You are the sum of your habits.
Whether it’s making your bed first thing in the morning, starting your day with a yoga ritual, or pouring yourself a hot cup of java before you fire up your laptop, a habit defines your identity. Think of a habit as a shortcut, an automatic routine or behaviour performed regularly.
Whatever you do, however you start and end your day, it all comes down to your habits. Your habits can determine your happiness and shape your success, and speaking of shape, how in shape or out of shape you are, that too is a result of your habits.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear defines habits as the embodiment of your identity, when you change what you do, you’ll change who you become. What you do repeatedly ultimately forms the person you are, your beliefs, and your personality. So understanding how habits work is a critical step to improving yourself.
But how do you learn new habits and unlearn bad ones?
The 3 Rs of Habit Change
When it comes to transforming your life, it all comes down to developing a habit framework. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg defines the 3Rs habit loop, starting with the reminder, then the routine, followed by the reward.
Whether it’s a good or bad habit, Duhigg suggests that it follows the same 3–step pattern. The reminder is a trigger that initiates the behaviour, the routine is the behaviour or action itself, and the reward is the perceived benefit of taking the action.
Consider the following example:
1. Reminder: Your phone rings This is the trigger or cue that initiates the behaviour and prompts you to answer.
2. Routine: You answer your phone. This is the actual behaviour or action that follows the cue. When your phone rings, you answer the phone.
3. Reward: You learn who is calling. This is the perceived reward (or punishment, depending on who is calling, fortunately, we have caller ID) you get from performing the behaviour.
A habit loop occurs when the reward is perceived positive, and you repeat the routine the next time the reminder happens. Repeat it enough times and it becomes a habit.
Understanding How Habits Form
To turn a behaviour into a habit, you need to make it easy enough to repeat and to relish the reward. Good habits can take longer to form while bad habits can be developed more easily, and while their perceived benefit is more immediate, the negative results come later.
Consider this bad habit: you light a cigarette to relieve stress, relax and experience an immediate high. The long-term deadly health risks take much longer to become apparent, so you keep lighting up and don’t see the damage till much later, unfortunately, sometimes, until it’s too late.
Now consider a healthier habit: you take a daily hike to relieve stress and get in shape. It can take months to lose a few pounds and keep them off, but what you don’t see is the incremental benefit you’re adding to your life physically and mentally, and the payoff is worth the wait.
Understanding Your WHY
Knowing the intent or the WHY behind your habit is critical to making a habit stick. When you clarify the intention behind your habits, you realize that it’s not the action itself you crave but the actual outcome. For example, you don’t diet, meditate, or journal for the sake of the activity itself, instead, you diet to lose excess weight, meditate to feel calm, and journal to reflect on yourself and clear your mind.
Think of a habit as the entrance ramp to a highway that leads you down a path and before you know it, you’re speeding towards the next behaviour. One healthy habit can lead to another, and one bad habit can do the same.
Let’s take the example of losing weight, you start watching your caloric intake, eating a more balanced diet, and exercising more often. And when you see results, you are motivated to keep it up.
Similarly, when you start a bad habit, the addiction can have a domino effect and because the perceived benefit or outcome is more immediate, it becomes easier to develop another habit. When you consider that unconscious habits often determine conscious choices, you can understand why it’s critical to clarify the intention behind your habits.
Understanding How to Make a Habit Stick
The principle of least action states that the path followed between any two points will always be the path requiring the least energy and friction. With greater awareness, you can start learning better habits by reducing the friction associated with your good habits and increasing the friction associated with your bad ones.
So to learn a good habit, you can reduce the friction to complete the task and make it easier to get things done with less effort and energy. Remember, even a little bit of friction can be the difference between sticking with a good habit or sliding into a bad one.
Let’s get back to our examples:
You’ll go to the gym but not if it’s out of your way home, so reduce the friction, that is, make it easier to get to the gym or consider a workout at home.
You’ll meditate but not if you’re constantly distracted by your smartphone notifications. So be intentional about the time and place where you meditate and eliminate distractions, log off from social media, put your phone away or keep it off past a certain time of day.
You’ll write daily and keep a journal, you might even author a few chapters of a book but not if you’re surrounded by chaos. So make sure you journal at the same time every day and in the same place, with little distractions. As you journal, reflect on what’s working well, what you can improve, and what you need to start doing or stop altogether. Having this clear intention gives your journaling habit meaning and allows you to tie it to measurable outcomes.
Habits and Emotional Intelligence
Earlier, we said that you are your habits. When you get clear on the intentions behind your habits, you can start understanding what triggers you to behave a certain way and be more mindful of aligning your behaviour to your core values. When your habits start to embody your identity, you become an extension of what you do.
Consequently, with greater self-awareness, you learn to regulate your energy and motivation levels and can start building healthier relationships as well as collaborating more effectively with others. This positive trend can help you find greater happiness and practice more gratitude in your life.
Making Habits Easier
Establish a habit to help you become more habitual. You read that right! Picking the right reminder for your habit is the first step to making change easier and possible. Start by writing two lists, in the first list, write down the things that you do each day without fail. For example:
· Wake up
· Check your email
· Have breakfast
· Brush your teeth
You’ll discover rituals like washing your face, drinking your morning coffee, and brushing your teeth that can serve as reminders to establish new healthy habits. For example, “After I drink my morning coffee, I will meditate for 60 seconds.”
In the second list, write down the things that happen to you each day without fail. For example:
· The sun rises
· Sit down for dinner
· The traffic light turns red
· You receive a text message on your phone
· Your song comes on the radio
· The sun sets
These two lists provide you with ample opportunities to create a cue or reminder for a new habit. For example, if you want to feel happier, take a deep breath and count your blessings after you watch the sunrise. If you want to express more gratitude, go around the table and ask each person to say one thing for which they are grateful after you sit down for dinner.
This small change in intentionality and acknowledging the presence of habits in your life can blossom into changes in your outcome and life in general.
Celebrate Your Rewards
When you feel good, you have the motivation to repeat a behaviour, and so with a good habit, celebrate even the small, incremental changes you see in yourself daily.
For example, if you reduce the amount of food and go for a walk after supper, remind yourself that you took a step towards your fitness objective, you need to celebrate the journey as much, if not more, than the actual destination. Give yourself credit and enjoy every success.
Bringing It All Together
You are your habits, so develop healthy and positive ones to see a regular change in your life. The 3Rs work but as with anything, they require effort. Be flexible and allow yourself to make mistakes. Not all habits stick, and that’s fine, enjoy yourself as you experiment to find the right cue that reminds you to start a new habit. It will take a bit of time before figuring it out but the reward itself will be the change you see in and around you.
Ask me how I can help you develop healthy habits and your emotional intelligence to become a better version of yourself every day with my Leading with Clarity roadmap.