How are you doing with those New Years resolutions? If you’re struggling or already defeated stop beating yourself up. Your lack of success may not be the result of a character flaw but simply a lack of understanding of how to build or break habits.
Last year one of the most useful books I read was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He explains the anatomy of habit, showing us where its secret power comes from and how you can use it to change your life. Duhigg breaks down the anatomy of a habit into three simple steps: Cue - the thing that triggers the habit (you’re frustrated); Routine - the thing you do (light up); and Reward - the result (ahhhh). It’s simple and it’s very powerful.
Once you understand the Cue, Routine, Reward recipe of any particular habit you can change a bad habit by identifying the Cue Routine Reward combo and then while keeping the Cue and the Reward the same change the Routine (go for a walk). To create a new habit you identify a new cue (you put your shoes on, the alarm goes off, you open the door, the clock strikes noon…) which will trigger the new routine (run, go to the gym, write) and supply a reward if the routine doesn’t provide it intrinsically. Rinse and repeat. Repetition creates habit and the more you repeat them the more likely you are to continue repeating them. Simple and powerful.
Before reading this book I thought of habits mostly as something to kick through planning and willpower. Every New Year’s I would choose one bad habit to kick for the year. I’ve given up diet soda, sugar, caffeine, and meat for a year and felt pretty righteous for the exercise. I tried a few times to add a new habit, like running, but that never worked. The minute I failed once I let it go with a rush of guilt and relief. After reading The Power of Habit I was ready to try again but wasn’t sure where to begin. I understood the theory but felt I needed some more practical help.
Then I read Mini Habits by Stephen Guise. His advice is to start small - so small it’s impossible not to succeed. And one mini habit leads to another and before you know it you have a cascade of positive effects.
Here’s an example. I get tremendous value from even a short meditation in the morning. The reward is intrinsic. The only trick for me is getting to the mat which is upstairs in a corner of the guest room. When I’m downstairs in the morning sipping my cappuccino, writing in my journal, and reading the NY Times it just feels like too much effort.
Now I understand why. According to Guise it’s simple resistance. It’s related to Newton’s theory regarding objects at rest on the couch. The trick is to make the first action as easy as possible so you become an object in motion. So rather than thinking about heading upstairs to meditate I think about doing the laundry. For some reason this does not create resistance for me - I like doing the laundry (I used to hate it but that’s another story). But really the laundry is a ruse - it puts my body in motion. And the laundry room is only a few steps from my mediation pillow. It sounds stupid… but it works.
The other trick I learned from Guise is to make the new habit so simple as to be ridiculous not to do it. I don’t require myself to sit for an hour, or even 10 minutes. I simply commit to sit and welcome in the day with a moment of silence and a statement of gratitude. If that’s all I do that’s great. I feel good about fulfilling my commitment and that good feeling reinforces the habit loop. But more times than not, once I sit I find myself drawn to the silence and a longer meditation ensues.
Guise explains that habit cues can be time based (I will run every day at 6am) or activity based (after I do laundry I meditate) which I prefer because it feels more organic, and makes it easier to link habits (laundry cues meditation cues setting my clothes out for the day, cues getting dressed for a run, cues a run, cues hot shower…).
In a recent conversation with friends we talked about the idea of New Years Resolutions. We discovered that some of us make them, some of us don’t, some of us are planners, some of us aren’t, but all of us, regardless, have habits, routines that drive our days. Some make us happy, some not, some are healthy, some not, some are conscious, some not. These two books helped me understand the habits I already have and most importantly they gave me the tools to be the architect of my habits which, as it turns out is an incredibly powerful tool.
I have been cultivating the habit of gratitude for awhile but now I can make it more intentional, identifying the cues I want to use (when I sit, when I greet a friend, when I open a door), and defining the routine (simply acknowledging my gratitude in the moment). The reward is intrinsic so that part is easy.
Right now I’m feeling grateful to Guise and Duhigg for sharing their ideas with us.
Happy New Year & Happy New Habits!