As 2020 approaches, many of us will be taking stock of our lives and will set multiple ambitious goals or New Year’s Resolutions. However, many of us often find, that motivation driving our self-improvement sprees is often fading by spring time. Be assured, you’re not alone! In 2018 Forbes published an article which quoted that fewer than a quarter of people stay committed to their resolutions after 30 days, and only 8% go on to accomplish them. So now you’re probably wondering, what is it that makes those 8% so special? What is it that you can do to achieve lasting behavioural change? We believe that the answer may lie in habits.

Habit definition

Before we begin, let’s define what a habit is. The Cambridge Dictionary describes habits as things that “you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it”.  Habits play a significant role in shaping who we are as individuals because they are the decisions we make and the behaviors we perform every single day. According to research, habits form around 40% of our daily behaviors. We can use this to our advantage. Habits can become an essential behavioural change tool to help achieve those goals which we have been struggling to reach. By focusing your energy on building and sustaining habits instead of setting goals, you can shift your focus away from the desired end state to the systems that you follow that will put you on the right trajectory to get there.

Building habits

So, you’re sold, you’re keen to craft some habits to help you reach those long sought-after goals. What do you do next? A great place to start is understanding how habits work. James Clear, an expert on habits, breaks them down into four key stages; cue, craving, response and reward.

  1. Cues are stimuli which trigger your brain to initiate a behavior in anticipation of a reward. This leads us to continually scan our environments for cues associated with rewards, which leads to the next stage, craving.
  2. Cravings are the desire for the reward or change in state, they serve as the motivation that drive habits and encourage us to act. Importantly, it isn’t the habit itself that is craved, but the desired change in state that the habit provides.
  3.  In turn, this desire prompts us to provide a response, these are the habitual behaviors, or habits.
  4.  Finally, responses then grant rewards, in turn satisfying the craving.

For example, for someone who cannot resist checking their phone, the cue would be the phone vibrating, they would crave knowing the content of the message, and respond by reaching for their phone and be rewarded by finding out the content of the message.

In order for habits to stick:

  1.  Cues need to be obvious,
  2.  Rewards attractive enough that you will crave them,
  3.  Responses easy to perform, and
  4.  Rewards sufficiently satisfying.

When starting out with habits it’s best to focus on one habit at a time. Why? A common reason why people’s habits fail to stick is because they try and do too much at once. They have less success because they are spreading their energy and motivation across them all and end up burning out. Instead, focusing on one habit is much more likely to yield success.

After establishing your one chosen habit, start small. A micro-version of that habit, one which requires minimal effort and motivation.

For example, if you wanted to read a chapter of a book a week, you could start by reading 5 pages a day.

This approach to habit formation is based on the idea that once you have started, and experienced some success, you will then be more likely to continue because getting started is the hardest step.

Whilst you may be reading this thinking these steps are too small, micro changes facilitate sustainable behavioral change because they steer you away from going all out and then burning out.

Once you are consistently achieving micro-changes, you can then, and only then, focus on scaling up to your end goal. Research supports this approach, finding it can take between 66 and 122 days to form a habit, so the key at the beginning is consistency and patience.

Sustaining habits

Now you have implemented your habit, here are a few tips to help make it stick!

Make cues obvious – Focus on making your cues as obvious as possible, this will increase the likelihood you will crave their associated reward and respond! For example, if you want to eat healthier, organise your cupboards so healthier foods are at eye level.

Habit stacking – Try habit stacking, the process of adding new habits to existing ones. Think about the things that you do every day without fail, and stick your new habits on to these. Doing so enables you to build momentum with your new habit from your existing habits. For example, if you are someone who has a cup of coffee every morning without fail, and want to start meditating, commit to meditating as soon as you have finished your coffee.

Temptation bundling – Temptation bundling is similar to habit stacking, except this can be used to implement tougher habits. This refers to the process whereby we can make less desirable/ tougher habits appealing and something we crave, by associating them with activities we enjoy. For example, if you have a pleasurable habit of watching Netflix, and wish to implement a less desirable habit of running, try combining the two by only watching Netflix when you’re on the treadmill. By doing so, you’re more likely to respond with the less desirable habit (running) because you crave the reward associated with ‘just one more episode’.

Don’t be afraid to slip up – You also need to be prepared to slip-up! Whilst this may sound defeatist, taking a realist approach will bolster your chances of success. Missing a habit once or twice does not have a long-term impact on progress, but adopting an all-or-nothing mentality will! The people who successfully implement habits are more likely to take a learning approach to failure. These people are more likely to review what happened, learn from them and start again, it’s a process of trial and error and learning to implement what works best for you. To support this, try monitoring your habits using a diary or habit tracker, and start to build patterns of success and failure and amend your habit design or environment accordingly. Over time, note when you do and do not complete your habits, and reflect on aspects of your day or environment that enabled or hindered your habit.

Friction points – Another way to reduce the likelihood of such slip-ups is to remove any friction points. Friction points are anything which prevents a habit, or response, from occurring. To establish yours, try considering which obstacles frequently pull you off course, or stop you from being able to perform your habit, and then plan to work around these. For example, if your habit tracker shows the days you did not read at night are those where you were on your phone late, try moving your charger to another room or far away from your bed. Doing so removes the craving associated with looking at your phone.

Get started with Edgecumbe

In summary, we can use habits as tools to shape our behavior in a way which puts us on the right trajectory to achieve our goals. Importantly, they provide an opportunity to do so with minimal effort! The key to success is being patient and focusing on your journey along that trajectory rather than always looking at how far you are away from the end goal. By adopting this approach and focusing on incremental improvement you can achieve sustainable behavioral change.

At Edgecumbe we are passionate about helping individuals, teams and the wider organisation achieve positive behavioral change. Contact us to learn more about how we can support you and your organisation through leadership assessment and development and employee engagement.