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Building and Breaking Habits

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

In past blogs we’ve encouraged you to “take your M.E.D.S.” (Medication/Meditation, exercise, diet, and sleep) because these are some of the most important areas of daily life for your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. In this blog, we are going to teach you how to create new habits, improve existing habits, and break bad habits around MEDS, using James Clear’s habit building methods, as outlined in his book Atomic Habits.

It’s been roughly a week since you made your New Year’s resolution to: lose weight, quit smoking, learn C++, save for retirement, call your mom more often, or finally go on that trip to Thailand. #NewYearNewMe. You went to the gym every day for three days in a row… but on the fourth day you promised to go to a friend's house to watch the Bachelor, so you didn’t have time… and the fifth day you kind of just forgot… and on the sixth day, while treating yourself to one last pumpkin spice latte for the season, you realize that you’ve already broken your resolution -- oh well, better luck next year.

Only achieving your goals shouldn’t be left up to luck, because unfortunately our brains aren’t wired for the delayed gratification required to achieve many commonly held goals. Our brains are hardwired to meet our basic needs as efficiently as possible, and many of our basic needs are immediately gratifying (e.g. food is gratifying the minute you bite into it, working out on the other hand, can sometimes take months to show results and be gratifying). So when there is a choice between an unnaturally delicious bag of high-calorie-MSG-filled Doritos (a.k.a. “Supernormal Stimuli”) and an orange… well you’ve finished a “family-sized” bag to yourself in one sitting before you’ve had a chance to consider the absence of fruit in your well-rounded diet.

Thankfully, because of years and years of behavioral research, we now know how to hack our brains default settings to use them in our favor. If you want to eat healthy food instead of junk food, you need to build a habit around eating healthy. Habits require less effort than non-habitual behavior, as they eliminate the need for a decision-making process. The same thing goes for exercising, waking up early, and whatever other healthy behaviors you are looking to integrate into your daily life.

The science of habit formation is broken down into four basic steps:

  1. Make it obvious

  2. Make it attractive

  3. Make it easy

  4. Make it satisfying

Applying “Make it Obvious” to Meditation

If you wanted to build a habit of meditating everyday, the first thing you do is make it “obvious.” This basically means that you are putting cues in your environment to remind you not only to meditate in general, but also why you should meditate. Reminders on your phone can be dismissed, and your meditation cushion, if stored on a high shelf, is easy to forget. So first pick a time and location that work for you -- holding these constant makes new habits easier to adhere to. Additionally, you can think of an existing habit you have, like brewing a cup of coffee in the kitchen every morning, and find a way to place a sticky-note reminder to do your meditation on the coffee machine for example (Clear calls this “habit stacking”). I recommend something like:

Dear Grumpy Me,

Woooo! You get to meditate today! Meditation is so good for you. And when you do it you don’t get as stressed at work and are more productive. Also Oprah meditates, and she’s awesome. I’m basically Oprah. Go me. Thank you for the self-care.


My Best Self

That way your reminder can also serve as your first line of defense against the excuses your brain will generate to expend the least effort. There are in infinite number of ways to prime your environment for success, use as many of them as is necessary for you.

Applying “Make it Attractive” to Exercise

So you’ve made it obvious to workout. Your alarm clock is set, your yoga mat is laid out from the night before, ready to go for your new morning routine. Now you have to make exercise “attractive,” by increasing your perceived appeal of the behavior. There are many ways to do this. You can find someone you admire who has already built the habit that you are trying to learn (p.s. Google has all the answers). You can research the benefits of the specific exercise you are considering. You can take a class with a cute instructor. Whatever is going to increase your motivation to go, do it. Whatever makes you want to sweat it out when you could be doing something else, that’s your answer. And again, combine as many strategies as is necessary to really make you want to practice the behavior over and over again.

Alternatively, make whatever you are doing instead of working out, like stalking your ex on social media, less attractive. Stalking your ex is attractive to you because social media makes it far too easy to do so. You can mindlessly scroll through old photos and comments for hours without ever having to leave the comfort of your home. The gym on the other hand is often far away, you have to change your clothes, you might have to pay for membership, you have to deal with the anxiety and embarrassment of feeling like you are being judged and watched, it’s not attractive. So how do you get your brain to cooperate with your good intentions? Maybe you turn your phone off between 5:30 - 7:00 p.m. each night, or leave it in a different room. Maybe you download an internet blocker with a timer. Maybe you relive how devastating it was when you accidentally liked a photo they posted from six years ago… Whatever makes your go-to form of procrastination less appealing as an option to you.

Applying “Make it Easy” to Diet

Step three: make it easy. If you want to eat healthy, make eating healthy the easiest option available to you. Which is also to say, make eating unhealthy food difficult. The advice about not grocery shopping on an empty stomach, and not keeping junk food in the house is totally solid advice. For me, even if I grocery shop on a full stomach, I will buy things I don’t need because I like to walk up and down every aisle. My solution for eating healthier and producing less waste is to plan my meals in advance and then use Instacart, because for me it’s easier to make good choices when I introduce a time delay to my grocery shopping. For my boyfriend, he uses a Meal-delivery service.

The junk food part can be a little harder when you live with other people, because maybe your kids, or your partner, or roommates loves cookies, so it’s ok if you have to focus more on the other three steps (make it obvious, attractive, and satisfying).

The most important part to making a new habit easy though, is starting small, like atomic scale small (hence the title of the book). Clear recommends you follow The Two-Minute Rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” The rationale behind this seemingly silly approach is as follows: no matter how busy or lazy we are, we can all find two minutes in our day to do something, and the important thing when creating a new habit is repetition not perfection. Simply by scaling down our desired new habits to begin with, and then building up as we habitualize each step, we make success easier. So if your end goal is to write a book (very hard) start by just writing one sentence (very easy) everyday for however many days or weeks it takes for that behavior to become automatic for you (easier habits tend to automate more quickly). Then, once the very easy is automatic, switch to writing one paragraph, then 1,000 words, then 5,000, then before you know it you’ve written a book! Clear calls these very easy habits “gateway habits,” because they naturally guide you towards your end goal.

I know it can feel silly and frustrating to write only one sentence a day when you know what you need to be doing, or want to be doing is writing a book, but how can you expect to be the kind of person who writes a book, if you can’t even commit to writing a sentence a day? So be patient and trust the process. At the end of the day it’s having a system of good habits that will make the biggest difference in your life, because the goal is often not just to run one marathon and then go back to your unhealthy lifestyle, the goal is to become a runner.

Applying “Make it Satisfying” to Sleep

The fourth and final step is to make your habit (ideally immediately) satisfying -- even in some small way. So let’s say you are trying to go to bed earlier because that’s realistically the only way you are going to be able to get your eight hours given what time you have to wake up. You’ve already made your new bedtime obvious, attractive, and easy by: setting a reminder on your phone at 8:30 to start your bedtime routine (obvious); buying yourself a new trendy matte-balck electric toothbrush at Target and some fancy new silk pillowcases (attractive), and your phone is charging on your dresser on Do Not Disturb mode instead of your bedside table so that you are less tempted to check email late at night (easy). But going to bed early just isn’t as immediately satisfying as staying up late watching The Mandalorian on Disney+. Baby Yoda is tough competition, I know. So maybe instead of switching from falling asleep watching TV every night, to no TV after 8:30 p.m. on weekdays (what would be called “elimination” or “going cold turkey”) try switching to every other day at first. And on your off days, reward your good behavior in some way, like taking a bubble bath or something. Eventually once the new behavior has become a habit you probably won’t need to reinforce the behavior every time.

Another way to make your new behavior satisfying is to use some form of habit tracking. If putting a sticker on a chore chart feels to childish to you, just mark a big red “X” on your calendar, or a checkmark on your to-do list. For habit tracking I use an app called Spar! The app uses social accountability, as a commitment device while also tracking your goals in the most fun way possible -- selfies! You create a challenge and an automated penalty for missed check-ins (say -$1) that can be daily or weekly. To prove you completed your activity you submit a video of yourself to whoever you are competing with. I have done these challenges with my boyfriend, my dad, and even friends that live in different countries and time zones, and most of the time because everyone is sufficiently motivated you break even, and no one wins or loses any money, but sometimes you kick butt, achieve your goal and win money!

Putting it all Together

Now that we’ve demonstrated how to make habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying using MEDS, it’s your turn to apply the formula to your goals by filling in the blanks below:

After [EXISTING HABIT] I will [TWO MINUTE VERSION of NEW BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION], and then I will track or reward my habit by/with [SATISFYING BEHAVIOR].

If you follow this advice, I’m sure you’ll find that it’s not too late for this year’s resolution.

Please Note: Transparency is important to us here at Smart Talk, which is why we want to clarify that all of the links used in this blog are Amazon Affiliate links -- which means that we receive a small portion of the proceeds of any purchases made using the links.

Written by Sophie Wright

Originally published on 01/09/2020

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