before long, you start to believe this and the activity becomes effortless.
As Clear says: ‘You have to standardize before you can optimize.’
Set up a Commitment Device
If you really need a hand, try setting in place a contract or agreement with yourself (or your family) that if you don’t do something you will have to pay for it. Maybe you owe your wife $5 for every time you don’t run, or you have to do 10 extra push ups if you don’t get out of bed the first time the alarm sounds. This extra layer of accountability might be the difference you need in order to get that habit down.
It isn’t so much willpower that locks down new habits, but the simple act of showing up day after day. When habits become coded into our brains, we begin to act in a way that is automatic and it is no longer a battle of will to keep it up.
See if you can use these principles in your own life this week and in helping your kids set up their own good habits. The key is to keep it simple and keep showing up. You can do it!
Next week we are tackling the final law of behavioural change: make it satisfying.
Missed our previous articles? Check out Habits & Hope, The First Law: Make it Obvious, and The Second Law: Make it Attractive. If you like thinking and talking about these kinds of topics, come over and say hello in our Facebook group.
All photos sourced from Pexels.